Archive | Higher Ground


It’s been almost three weeks since my next-door neighbor had one of her dogs put down. And ever since then, her surviving dog howls, every single day. He walks around the house, searching in vain for his lost friend.

So with this daily reminder, I’ve been thinking about grief, and how deeply it cuts when you lose someone. You can’t think your way around it, no matter how hard you try. The pain is visceral, it’s like being hit by a car. You howl because it’s how you let the pain out.

And even though you convince yourself that the pain will never get any better, and that you’ll never survive, somehow you do. And then the sun comes out, and one day you notice a crocus and you decide it’s a nice day to go for a walk.

And then suddenly, you’ve gone days without thinking about it. After a while, even a few weeks. You see possibility in your life again. You even start to make plans, and one day, although you swore you’d never, ever forget, you’re happy. For one day, and then another. You’ve made it through, although you never thought you would.

And that sense of joy and that rebirth, that’s a resurrection, although we don’t call it that. And maybe that’s the real story: That we can feel like we’re dying, and yet still we’re reborn, again and again.

Happy Easter!

A Call To Conscience

I’m really sorry that I missed this, because Martin Luther King Jr. is one of a small handful of heroes I have. I hope I get to catch it on a rerun:

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Tavis Smiley’s PBS film “Beyond Vietnam” [MLK: A Call to Conscience] that will air on Wednesday night.

Tavis Smiley, joining us now from Burbank, California, welcome to Democracy Now! This is extremely powerful and relevant, as President Obama just made this surprise trip to Afghanistan. You go back to a time when another African American leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, broke ranks not only with the president that he had worked with on civil rights and voting rights, but with many in his own circles, to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, Amy, first of all, always an honor to be on your program.

The timing of this special, airing on Wednesday night, to your point, could not be more propitious, given that the President has just made this surprise visit to Afghanistan. Of course, we never know these things when we schedule these kinds of specials, what the news will bring us, but the timing, again, couldn’t be any better.

But this speech, “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence,” is given by Dr. King on April 4, 1967, literally one year to the day later he’s assassinated in Memphis, April 4, 1968. But to your point, it is the speech that caused him the greatest deal of controversy and consternation, quite frankly. Most Americans, I think, know the “I Have a Dream” speech. Some Americans, Amy, know the “Mountaintop” speech given the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. But most Americans do not know this “Beyond Vietnam” speech, which got King, again, in a world of trouble. He comes out very clearly and talks about three things that are causing him consternation: militarism, racism and poverty. And he links all three of those things in this “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

And the speech is so—it so rankles and angers the country that 168 major newspapers the next day—168 the following day—all did editorials denouncing him. The New York Times, the liberal New York Times, called the speech “wasteful” and “self-defeating.” The Washington Post goes on to aver that he has done himself, his country and the world, quite frankly, a disservice, and he would never be respected again—paraphrasing it, but that’s what the Washington Post says the next day. But in most major newspapers he was denounced the next day, because the night before, in the speech, he had referred to the US, Amy, as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

And for saying that, he gets demonized by most major newspapers; he gets disinvited, as you said earlier, by LBJ to the White House; indeed, black leaders—Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, Whitney Young, the head of the Urban League—black leaders turned against him. And finally, over the next year of his life before he’s killed in Memphis, the last poll taken about his popularity, a Harris poll, Amy, found that almost three-quarters of the American people had turned against King. Fifty-five percent of his own people, black folk, had turned against King. The last years of his life were very, very lonely, in part because he was so adamant about the war in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis, I want to go to that very place in Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech that he gave at Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967.

REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” And I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Dr. King, April 4th, 1967. A year later to the day, he would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Time Magazine called the speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” But he wouldn’t stop, Tavis Smiley.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, he would not stop. And what’s fascinating, Amy—and I think this will come through Wednesday night, when the special airs on PBS—what will come through is that if you replace the words “Iraq” for “Vietnam,” “Afghanistan” for “Vietnam,” “Pakistan” for “Vietnam,” this speech is so relevant today.

There’s a powerful part of the special. We talk to so many of King’s closest aides, advisers, scholars across the country who are part of this conversation. You played the piece from Clayborne Carson a moment ago who’s in charge of the King papers. And so many in King’s circle, so many of King’s devotees were disappointed when President Obama—himself, of course, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. So you have King, the youngest ever, then and now, to receive the Peace Prize, of black men from the United States, you have Barack Obama, a young African American man, President of the United States, both now with these Nobel Peace Prizes.

And in President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, we wrestle with a particular part of that text that nobody in the mainstream media seems to have wrestled with, and that is the part in the speech—King and Obama, of course, already locked together in history, I think, as the two most iconic African Americans now, during the campaign black folk everywhere wearing T-shirts with King and Obama’s face on the T-shirt. So they’re already linked in history. But then Obama steps to the podium in Oslo and starts out with a particular part of his speech where he’s giving Dr. King his just respect. It’s impossible for, again, this second, this black man, Obama—the other black man, of course, to receive the prize, Ralph Bunche—but impossible for President Obama to give this speech, I think, in Oslo without referencing Dr. King. So he talks about King and gives him the requisite respect he deserves.

But then, in that speech, Amy, he makes a turn and talks about the fact—and I’m paraphrasing here—that he can’t be guided by King’s notion of nonviolence in today’s world. And he suggests he couldn’t do that because King didn’t know al-Qaeda. And that really—and he goes deeper than that, but he really starts to rankle some who have been—you know, who worked with and advised Dr. King. Harry Belafonte and others talk in this special about how that really pricked them, and some of them felt insulted by that, as if Dr. King did not know violence in his lifetime and as if he could not intellectually wrestle with the violence, the terrorism that we’re up against today, but most importantly, the notion that nonviolence in today’s world is irrelevant and could not make a difference. So it’s a fascinating conversation about the parallels, and yet, at the same time, the tension, on the issue of war and peace between King and Obama.
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Some schools are coming up with some innovative programs to address it:

Eric Hansen, principal of the White Pine Middle School in Ely, Nevada, has also devised novel techniques. The school is in a copper mining area and the pupils are relatively tough. When Hansen took over the school four years ago, there was mayhem among the students and backbiting among a discontent staff. He started by educating the staff. “It was a toxic environment and I wanted to transform the culture. I talked to each staff member, encouraged them to bond, to go to each other’s homes, attend weddings, bring food if they suffered a disaster. Then I assigned each student an adviser—the nurses, the librarians, the janitors were all tapped—and they met with their students every day. In other words, we became a family.”

Hansen then took an anonymous poll of all the students, asking them to name the biggest bullies in the school. “I brought them in, told them they had been identified by their peers, and we were there to help them. We asked them how they felt about their peers’ opinions and asked them if those opinions were fair.

“Most of them admitted to their bullying. Those that didn’t had to report to us each day and were required to do or say something nice to someone. We got the parents involved and made sure that the problem children felt they were safe, accepted, and listened to.

“ You know bullies are kids too and often there is a reason for their behavior,” Hansen continues. “They have a tragedy at home, not enough to eat, bad parenting. It is crucial that we pay attention to them also.”

Update: Another perspective, via Athenae.


Today I’m thinking about my dear friend L., who fought so hard for this day. And although she’s disappointed that we didn’t get to the public option (yet), her efforts helped get this historic health care bill to the finish line.

Most people look at her and see an accomplished young woman, a graduate of the Ivy League. They don’t know that she was so poor growing up, she and her mother once lived in a car.

Even most of the people who worked with her don’t know that her mother died from breast cancer – because she didn’t have health insurance.

Many’s the long hour we spent on the phone, her venting about how hard and how thankless her work was. (It’s far too easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize when you’re not the one working 12 hours a day, seven days a week.)

She did it because it was the right thing to do. But she also wanted to help keep other people from losing their mother.

We’re not all the way there yet. We all know that. But thanks to dedicated people like her, we’re a hell of a lot closer than we were.

Fixing A Hole

There aren’t a lot of notions stores anymore – you know, for the kind of little odds and ends you could only find at the five and dime. Since there aren’t any of those stores anymore, I had to go to Kmart this morning to pick up some hand sewing needles and thread. I have a pile of socks and mittens that need mending, and I can’t find my sewing stuff. (Common ADD insanity – we have several copies of everything because we can never find it when we need it. Ask me how many Phillips head screwdrivers I own!)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to a pleasant evening at home, watching movies and mending. I find it very satisfying to restore things to their original function.

I like fixing things in general. Since I was a kid, I liked taking things apart to see how they work.

I remember a story from Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled,” in which his most annoying psychiatric patient was the last client of the day, right before a massive blizzard was supposed to hit.

A few minutes after she left the session, she returned to say that her brake pedal was stuck and she couldn’t move her car. Peck was really anxious at the thought of this woman being stuck at his house, and although until then he’d always described himself as someone with no mechanical aptitude, he decided he was going to fix her car.

He said he got down on the ground, stuck his head under the dash and took a long, careful look at the brake pedal assembly. He then started to move the various pieces – and finally got the pedal unstuck. The patient went on her way, and Peck breathed a sigh of relief.

Peck said the lesson he learned is that when people say they “can’t” do something, or that they don’t have a talent for it, what they’re really saying is, they’re unwilling to devote the time and attention to learn.

This applies to kids who “don’t know how” to do the dishes well, husbands who “aren’t good with talking to the kids, honey why don’t you do it?”, people like me who say they’re “not good at math, will someone else tell me what’s my portion of the check?”

Yes, we all have gifts and special aptitudes. But sometimes the most rewarding lessons are the ones we have to work harder to master. I’ve gotten a lot better at doing the math, and I’m proud of myself for it.


As part of my ongoing campaign to find reasons not to sink into utter despair, here’s something pretty cool. John Mayer invited a local 11-year-old on stage to play with him here in Philadelphia last week – and then gave him the guitar:

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