Change the Conversation

I was a freshman in high school the year of the Columbine shooting. That day, my world changed. The term “trench-coat mafia” suddenly had colloquial meaning. A new threat of violence in the form of outcast, troubled teenagers emerged in a space where suburban white high schools were formerly immune from attack. There were no metal detectors in our neighborhood. That stuff didn’t happen to us.

A decade later I went to a “violence prevention” training for my job in high school counseling. The discussion focused on identifying and serving youth at a “high-risk” for perpetrating school shootings and related behavior. I found most of it to be outdated and out-of-touch, taking me back to the days after Columbine, the countless news reports chronicling the lives of the shooters: who were these kids? who were their parents? where did they live? what did they do?

All questions about their individual identities. All questions about their individual actions. All questions looking outward, seeking an explanation. Pointing fingers, placing blame.

In the years since Columbine, more tragedy. Virginia Tech,  Tuscon Arizona, Aurora Colorado, smaller acts of violence in between. Each time, we cry out, feel fear, express sadness.

The media digs into the life of “the person responsible,” drudging up anecdotes from old neighbors, girlfriends and childhood acquintances. Speculation swarms about mental illness and a violent past. Some of us mourn with compassion for the darkness in the heart of the person who is moved to do unthinkable things. Some of us judge the actions of a criminal and the hopelessness of humanity. Some of us grow quiet and contemplative, some get loud with rage.

Political blogs go off about gun control and the second amendment. Twitter pours forth with sympathy and solidarity. We tune into dateline and CNN. We hug our families and tell them we love them. We post a heartfelt Facebook status. Or an angry, reactionary one.

Then in a week and a half we go on with our lives. Until the next catastrophe, when we begin again.

As I sit with the shooting in Connecticut, I call to mind lessons from my spiritual practice:

1. Times of darkness and deep pain present our greatest opportunity for growth.

Now is such a time for our country.

2. Growth Requires Change.

Creating a new outcome demands changing the behaviors, attitudes and perspective that produced the old one. Ask new questions. Reveal new answers.

Change the conversation.

3. Change comes from within

Maybe it’s time to investigate ourselves.

4. Everything is connected.

These unimaginable tragedies aren’t happening in a vacuum. This exact incarnation of violence isn’t recurring everywhere in the world. It is a reflection of our culture and connected to everything in it.

To talk about “gun-control” is an oversimplification. It may be true that more restrictive gun laws won’t end gun-violence, but it’s hard to ignore the way the two things intersect. There is no natural order of gun-ownership. It is a value choice. We value the individual right to gun ownership over the possibility of a gun-free country. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

To talk about mental-illness is a starting point, not a solution. We acknowledge its existence but don’t always respond in a meaningful way. We know people need help, but don’t always  ensure they get it. We debate about “entitlement spending” and complain about higher taxes. Mental Health resources cost money, but we are unwilling to pay.  There is no natural order of how to treat the neediest in our population. It is a value choice. Our social services are minimal, and ever-diminishing. That value projects a message. That message shapes our culture.

There are other value choices, too.

We dead-bolt our doors and alarm our homes. We glorify individualism.We say awful things to our neighbors, families and friends. We judge others for how they dress, vote, pray and raise their kids. We consume violence: movies, video games, tv, the internet-our children do the same. We pay lawyers millions, and educators nothing. We campaign for democratic elections with hateful speech and character assassinations. We lock people up, or kill them, for doing wrong.

I’ve been working with Kindergarten through Fourth graders my entire adult life. They forgive easily and love openly. Until the world teaches them not to, they readily accept themselves, and others, no matter what. They are problem solvers with limitless creativity. Their lives, bodies, and environment change rapidly and they willingly adapt. When something isn’t working, they find a different way.

My heart breaks for the community at Sandy Hook Elementary. I can’t even wrap my mind around the loss of those kids. I can think of at least one powerful way to honor their memory: to recover from this tragedy just as they would. With open hearts. With curiosity. With courage and introspection.

Listening. Learning. Growing. Changing.

So we don’t have to relive this cycle, again.

Love in Southeast Asia: “I forgot the Umbrellas”

“It won’t stop raining.”

Our hotel driver tells us, solemnly, about the uninviting weather pattern in Siem Reap.

“You should come back when it’s not raining.”

Parker and I glance at each other. We exchange a silent joke about the ridiculousness of that suggestion. In the moment, we share an appreciation for the rarity and specialness of this trip. We share sadness that it’s coming to an end and gratitude for how far we’ve come. The magic of it all. To be in this van right now. On this road. In this country.

This once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

This miracle life.

The tiny, developing streets of Siem Reap are cluttered by Westernization. Every two hundred yards there is an elaborate, ornate hotel. They all look abandoned. It’s like a rainy, Vegas ghost town.

We pull into a beige, stucco monstrosity. All of the sudden I feel like we’re trapped in one of those tourist horror movies that Parker taught me about when we first met. We were flipping through channels late one night after dominating our friends as partners in a sweep of board game night. He paused the scrolling to summarize Touristas, “These movies are all the same. The dumb-ass Americans get wrapped up in some sort of organ harvesting scheme and everybody dies.” Weeks later I agreed to come on this trip with him.

My stomach feels queasy.

The inside of our Cambodian hotel is more whimsical than our previous accommodations. It’s clear Siem Reap has embraced its position at the center of exotic tourism. The hotel attendants are clad in elf-like, gold and green uniforms. There’s a chance it’s an homage to traditional culture, but I’m suspicious it’s an appeal to Western excess and essentialism.

Alone in the lobby, we are suddenly swarmed by six, eager employees. One has a welcome drink, the other a local pastry, four more are there to ensure we feel like the two most important people on earth.

I breathe a sigh of relief. For now, it seems I’ll be returning home with all of my vital organs.

The next day, we hire a local guide to lead us through Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

He’s small and stoic. He doesn’t grin from ear to ear like Neil, or pay us effusive attention like everyone working at our hotel. He delivers lessons like a task-oriented high-school teacher. No frills. No nonsense. No attempt to glamorize Cambodia’s brutal history of conquest and imperialism. Just the facts.

We make it from an early morning start to the noon hour under an increasingly dark and threatening sky. So far, no rain.

A torrential downpour interrupts our midday meal but subsides before we’re out and about again.

As we wind up the dirt road to the back entrance of Angkor Wat, the clouds are the color of school-yard asphalt. It’s the type of darkness that blurs the passage of time. Where even 1pm looks like twilight. It’s misty and majestic. The lush, green, swampy background. The ancient ruins.

Five minutes into the tour of the most famous temple in the world, it’s pouring again. Our otherwise poised and pragmatic guide is suddenly fidgety and uncomfortable.

“Is Cambodian rainfall secretly deadly for American tourists?”

We maneuver through every inch of the temple before reaching the front entrance.

It’s still raining. With each falling raindrop, our guide looks more and more distressed.

Parker and I take one more glimpse at the weathered stone walls, then stand at the brink of the dramatic entryway, ready to leave the temple.

Our guide looks up, frowns, then lowers his eyes.

“I forgot the umbrellas.”He says it like he’s telling us we can’t leave the country without giving up a kidney.

Parker and I try to assure him we’ll survive the weather. He’s unconvinced.

The next few minutes are filled with awkwardness and anticipation. In the midst of pacing and contemplating, I think about this quiet, simple man. He devotes himself to sharing his country with eager tourists who land in his life for only hours at a time. He doesn’t rely on recurring business, or building a client portfolio. I can’t Yelp him when we leave. In the absence of traditional incentive structures, he pours his heart into his work.

This trip has been filled with heartwarming encounters among unlikely friends. Over and over, we’ve been met with varied manifestations of love and goodwill; with reminders about the far-reaching impact of small acts of kindness, of how easy, and meaningful, it is to be nice.

I let the rain fall on my eyelids, then my mouth. I twirl with my face to the sky and my arms wide open.

Tropical storms have followed us all over Asia, but right now the air feels special, and unique.

Tall Ships

In fourth grade I spent one full day and one full night aboard the C.A. Thayer, an all-wood, three-masted tall ship docked at the end of the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. The Thayer lived out its retirement hosting privileged elementary school students for weekend forays into the hard-knock life of early twentieth century sailors.

I imaginary-sailed the Pacific Northwest shipping routes like I was born to do it.

I was the captain of the boat crew, and later promoted to second mate of the entire ship. Not bad for a land-dwelling 10 year old.

Every afternoon leading up to our trip, my teacher read from a hard-bound book called “tall ships.” In dramatic oratory style, he retold the epic adventures of sailors moving cargo from San Francisco to Seattle, Alaska and back again. I was captivated by the courage of sailors and the impossibly hard life of living and working on a wooden boat. I’d create vivid imagery in my head of my own life at sea. There was something so romantic and dangerous and edgy about being a sailor. Something daring and powerful. Something alluring about a life where fear couldn’t stop me from anything. A life where I faced challenges head on.

Even at a young age I was desperate to be liberated from the constraints of my anxious mind. I’ve always been bold and brave of intention but cautious and hesitant in action.

Tonight I’m staring out the window facing the Marina Del Rey harbor, crowded with tall ships.

Lately my life feels a little like nightwatch on the C.A. Thayer. It’s uncomfortable and uncertain. I know it’s impermanent but it feels interminable. I want to wish myself forward in time even though I know I’ll regret missing the experience. It’s at times dark and cold and at others exciting and full of possibility. My perspective changes moment to moment. Fear. Hope. Fear. Hope. Fear again.

I close my eyes and see my fourth grade self imagining her life at 28. She pictures a confident and sassy young attorney. Someone with a lot of influence and many powerful pant suits. A woman who parlayed her Thayer second-mate status into a prosperous political career.

It turns out childhood dreams are not an exact science.

I open my eyes and remind myself to be patient. I remind myself of the things my fourth grade self couldn’t predict. The things that shaped the real-life version of what she imagined.
I remind myself to keep dreaming about who I want to become. And to give myself a break about who I already am. To be daring and powerful. To not let fear stop me. To face challenges head on.