Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sad News: The End of an Era

As I've studied and taught about peace issues, I've felt that the Civil Rights Movement was still alive, even if struggling, as long as Coretta Scott King was still alive -- she was a living link to the movement. There are, of course, others who are still alive who had been actively involved back then, but still, Coretta Scott King's death does feel, to me, like the end of an era:

Coretta Scott King, 78, Widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dies - New York Times

When I say it feels like the end of an era, I do not mean to imply that the work is now done -- it has hardly begun. Her death is a reminder that we are well into a new generation: mine. When people in her generation were my age, they were making great strides. It was an intense time, but there were signs of hope and progress. Things were changing. The movement had power and energy, focus and vision.

Now I'm this age, in my generation, and I'm frustrated with how ineffective I feel, and disappointed at how much has seemed to turn backwards. I'm overwhelmed at the immensity of the whole host of inter-related and very serious problems.

So I feel a tangible sense of loss at hearing the news of Coretta Scott King's death this morning.

It really is up to us, now.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Meanwhile, Back to My Own Humble Life...

I spent a shocking amount of time this morning saying "no" to a great number of requests for my time and attention. I felt both guilty and liberated. Since then, several new requests have rolled in! It's really unbelievable. It's nice that people appreciate me, but, still, how do I manage this?

As I enter (well, try to enter) into that special contemplative space that is (theoretically) offered by sabbatical, I realize I have to come to terms with issues I have. I love writing, but the process of trying to get my writing published overwhelms and bewilders me. And besides, I feel ambivalent. "Ambivalent" is a good word. On the one hand, I feel a sense of urgency about "coming out" with some of the ideas I've been working on. But, on the other hand, I must confess to feeling a bit terrified about what this might mean.

I really really want to know, experientially and personally, how much words and ideas can change the world. In my teaching, I proclaim that they do -- they are what change the world, ultimately. Actions, of course, matter too: but very often, perhaps always, it is the words and meanings that "explain" or interpret those actions that matter even more.

Hurricane Katrina, for example, happened, and dramatically changed many people's lives. But what did it really mean? Collectively, we continue to struggle with and debate this question. Is it a sign of global warming and our doing ourselves in? Is it a sign that the U.S. government is more inept that we are comfortable believing -- or worse, uncaring? And what exactly did it mean for each person affected? How do events like this shape people's personal histories? Each person weaves this shared story into her or his life differently from how others do.

So, words, meanings, intepretations matter a lot, in a general sense.

But my personal quest is to wonder: will my words matter and make a difference, and if so, how? Once words are released unto the world, they are out of the author's control. They can take on a new life of their own (ironically because of how others will then interpret them!) Of course one possibility is that they will receive no notice at all -- which can be a disappointment, or a relief (or both -- ambivalence again!)

But I think what I fear most is getting attention. What I fear most is the question of whether I will be able to handle it if some of my writings do make a splash. If I have trouble with even the modest way I'm in "high demand" (relative, again, to my hermit-like inclinations), why on earth would I want to attract more attention? The answer is that I don't really want attention at all -- I want good ideas to change the world for the better.

Are my ideas good enough? Even if they are, are they also efficacious? What does it take for ideas to be both good and efficacious? This is why question of how to get well-published matters.

This is what I really have to figure out on my sabbatical.

And More News on Jill Carroll Too

A new video of Jill Carroll has now been released as well, showing that she is still alive (but obviously distressed). Here are some accounts:

Christian Science Monitor
Al Jazeera
BBC News
New York Times

According to the New York Times article, it is not that the video has no audio, but that Al Jazeera does not air the audio when the show the videos, because of concern that hearing the voices would be too distressing for the listeners/viewers.

I had been worrying a lot that Jill Carroll might have been less prepared than the CPT four for something like this. Plus, she was captured alone, and her interpreter was killed. If she witnessed her interpreter's being shot, I'm sure that has haunted her as well. It must be very very hard. In praying for her, I pray most of all for her to have strength and courage, and for her to feel a sense of reassurance, a sense of God's love.

Her case seems to have generated a lot more attention (and sympathy) in U.S. reporting than the case of the CPT four. In addition, shortly after the first video of her was shown, demanding the release of women Iraqi prisoners, the U.S. did in fact release five women (ever insisting that it had nothing to do with the kidnappers' demands). Another four women are still being held. Sadly, it makes sense that, in her case, the kidnappers may be thinking that holding her longer and airing a new video might yield some success in obtaining the release of the other four women

Still, what is hopeful is that this is the first sign since the January 20 deadline that she is still in fact alive; furthermore, there is nothing in the Al Jazeera report specifying a deadline or a specific threat.

I hope they do let her go.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Another CPT Hostages Update

Our friends at the Free the Captives website have found this additional update about the Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages. Apparently a deadline was stated in relation to the new demands, and that deadline is, well, now. Here's a link to an article about this:

New Zealand Herald article

Let the prayers continue.

News of the CPT Hostages

There has been news about the Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages. Here are good sources of information, with links to articles that give more details:

Free the Captives website
Martin Kelley's assembled links

As the Free the Captives site notes, it is good news that there is evidence that Tom Fox, Norman Kember, Harmeet Sooden, and James Loney are still alive. But it is disturbing that the purpose of the video seems to be to offer one more chance for the U.S. to bow to their demands, or else the four will be killed. The demands are to free all prisoners in Iraq. No deadline has been set.

In my own reading of news accounts of this (but I have not yet followed all the links), I have seen no mention of something I find interesting: the video shows the hostages speaking, but there is no audio of what they are saying. This was true for the video showing Jill Carroll as well. Although the group who took her hostage claims to have a different name, I cannot help but wonder if that group has links to this group -- or even if they are in fact the same. At least they might be sharing a defective video recorder. Even if the groups are linked, I am not sure of the significance of this, except that the fates of the the CPT four and the fate of Jill Carroll might be entwined.

Last week in Meeting I found myself praying unusually intensely for them all again, and this time my prayer took a new direction. The previous week, I had puzzled over why there was no news, and what the motivation could possibly be for keeping them hostage so long. I searched and searched for a way to make sense of it all, but still could not find a clear explanation. So then last week, still not sure I could understand what was really going on, I found my prayer taking a new form: whatever the reasons for still holding them, I prayed for cracks in that resolve -- cracks in which love (or satyagraha -- soul force) could gain a foothold. I imagined soul force as being much like bread dough, but stronger -- filling in the cracks and pushing them further open.

I sensed that there were cracks -- that someone or several among those holding them hostage might be having doubts about whether it was a good idea, or whether more good might be gained from letting them go. So I lent my strength to the soul force, leveraging those cracks open a bit more. I tried to empower the four with strengthened faith and insight to keep blazing the power of their soul force ever stronger. If those cracks could be pried open enough, then they could come out alive.

So to hear this news this week is amazing to me. Something new is happening. On the video, they are dressed in their own clothes -- not the orange jumpsuits. Somehow I find this hopeful. But my hope is cautious. It is tempered with dismay that the demands are just as impossible as before, and that the threat of killing them was explicit.

We must all keep praying.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

High Demand

After receiving a fourth request to be a visiting lecturer in a class, I decided I needed to take stock of all of my pending requests, and was astonished. I'm in rather high demand! (relative, of course, to my own perceptions, shaped as they are by my almost hermit-like inclinations).

Not only are there four separate requests to visit and speak in others' classes, there was a note from one of my advisees, a phone message from his mother, several other requests to participate in several projects; a member of my department continues to leave things in my mailbox on campus to sign (I keep slipping them instead into the box of the interim Chair); a request to serve as external reviewer for another philosophy department -- and a summons to jury duty!

This morning, a bit stressed by another deadline I face (well, I missed it yesterday because I had too many meetings -- having grouped a bunch of them together to minimize my need to appear on campus more than necessary), I finally had a spell of panic. It looked like this:

"My sabbatical is flying by and I've hardly gotten anything done because of all these other demands on my time!!!"

Deep breath.

At first I almost wanted to chastise myself. After all, during the semester I tend to take on requests such as these and handle them along with teaching a full load of courses, etc. etc. etc. So, I should be able to handle all of this now, and still have plenty of time for my research!

But that (of course) didn't allay the panic.

I took another deep breath. Then I asked myself: why not just say no to everything I've not already said "yes" to? (Except the jury duty -- sigh! That one's not negotiable: "all excuses aside...," the summons says.) Why not just give myself the contemplative space I so desperately need, unapologetically? Why not simply write back to everyone and say, "Sorry, I'm on sabbatical"?

Then I started to feel better.

I can wrap up the things I have already committed to (speaking at a conference; writing some letters of recommendation; helping write a grant proposal; helping co-write an article), and not take on anything else unless my heart leaps for joy at the thought and I have the sense that it will inspire me and lift my soul.

This is what I need!

Am I allowed to do this?

How does one discern when requests from others are calls from God -- or when it is okay to decline those requests?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

I Love Being on Sabbatical!

I love being on sabbatical!

This week, the new semester started on campus, and so finally the fact that I am on sabbatical feels more real. At first, it was a strange feeling, watching from a distance as the students came back and the professors scurried to get ready for classes. I felt (briefly) a little forlorn and left out, wishing that everyone could be on sabbatical at the same time. Imagine what that could be like -- a campus on sabbatical together! Even the students! Everyone simply free to pursue their interests as they saw fit! What would happen? What would it be like? I have a vision of what it could be like, and how exciting it could be, but the reality would probably be different from that vision.

But, still, what an idea!

Anyway, in my Bible readings I learn that "sabbatical" indeed means rest. Yet in today's academic institutions, it is supposed to be a different kind of work. Some institutions don't even call it a "sabbatical" anymore, but a "research leave" or something like that. Here we still call it "sabbatical," but we have to apply for it, and in our applications we have to describe what we hope to accomplish. Afterwards, we have to write a report saying exactly what we did accomplish. We are told that these reports will be re-read the next time we come up for sabbatical -- the implication is that if we are not "productive" during this sabbatical, we may not be entitled to take another in the future.

But I'm not complaining (too much), because this is the norm everywhere today. At least here at my institution there is nevertheless a sense of openness and trust overarching this process. I don't feel locked in tightly to a particular agenda -- I charted the course I most wanted to take, and now appreciate the freedom I have to follow where my path leads.

Even so, my life is complex. I have actually still been very busy, following up on projects started earlier, trying to wrap them up and clear space. It is only now, when classes start without me that I do finally feel a tangible difference. Now that everyone else is preoccupied with classes, the pressure on me finally eases and I see that things are different. The quality of my life changes percepibly. I do feel a kind of space opening up before me, and I am so glad!

The key to a happy sabbatical, I think, is finding the right kind of balance: a balance between contemplative time and space, and meaningful connection with others. This is the balance I am trying to find.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Queries on Quaker Disillusionment

  1. Am I wanting from others what only God can give? Is my restlessness really a call to deepen my own spiritual life, my own capacity for prayer?
  2. Is what I want from others a way of showing me what I need to learn how to give to others? Am I very good at reaching out to others as I wish they would reach out to me?
  3. How am I being called to participate in deepening the spiritual life of my Meeting?
  4. Can I forgive my Friends in Meeting for not being all I want them to be? Is it mine to determine how other Friends should be?
  5. Have I taken the time to take stock of my unmet spiritual needs, as clearly and carefully as I can? Have I offered these in prayer, and then have I been alert for the quiet and maybe surprising ways that Life has offered to address these needs?
  6. What happens if I face seriously the possibility that, in our broken world, my needs will not always be met by others immediately? Can I still survive? Are there things I can do to help ensure that these needs be met? Are they truly needs, or are they desires? Can I live compassionately with my own woundedness? Does my awareness of my own woundedness help me to become more compassionate of others’ woundedness?
  7. Can I keep learning to love more genuinely and fully, even if I do not feel well-loved myself?

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Reading the Bible: My New Journey

Here I am, a Quaker, a philosopher -- and I've never read the entire Bible! Earlier this month, I suddenly felt moved to start reading it, cover to cover. What I am discovering is so fascinating that I've decided to start another blog, "Bible Wonderings," to share my observations and questions as I read.

I'm currently most of the way through Exodus, but I'll backtrack a bit as I get the new blog going to note my observations of what I have read so far. Even though I'm not very far into the Bible yet, I already notice profound changes in my consciousness. Even though I was already familiar with the stories, reading them for myself, in sequence, is like entering into the world of those stories in a real and vivid way.

The change I already notice in my consciousness is that I am more aware of how much Biblical images are at play in our everyday ways of speaking and thinking. I already knew this because my very perceptive 6th grade teacher told us this (isn't it amazing that I remember that?) -- he told us that everyone should read the Bible because literature makes use of Biblical images and phrases all the time and we should be able to recognize these references and know where they come from. As an earnest young 6th grader, I took this to heart and patiently waited for some literature teacher in the future to assign the Bible for that very excellent reason -- but it never happened. When it finally dawned on me that the serious student doesn't wait for books to be assigned before reading them, I promptly wrote "Bible" on my reading list, and never quite got to it. But now, finally, I am doing it. And I see how right my 6th grade teacher was.

But it goes beyond literature -- many historical events are also shaped by Biblical stories -- either replaying versions of those stories, or consciously attempting to extend those stories. And many current events can be understood better as well by understanding how Biblical ways of thinking shape current interpretations of events.

So, this should be an interesting journey! Again, see the new blog for details of that journey. I will continue to keep up this blog as well, for my other continuing musings about life, the universe, and everything.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Prayers Continue

I continue to pray for the Christian Peacemaker Team hostages. What does the long silence mean? I find this bewildering. The way I have been keeping up with the news is through the Free the Captives site, maintained by Chuck Fager and John Stephens, who are friends of Tom Fox, one of the hostages. Their site has links to other helpful sources as well.

In addition, I am now also worried about (and praying for) Jill Carroll, the journalist recently kidnapped. The Christian Science Monitor has a page devoted to updates on her situation.

I find it hard to understand what kidnapping is supposed to accomplish. I find it hard to believe that it is a very successful strategy. The reason I am trying to understand is that I am trying to figure out what it would take to convince kidnappers to just let their hostages go.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birthday!

It's good to pause and remember that today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday (and tomorrow is the designated holiday). Some of my earlier posts have mentioned him and the Civil Rights Movement, and so in this posting I will try not to repeat things I have already said.

I am glad that we honor the memory of King and the Civil Rights Movement. I am glad we, as a nation, designate a holiday -- a holy day -- to remember.* The reason I am glad is that I think that this movement was the greatest event that has happened in our country's history. This is a story of an oppressed people finding their dignity and asserting it through love and soul-force, not violence. It's an amazing story. I wish all Americans would study it closely -- not as some odd anomaly in an otherwise long and continuing story of violence, but as the first significant shining ray of hope in this country's history of a New Way: a way we must learn from and put into practice more often.

Of course I must add the disclaimers: the story is not over; racial equality has not been fully attained within the U.S.; there are other remarkable, inspiring, and undertold stories in U.S. history. Yes, these are all true as well. But even so, King and the Civil Rights Movement did change something fundamental in U.S. consciousness, and that part of our history is like a rich text worth reading closely again and again. We began to learn something then that we must continue trying to learn even now. This is urgent.

*As a different kind of disclaimer, I must note, for my Quaker readers especially, that I do realize that Quakers tend to de-emphasize holy days, and I do appreciate and understand why. I know that I, for example, don't limit my thinking about King and nonviolence to MLK Day, but think and pray about these issues every day. But I also recognize that most people are not like me or other Quakers, and so I do appreciate the value of having a specially designated day to remind people. Even so, many people will have their day off from work and not think much about what this holiday is supposed to mean. But still, it provides a good reminder and a good excuse for those of us who do care about these issues to go ahead and remind everyone we see.

Let us go ahead and use this day (King's real birthday) and tomorrow (the designated holiday) to at least mention it to everyone we see! Let us use this as an excuse to strike up conversations about nonviolent action and about racial -- and other -- inequalities in the world -- especially with those who might be unsympathetic! Let us use this as an opportunity to listen deeply -- to listen so deeply that we listen people into more honest engagement with truth, as Douglas Steere expressed in Where Words Come From. Deep listening accompanied by gentle, careful questioning can be very powerful in helping people talk through the contradictions of their own confusion and the pain of their own past experiences and into new possibilities for healing encounters with a larger truth.

If any of my readers actually do this, I would be very interested in hearing the stories of these conversations! Please feel free to use the "Comments" to share these stories!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Happy New Year!

Hi! I'm back! Happy New Year!

I'm feeling a little out of it, because I let myself get immersed in a whole different world on my holiday travels, and didn't think much about my normal life, and didn't track the news very much. Now I'm back and starting to face my normal life again. It's not so bad facing it since I am on sabbatical this semester. Anyway, our semester doesn't start for a few weeks. Something surreal is setting in, though -- I'm finding that it's a little strange to be on sabbatical because most people are not. And a great many people don't really understand sabbaticals: they think it is "time off." They relate it to the notion of "sabbath," which they also tend to mistakenly interpret as "time off."

I think of both as "time more on than what we normally call 'work'."

What we normally call "work" can be a distraction from who we really are and what we are really are called to do with our lives. "Can be." In my case, I am fortunate because my work is expressive of my calling. But being on sabbatical is even more so. This time ahead promises especially to allow me to live more fully into my desired identity: that of contemplative scholar.

So I greet this new year with extra enthusiasm and optimism. There is much I want to think about and write about, and I feel very blessed indeed to have this time open up for me.

Happy New Year!