September 2001, mainly before, but slightly edited after the 11th
originally written for a Short Story Contest in the Palo Alto Weekly
When I was a child, I would sit on the wide stump of a walnut tree in my backyard and gaze at the stars at night. The sight would calm me and diminish my worries about school, siblings, the future. The rational, technological, ordinary, "normalness" of my existence would fade away and I could almost feel myself being part of a much greater magical Universe.
I was an ugly, skinny kid with curly hair, glasses and braces.
My dream was to be beautiful, loved, and, of course, to save the world. That seemed unlikely in the suburbs of Los Angeles; survival was challenging enough, my only assets were a sense of humor, drama, and the ability to make up a story, anywhere, anytime.
I read voraciously and devoured other people's stories with so much empathy that by the time I finished high school, I felt that I had lived a thousand lives.
A dream of sailing to the South Pacific inspired me to go to college in Hawaii where I found a yacht bound for Tahiti. I talked a Canadian family into taking me on as "crew."
I liked the "idea" of sailing around the world. The reality was a bit different. I got seasick. There were tensions on board between the aging father and his twenty-eight year old son. There was violence, mutiny; I jumped ship in Tahiti (Papeete, nicknamed Heartbreak Harbour because so many couples, families and voyages broke up there).
I flew on to Rarotonga and New Zealand where I was continually adopted by one family or another and made friends. I discovered that as a traveler, I could open my heart up to other people, and they would often respond by opening their hearts to me, and rejoice in finding a listener.
In New Zealand, I visited Dorothy who lived on a yacht and invited me to stay with her. One evening we went out in her rowboat up a small estuary. As I saw the light upon the water, felt the cool evening breeze, rejoiced in my friend's warmth and laughter, I thought that I should try sailing again.
Each boat is so different, depending upon the people, whether it sails or spends most of its time in port. I went with a couple of Dorothy's friends on a boat bound for Auckland (a twelve hour voyage), it was simply fun. In Auckland, I found a boat bound for Australia.
"Do you need crew?" I asked.
"When are you sailing?"
"In about a month."
"Oh! I wanted to visit the South Island while I'm here. If I came back in a month, would you take me with you?"
I was so happy and excited that I was halfway to the South Island, before I realized that I knew nothing about the people I was going to sail with, I had never stepped aboard the boat, and they knew next to nothing about me. I hitchhiked a thousand miles south and a thousand miles back before I learned that they needed a "cook" not a "crew", and they learned that not only did I not know how to cook, but I was a vegetarian since birth.
Fortunately for me, the captain was one of the kindest people I have ever met. He taught me how to cook, and by the time we reached Australia, I was invited to stay on and complete their circumnavigation of the world via Indonesia, Mauritius, Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean.
I learned that the only thing sailors like to do more than sailing is talk about sailing. On ocean passages, with weeks between one country and the next, there is time to talk, to share stories, to truly get to know one another.
In New Zealand, a friend, who worked for Xerox, kindly offered to make copies of our "letters" for us. Typically we'd get a huge stack of mail every few months, so we began to write one long newsletter (copied for everyone) and personal notes. By the time we were in Brazil and compared our "Christmas letters," what was striking was how each person had a unique perception of our voyage, aside from the similarity of names and places, someone unfamiliar with us would think we were each on different boats.
I returned to school in the U.S. for a year, and then decided to study French and Art in Europe. My first winter in a cold climate nearly killed me. A friend saved my life, and then, my friend threatened to commit suicide.
In a moment that seemed to last forever, as if I was falling off a cliff and could relive each moment of my life before being splattered out of existence, I suddenly realized "why" people commit suicide, "why" life becomes to painful to bear, and "why" people shouldn't kill themselves.
It wasn't a novel insight, I realized that "the answer" to "the big question" was at the heart of every major religion and philosophy. The hard part was to go from intellectual understanding to heartfelt practice- to actually forgive oneself, people, the world, to accept oneself, people, the world- to love oneself, people, the world.
Ironically, I lost my fear of death, but found a great sense of joy and inner peace. I decided to return to the U.S., to remember English, and to write a book.
I had this crazy idea that if I simply told my own story, people, particularly those of my own generation, would grasp this "profound truth" which I had gone to such pains to figure out.
That notion was quickly dispelled by my college sweetheart. No matter how much I loved him, I could never "make him happy" nor "enlighten" him, by conveying what I felt that I had learned.
There was also my father, whom I spent several days with, explaining that the theme of the book I hoped to write was "pro-life," to discourage suicides. He was a card-carrying member of the Hemlock Society, and thought I should blow off that notion and do something more profitable (and a greater service to humanity) like a "how to kill oneself painlessly manual" for people facing wasting diseases, and for social misfits… I thought my thesis was simple and clear, but whenever I tried to explain it, people would argue with me.
I wrote the book anyway, although it took me longer than anticipated and I never found a publisher. Life (and Death) kept interrupting my literary endeavors.
I sailed away, fell in love, sailed away again… I almost got married, but they found a tumor in my fiance's brain the size of an orange. They didn't think he'd survive the weekend, but he lived on for two more years and through three major brain surgeries. I learned about a cure in China for malignant brain tumors using Classical Chinese herbs. I got a prescription from the Director of Cancer Research in Beijing; my fiance had a dramatic recovery. He gained weight, went to visit some old friends in New York and Chicago, ran into his old college flame, and left me for another woman.
When he changed his mind and tried to return to me, I sailed away again, this time to Hong Kong, at the height of hurricane/typhoon season.
I never lived anywhere for more than eleven months, until I was thirty and became pregnant. At that time, I fell in love with the most extraordinarily honest, wonderful person. Years earlier, a spiritual guru had told me that "in your last life, you were male, born in the 1800's in San Francisco, went to sea as a small boy, and loved sailing the big wooden ships…" I figured my karma had come to full circle when I settled a stone's throw from San Francisco, in Palo Alto in 1988.
Besides motherhood, the most transformative experience in my life was catalyzed by a film, Oliver Stone's JFK, which disturbed me deeply. I found over a hundred books in the local library on the subject. I researched the C.I.A., drug trafficking, amazing things that weren't to be found in newspapers, on television news or on the radio. Over several months I learned about the alternative press, found Noam Chomsky, and started connecting with activists who cared about peace, justice, the environment, people, life…
I became an activist, a "hyperactivist;" I went to demonstrations, distributed books, talked to people, went to conferences and events. The second book that I wrote (edited is perhaps a more precise word) was entitled- The Invisible Nuclear War- The effects of low-level radiation, the massive government cover-up, and the continuing battle waged by the Nuclear Powers against All Life on Earth. Instead of a personal "anti-suicide book," I figured society needed a collective "anti-suicide book." When Clinton decided to extend the moratorium on nuclear testing in Nevada, my publisher decided the book was no longer timely. I was entering my ninth month of pregnancy, and the choice was clear, I shelved the book, unpublished, and gave birth to my third, healthy, nine pound, son.
Balancing motherhood with activism hasn't always been easy. I think I was sleep deprived for years, but then the children are a constant reminder that we need to eat, to sleep, to play, to be functional. I could lose myself hacking away- writing, responding to e-mail, reading one horror story after another about people being tortured and killed, dying from lack of food and the policies imposed on countries by the U.S./I.M.F./World Bank/W.T.O.. But I have to feed the kids, take care of them, play with them, and there is my husband, and our friends. There is also school, the scouts, soccer, baseball, the family reunions… and never enough time.
Last March I was arrested for the first time, in Berkeley at a protest against Bayer, one of the 39 pharmaceutical companies that was suing South Africa to prevent them from producing or buying generic drugs to treat people with A.I.D.S.. I told a friend of mine, "Well, I can't get arrested today, I have to pick up the kids from school this afternoon."
She said, "Oh, it just takes two minutes!"
Another person said, "This is the most civil civil-disobedience, I ever saw."
On the other side of "the fence," the Berkeley police had set up a table with folding chairs, I just had to scoot around the fence, get in line, give the pertinent information, get a little green slip which looked like a parking ticket, and scoot out in time to meet the kids when the bell rang.
One of my favorite times of day is the bike ride to and from school. Simply being outside, seeing the sky, the trees, the flowers reconnects me to the magic of existence, the miracle of each event, which leads to the moment of "now."
In general, I hate hierarchy and structures where one or a few people talk and everyone else has to be quiet and listen. I also hate "cocktail party" conversations where people chat about superficial nonsense.
One of the most magical moments in my life happened at a party in Berkeley years ago. A film called "Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics," was produced in Canada. I figured global economics was the big umbrella issue under which all the other issues fell and that the film was a great one to increase understanding of how the entire global economy is a war economy. I persuaded the National Film Board of Canada to send out the director, Terre Nash, to the premier, to help promote the film, and I tried to do publicity for it. Some people who had previewed the film, invited Terre and I to a party, along with some very famous people (none of whom showed up). The party was quite normal until a funny looking guy with a beard held up a rock and asked for silence, "I like circles," he said and introduced himself and started passing the rock around the room. Each person shared their story, of how they came to be at that place, at that time. By the time each person had spoken, we had become a close group of people who shared a powerful vision. In a very spontaneous way, and in a short period of time, we became a non-profit organization, dear friends, and very successful in promoting the film, and processes to challenge the dominant economic paradigm.
The funny guy, Tom Atlee, of the Co-Intelligence Institute, was fascinated at how to develop "group wisdom." Circles, talking sticks, giving people the chance to speak, and listen was transformative. Like tossing a pebble into a pond, I have witnessed ripples expanding across calm waters.
In Denver, Colorado, at the G-7 Summit in 1997 there were a few hundred activists at "the People's Summit" and maybe a thousand protesters. In Genova, Italy, at the G-7 Summit in 2001 there were thousands of activists at the "Genova Social Forum" and hundreds of thousands of protesters. The circles grow and multiply.
In some ways the world is like a giant puzzle, every living thing holds a piece of the "truth." To increase our understanding of the world, we need to listen to many stories, to observe many things, and to recognize how deeply connected we all are, no matter how many apparent differences there are between one person and another.
I remember the stories I've been told. A journalist in China told me once that the war in Vietnam was the best thing that ever happened to him. Shocked, I asked him to explain "why." He told me that it had taught him to appreciate and value "life" - he went on to express how much he loved his daughter, and his wife.
I have not experienced war firsthand, but Death has been one of my greatest teachers. The lessons have been very painful, and I still find it painful to think about wars, the suffering from hunger, disease and want, the extinction's of species, the destruction of ecosystems that continue daily, and now, after the recent tragedy, the unprecedented peril of unrestrained militarism.
If humanity is to survive, it will have to collectively learn to value and cherish All Life. The storyteller in me is continually reminding me and my children, "We are living at the most dramatic time in the history of humanity, upon our collective decisions and our actions depends the future of the planet. We each have an important role to play, and all of you know so much more than me when I was your age! I'm sure you will all be better activists than I when you grow up."
My youngest child wrote in his Kindergarten "Me" book- "When I grow up, I want to be an activist like my Mom who likes to save the world." Miracles do happen. Dreams do come true, though never quite the way we expect them to.