I Can't Breathe

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The All-Nite Images / Flickr via Creative Commons

I can't breathe
Beneath the crushing weight of bodies
Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jimmy Mubenga and so many more
I can't breathe in the stranglehold of police brutality
I can't breathe as long as our girls, our Nigerian daughters, are still missing and it's been eight months now
I can't breathe because I'm drowning in mothers' tears

I can't breathe the stench of Mexico's mass graves
I can't breathe because I'm being water-boarded to make the world safe for democracy
I can't breathe because black lives have never really mattered to the world
I can't breathe thinking of my ancestors in slave collars
I can't breathe because I'm choking on tear gas
I can't breathe as long as liberty and justice for all means liberty and justice for some
I can't breathe if I keep silent
So I open my voice and speak,
and shout the outrage
Calling for a world
Where all of us can breathe.

The Light within the Darkness

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At this dark time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, we light candles to bless the darkness--Hanukkah candles, advent candles. This year we also hold candlelight vigils for Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner.

It has been an extraordinary, exhausting couple of weeks, from the moment we heard of the Grand Jury verdict in the Michael Brown shooting case.  Only a week later, the World Food Programme announced that it had run out of funds to feed 1.7 million Syrian refugees. Right after the news, Sadananda and I sat down for our lunch, looking miserably at our simple meal of carrot-ginger soup and roasted turnips--homegrown vegetables. It was hard to eat when our sisters and brothers could not. But of course, there was more to come. Two days later we learned of the Grand Jury verdict in the choking death of Eric Garner.

It's rare that I lack joy and optimism--but at that moment l simply felt exhausted and overwhelmed by events in the world and in my adopted country. In my journal I wrote: "I must feel the stress to be an authentic force for transformation. Feed on the darkness and bring forth the light. Blessed are they that mourn."

By Friday night I was hitting a place of despair. " What would be good news?" asked Sadananda. I replied, "The World Food Prgramme announcing they are going to start feeding the Syrian refugees again." Minutes later I turned on the BBC World Service and my prayer was answered! It was perhaps the fastest answer to a prayer I ever received!

Hanukkah is the light that comes forth from desolation and devastation. The temple has been desecrated--now it is cleansed and the menorah is lighted anew. Light returns from darkness and loss. It is the warrior light kindled by people who stood up and fought for their rights. The menorah is placed in the window for all to see because--so the teaching goes--it reminds all oppressed people everywhere to stand up for their rights, for justice, for truth, for equality.

Advent candles are the light we kindle as we await the birth of a new reality. They are lights of hope amid darkness.  Hope shone its rays into my heart when I read Bhagavad Gita with my students. "When righteousness grows weak, when unrighteousness prevails, I make myself a body."  The Lord sets aside his divine state, to  be born, suffer and die as a human among humans. It is in time of darkness that the Child is born who all the world awaits.
And who is that child?  What is
the divine  birth, the birth of hope announced by a new star? That divine child who shines light into darkness is us, all of us, when we awaken, when we stand up for our rights and the rights of others. The Prince of Peace is marching, protesting, facing riot police or security forces in cities around the world, holding a 'die-in' at Grand Central Station or London's Westfield Mall, shivering in the cold holding candles because 'black lives matter'. All lives matter. We all matter. Each of us has a part to play in the awakening for which we long. As long as my faculties remain and the internet exists, I will write this justice and peace blog, remembering the pen is more powerful than the sword.

As TS Eliot writes in Choruses from the Rock:

And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame.
Therefore we thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building, to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.
And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light, we may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.

Mitchell Vaughn | The Cavalier Daily


Police officers point their weapons at Ferguson residents protesting against the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 18, 2014.

When I was growing up in a small town in England in the fifties, guns simply were not a part of our life. Our local 'copper' walked his beat, wearing the traditional blue helmet and equipped with a truncheon. The first time I saw an armed policeman was when I visited Rome at the age of seventeen to study the antiquities. I wondered how his gun would help him direct traffic! But when I arrived in America, I was soon to lose my innocence where guns are concerned. In fact, I have been held up at gunpoint twice--both times by Boulder police.

On the first--and most dangerous--occasion, we were living near the university in the area known as "The Hill". One dark winter evening, we were coming home for dinner. As we approached the front yard we heard a shout. "Raise your hands above your head and freeze!"  Four policemen had their handguns pointed at us, ready to shoot if we made the wrong move. It was a terrifying moment and we could easily have lost our lives for a simple mistake. After some questioning--as we stood there, immobile, hands up in the chilly night--the police ascertained that they were staking out the wrong house. They gave us permission to leave, telling us not to return for two hours as there was a gunman in in the neighbourhood. 

On the second occasion, we were foolish enough to watch a sunset on a piece of waste ground in the company of a friend and his lab-retriever. Of course, we should have known that drug dealers often have dogs and that sunset-watching is a suspicious activity! So there was apparently probable cause for two squad cars to approach, one above and one below in a pincer action. One of the policemen started screaming accusations and insults at us and demanding our IDs, which we weren't carrying for a stroll around the block. This spooked the dog into barking. Now, let me remind you, she was a lab-retriever, not an attack-type dog and she was barking nervously, not growling or baring her teeth. And she was leashed." Shut her up or I'll shut her up," said the policeman. But she barked again.  The policeman decided to shoot the dog. So there he stood,  feet planted, holding the gun in both hands, pointed at the poor dog's head and our feet. He told  us to let go the leash so he could shoot her at point blank range; an action which would endanger the lives of all of us, dog and humans alike. Somehow, at  that moment, the dog fell silent. By God's grace we managed to talk the policeman down and de-escalate the situation. The dog's life was saved and so were our feet.

We were lucky. Michael Brown was not. Tamir Rice, the twelve year old shot by police for a toy gun,  was not. Trayvon Martin was not. Jonathan Ferrell was not. He was shot by police when seeking  help following a car accident.  Oscar Grant was not. He was shot by BART police at Fruitavale. Sean Bell was not. He was shot by police on the eve of his wedding, at his bachelor party. John Crawford was not. He was shot by police in Walmart while picking up and looking at  a BB gun which was for  sale in the store.  Renisha McBride was not. She was shot while seeking help after a car accident. Emmet Till was not. He was lynched for paying a white woman a compliment.


Candlelight vigil for Michael Brown in Boulder

Sadananda and I may have long hair and, in Sadananda's case a long beard too, and look to some like 'hippie wierdos' who deserve to come under suspicion. But we are white. Michael, Tamir, Jonathan, Oscar, Sean, John, Renisha and Emmet were black. In every case, the colour of their skin signed their death warrant, rendering them an imminent threat, or even an object of hatred, in the eyes of those who shot them. And while most of those we have listed were shot in the recent years of our new century, Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. We are talking about a lifetime of repeated incidents.  We are talking about centuries of suffering since the first black slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619.

Racial prejudice and xenophobia, as well as anti-semitism and Islamophobia, are seen throughout the Western world and beyond. These phenomena seem to arise whenever people of different appearance, colour, religion or culture arrive in a previously homogenous society. The struggles, success and failures of creating multicultural societies across Europe bear witness to this, as does the rise of racist and anti-immigration parties like UKIP in Britain and the National Front in France. But here in America, we are in an unique position. As the lasting legacy of slavery and segregation, we have a type of institutionalized racism that I can only compare with India's caste system.

 What will it take to create  a society where
"the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood" ? For those of us of Caucasian origin, this requires us to care, and care passionately, about Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Emmett Till. For all of us to sit at table together, to break bread together in harmony,  we must understand that these deaths are not black tragedies. They are national tragedies, they are human tragedies. The pain of these mothers' tears is our own. With the killing of these young people we all, whatever the colour of our skin, have an empty seat at the table. We, as a society, cannot afford the loss of these young lives, so full of promise. With each death, with each life cut short, we lose a part of ourselves. And because this is our own loss, whoever we are, we must all wake up and stand up for justice, peace and the lives of our children.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less...
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee
John Donne


Ma's 2014 Good Gift Guide

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Feasting together and giving gifts has been an important way of cementing bonds since Paleolithic times. This season, I'd like to focus on environmentally and socially responsible gift-giving. How can we give without cluttering our Earth with stuff, using unnecessary resources, creating financial stress and supporting multinational corporations?

  • Make it yourself. As a child I enjoyed long winter evenings cutting up glossy magazines and advertising material to make calendars for family and friends. Today Sadananda and I still make calendars, using some of our top photographs from the year and getting them printed at a locally-owned business. We also make jars of chutney for family, friends and neighbours.  You could also make jams, cordials or elixirs.                                          
  • Create a gift basket. We source pretty baskets at a neighbourhood thrift store and fill them with home made or local cheese, home made chutney, artisan bread and other local and regional goodies. I haven't ventured into soap-making yet (it's on my wish list of hobbies!), but home made soap, salve, potpourri etc. would make a lovely herbal gift basket. Some of our Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula students and graduates enjoy showcasing their new-found medicine-making skills by creating Ayurvedic herbal gift baskets.
  • Give services instead of goods. A pretty card offering a service you will render can be a heart-warming gift that saves money, doesn't generate more stuff and increases  interpersonal connection. Alternatively, offer a gift certificate for a massage, shirodhara, Ayurvedic Consultation, house cleaning or other service that would nurture the recipient.
  • Support your local bookstore. My adopted grandson always receives a book from Boulder Bookstore for his birthday and for the holiday season. And he enjoys the books immensely. If you are fortunate enough to have a locally owned non-chain bookstore still, please support them with your gift dollars or pounds!
  • Support local craftspeople. The years I go to Wales for Christmas, one of my treats is going to the craft fair at Aberystwyth Arts Centre to get unique gifts for family in the US. I also own quite a few treasured craft fair gifts myself! Visiting a craft fair is a way to support local potters, silversmiths, artists and artisans as well as purchasing a one-of-a kind gift.
  • Visit your fair trade shop. See my previous blog, Slavery and your holiday shopping for an extensive discussion of this topic.


Meal Blessing for Thanksgiving

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Since people often ask for 'Ma's meal blessing' --here it is!
 Some of you might like to use this non-denominational blessing at your Thanksgiving meal.

May the Earth be blessed that bore this food
And may they prosper who grew it
May the hands be blessed that cooked this meal
May all grow strong who eat it.
May the hearts and wills of humankind be moved
To feed the hungry of the world
And may all come to eat the bread of life
From Wisdom's table.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenbu...

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on 09 November 1989 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the world celebrates twenty five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This summer, Sadananda and I had an unique opportunity to commemorate this world-changing event. We spent a week in Assisi, designated the City of Peace. Because of this special status, Assisi was host to an exhibition of Wall art marking the twenty fifth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. A wide variety of artists exhibited art pieces created on segments of the actual Wall--turning a symbol of oppression and division into a space of creativity, wonder and questioning. Perhaps my favourite was by an East Anglian artist, who obliterated the 'Wallness' of the Wall by turning it into what he most loved--an East Anglian fishing village. I too dearly love the fishing villages of my native land.
At the conclusion of the exhibit, we had our own chance to do some graffiti on a segment of Wall. I wrote "Peace, pax, pace, shalom, salaam, shanti." The museum curator was thrilled!

The Berlin Wall has fallen. It's time was up. But what have we learned? We still build walls. We are building a wall across the desert at a cost of billions of dollars to protect ourselves from poor Mexicans and Latin Americans who just want a chance at a better life. The wall increases the likelihood of migrants dying in the desert, as they seek out ever more remote and hazardous routes. A wall divides Israelis and Palestinians, exiling people from their ancestral lands. We put asylum seekers behind walls and fences as they wait for us to decide their fate. Can a wall bring peace? Can a wall bring security? Can a wall bring safety?

As we celebrate the reunification of Berlin, let us remember that peace comes from truth-telling, from liberty and justice, and from brotherly and sisterly love among humans. Peace doesn't come from a wall.


Portrait of Berlin Wall exhibit curator in Assisi, by Sadananda https://www.flickr.com/photos/alandiashram/sets/


Often called the festival of light, Divali or Dipavali is actually the festival of little lights or little lamps. Dipavali means a row of lights. We kindle rows of little lights or dipas to guide Lakshmi into our home. In other traditions, the little lights guide Lord Rama home from Lanka to Ayodhya. The real Ayodhya is not a place on a map. 'Ayodhya' means 'no conflict'. The real Ayodhya is the state of living free from conflict.

In this Divali blog, I want to draw our attention to some people who are overcoming the darkness of adversity, lighting little lamps of hope.These three young women--two of them still schoolgirls--have been inspiring me all year long and brightening the flame of my heart.

 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yusufzai faced the adversity of turmoil and extremism in her native Swat, followed by a journey through the valley of the shadow of death after she was shot in the head. She woke to find herself in a hospital in Birmingham, far from her friends and her beloved native land. Yet she continues lighting candles of hope for children around the world and speaking truth to power, even telling President Obama to stop the drone attacks in Pakistan. As a Nobel laureate at her young age, she holds an unique position in tending the lights of truth and justice that guide us towards the place beyond conflict. To hear Malala speaking for herself, watch her entire Nobel acceptance speech.

My friend Sabina England faces the adversity of profound deafness. Sabina and I have never actually met, but I feel that she really is my friend, as we share so many cultural connections, and we do correspond from time to time. Sabina is a remarkable writer, film-maker and performance artist. Her films express her activism, love of life, passion, spirituality and humour in an extraordinary way. Like Malala's peace work, Sabina's films are bright dipas of awakening, offered to all of us who are deafened by the busy noisiness of the world. Take a look at her eight minute film Deaf Brown Gurl for some special inspiration this Divali. 

Lastly, but never least, I'll mention my niece Ruth. Born with Down Syndrome, Ruth faces a lot of adversity in finding her autonomy and actualizing her quite amazing creative vision. She is interested in  puppetry and has her own Punch and Judy puppets. Last New Year, Ruth and I saw the New Year in together with my mother, who is in her late eighties and suffers with dementia. We spent New Year's Eve making music. I would play a song on my fiddle and then Ruth would strum her guitar and sing a song. We talked about the people and events that were important to us in the past year and our hopes for the year to come. Finally we sang Auld Lang Syne as 2014 arrived.

 Ruth might not be a Nobel Laureate or a famous performance artist like the other young women in this blog (or not yet, anyway), but she definitely lights lamps of joy for my mother. Ruth showers Mum with affection in a way that is truly healing. The challenges Ruth faces don't stop her giving a lot to anyone who is open to receive what she has to offer.

The dipas that are lit on Divali are quite tiny. Yet when billions of these little lamps are twinkling, India shines so brightly that the radiance can be seen from space. Malala, Sabina and Ruth are keeping their lamps shining in the face of challenges and adversity. And as the dipa is made more lovely by the surrounding darkness, they are turning their adversity into a gift. If each one of us keeps brightening our little dipas by the daily practice of being true to ourselves, we can light the way to the city beyond conflict.
A diya - Indian oil lamp.

A diya - Indian oil lamp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nanny: A deaf woman in wartime

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Nanny and me! 1952

The recent International Deaf Awareness Week (last week of September) has got me thinking. I do feel especially close to deaf people because of my maternal grandmother, Emily Board nee Hunt, known to us as Nanny. Born in London in 1896, Nanny contracted measles at age three and lost her hearing. She never received any special education, was teased and despised as 'deafy' and started work as a factory girl at age twelve. Nanny was a brilliant self-taught lip-reader and could snoop on conversations across the room--or private asides whispered on the television!

During the London blitz, Nanny was especially vulnerable because she could not hear the air raid sirens. She was living in Shenley Road in the London borough of Camberwell at the time. Nanny's  fox terrier, Skippy, would bring her to the basement when the sirens wailed and lead her out again when the 'all clear' sounded. Natually, Nanny felt a special bond of gratitude to her dog. When I was a baby, she gave me a straw and rag fox terrier toy called--of course--Skippy. I loved that simple toy like no other, even when I was a big girl.

When the National Health Service started up in 1948, Nanny's life changed dramatically. Finally, she received a hearing aid. Nanny said that until that day, she had never heard a watch tick or a bird sing. She had lived in a silent world, isolated in many ways.

History nearly repeated itself when I contracted a severe case of measles at age three and ruptured both eardrums. But the healthcare and nutrition available in postwar Britain was dramatically better than that of Old London, and my  hearing was saved. Unlike Nanny and millions of people worldwide to this day, I do not suffer from preventable deafness.

Nanny's story serves to remind us of how uniquely vulnerable deaf people are in conflict zones around the world. When civilians are caught up in war, the disabled and special needs population is affected in ways we can barely imagine; both from imminent danger and from deprivation of ongoing support necessities. Deaf people need the opportunity to fulfill their potential and to be afforded the same basic human rights so many of us take for granted.

Afghan Schoolchildren in Kabul

Afghan Schoolchildren in Kabul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are a few words of my memories of travel through Afghanistan in 1978:

When I was traveling from England to India, mostly hitch-hiking, I passed through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, reaching my destination in India.Today I want to speak about my travels in Afghanistan.

People verily make up a wonderful garden wherever one may go.The people of Afghanistan were particularly striking--the music, dance, physical beauty and vitality, tremendous hospitality, tangible heartfelt-ness and peacefulness. The children especially struck me as they seemed so interwoven into the whole of life.

I can remember the day the Communist coup began, to overthrow the government of President Mohammed Daoud. I was present in Kabul at this historic moment, which led to the Soviet invasion of 1979 and ushered in more than thirty years of continuous warfare
, mostly at the hands of the world's superpowers. I recall that the army rebelled, fighting the police. I remember planes bombing government buildings and bullets flying in the streets. Afghanistan hasn't been at peace yet.

Since I have traveled to Afghanistan my heart has had a tear in it, a wound. All people on this earth are my people. The Afghans are my people, my brothers and sisters, daughters and sons. I can't forget them--the people of Afghanistan have been through so much!

I pray that peace and justice will come  to this land and people.

June Haibun

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Torrential rain
Crushed poppy petals
Blood on paving stones.

When I see the magnificent blooms beaten down, their glory cut short, sorrow of a thousand mothers wells up in me.


poppies (Photo credit: __o__)

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