Santa Claus and Other Make Believe

We all looked to the sky and spotted the faint streams of red light as the chilled air blushed our cheeks.  “It’s Santa flying away in his sleigh,” one of the girls declared and the others chimed in with their own declaration they saw it too.  The excitement was contagious even with the suspicions the jolly fellow may have been an uncle dressed in the traditional fluffy suit.

My childhood best friend’s birthday fell in December, naturally there seemed to always be a Christmas theme.  After the holiday ornament making and cake tasting, Santa Claus arrived to deliver candy canes and listen to each girl’s present requests.  Once Santa left the house there became an urgency to determine his authenticity and spy on him, five and six-year-old girls in party dresses and ribbons, raced down the steps and out the front door to the driveway.  Half expecting to see a middle-aged man ripping off a beard getting into a beat-up old Chevy, I was utterly confused by the lights in the sky and reaction from the spectators.

In my home there was no truth to Santa Claus, he was as fictional as The Cat In The Hat.  Don’t get me wrong, we still had Christmas.  The “magic” of Christmas came in the form of everything else; cookies, cocoa, lights, snowman making, present wrapping, singing carols, holiday crafts, tree decorating, holiday greetings in the mail and being together with family.  We all loved the Christmas season without the belief of a mystical man breaking in through the chimney to fill our stockings and snack on our cookies.  It wasn’t because Mom and Dad felt a burning desire to secure our safety and avoid stranger danger, for fear we would habitually approach old men in white beards.  And it wasn’t with the mentality to make sure we knew they worked hard to provide instead of giving credit to this imaginary creature.  My parents, especially my dad, made the decision not to fuel the story of Saint Nicholas in the spirit of honesty.  They simply didn’t want to lie to us.

Their intentions were in a good place, except every other pupil in my early elementary school class did have parents who made them believe in Santa Claus.  Kids behaved because parents had warned not to get on the naughty list.  The man, the myth was reality for my classmates and I my naïve mind could not comprehend how it was true for them and not for me.  I began thinking Santa must be visiting everyone else’s house but mine.  It didn’t make any sense when my reality didn’t match those around me.  When my curiosity about this discrepancy reached a bursting point I took my concerns to my parents.  My dad, the always logical man, attempted to reason the explanation beyond what I could comprehend at the time.  He asked me to question how it could even be possible for a single person to travel to every home around the world in one day.  Still trying to conform my thoughts to the popular opinion of my classmates, I tried to justify it and sometimes tried to believe in Santa Claus even if just to fit in.

At varying points of age, all children learn the truth of Santa Claus and only then do they notice the signs were everywhere all along.  My disorientation from reality was relieved when fellow students and friends gained their own insight.  Truth isn’t always an easy adjustment to make, I know for many kids it was nights of crying themselves to sleep to know their beliefs were a lie.  I suspect too, each of those kids assimilated to finding a new happiness in the Christmas season.

When looking back on my early childhood conflict between what I knew to be true and what my peers saw as real, I now know the word for it.  Cognitive dissonance is the term to label the feeling of stress when two contradictory beliefs are co-occuring.  It is a theory which has long been studied in psychology to recognize the emotional discomfort humans experience when facts counter beliefs.  The parallel to my Santa experience and today’s American culture is tragically obvious.  While Santa Claus is no longer part of the belief, many Americans do hold true to a context of society which is not reality based and does not align with the facts.  Except it’s not parents telling us how to think, and it’s not Santa Claus we are told to believe in.  Citizens respect and accept the framework created by mass media, many place full trust in getting an accurate story about the most relevant news stories.  Dedicated viewers, intending to be well-informed, are guided how to think based on what is shown and more importantly what is omitted.  Most American’s don’t question their disillusion since it correlates with the popular opinion (much like I did with my classmates), even when confronted with details not supported in the “official” story.  The believers see America as being free and equal, they believe the American Dream is real and everyone has the same fair opportunity to achieve it.  I’d like to share this as a reality, except unlike my confusion about Santa, I can see through the present fiction.

In the last few weeks I have been absorbed with the turmoil in our country; viewing news programs, livestreams, monitoring social media and reading articles.  It’s been thrilling to watch the response of countless people demonstrating their frustration with the justice system, with racial disparity and with police militarization.  The variety of people aware and being active ranges to include all ages, religions, ethnicities and socio-economic status.  People who know and recognize the devastating effects felt from inequality and invasion of rights.  Across the country people have taken to social media to express their frustration, walked out of work and school in unison across the nation, held their hands up to political figures, boycotted Black Friday and taken to the streets.  Highways, bridges, train stations, malls and major intersections have been shut down by marches, attempting to bring attention to those distracted by the illusion of justice being served.

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The activists across the country have overall been peaceful, despite the attention being placed on rioting and fires, coincidently a great focal point for the news to reinforce fear.  Watching these demonstrations happenings in every major city, some erupting spontaneously, typically with few arrests and no violence inspires my hope for progress.  My optimism rapidly deflates when I hear the media influenced comments like “He deserved it,” or “They’re just burning up their own neighborhoods with those riots,” the ignorant statements like “There’s not really racial disparity,” or “I haven’t heard about what’s happening,” and the actively avoiding “I have better things to worry about,” or “I’m sick of hearing about…”

Now the number of believers inconvenienced by protests are growing rapidly, their cognitive dissonance escalating too.  It is impossible to ignore the passion and effort people have for a cause when they take to the streets facing ridicule and risking arrest to voice the societal emergency being ignored.  Believers have to confront the idea of some truth to this if so many people are screaming to pay attention.  Believers begin feeling more and more uncomfortable when faced with facts opposed to their American truth.

Slave LaborThey defend their belief’s against statistics spelling out the value of profit over people in the prison system, the undeniable fact America has 5% of the world’s population and incarcerated 25% of the world’s prison population.  They find ways to justify how black men are arrested at least 2 to 5 times more frequently than white men for drug charges despite similar rates of use.  Believers ignore the fact 1 in 15 black men are behind bars, equating to more locked up and on parole in our country today than were slaves in 1850.  Believers have never had to experience trying to get a job after jail or had their rights to vote removed.  And they fail to connect poor education, fatherless children, and minimum wage positions which don’t support the cost of living with being ways to prevent criminal activity.  Instead believers blame the oppressed class and label them as lazy leaches of the system, denying the truth the system was created to do exactly this.  Americans are left squabbling about who is to blame while corporate America runs off with the profits and stay protected by the government.  For believer’s maintaining their comfortable life, they are aware of bailouts and corporate tax exceptions, yet they hang onto the idea if you work hard you are rewarded.

Believers find ways to excuse criminal acts by police officers often blasting the inherent worth of the victim as a person, forgetting we all make mistakes and ignoring accountability for the murder completely.  Even in the case of Eric Garner where the technique used was banned, it was determined a homicide and the whole incident was caught on video.  “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me.  I’m tired of it.  It stops today,” Garner said before being choked to death.  He was unarmed and committed no crime when he was accosted by the police.  He resisted, like Rosa Parks, tired of being black in America.

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Comply with the police – IT’S THE LAW!!

Believers say comply with police, it’s the law, except they don’t live the reality of being harassed.  They don’t know the experience of being targeted simply based on appearance.  #crimingwhilewhite and #alivewhileblack were two trends on Twitter this month.  Hilariously tragic when confronted by thousands of tweets illustrating how white Americans have literally gotten away with crimes or had minimal consequences, while black Americans are targeted by police on a regular basis doing nothing wrong.  One might say “You can’t believe everything on the internet, people can just make up things on Twitter.”  True yes, and still of the thousands of messages to consider this trend just imagined is complete denial of the problem.  Judgements on each side of the argument are defeating, not all police officers are bad, not all black people are criminals and not all white people are racist.

The marches happening in cities across the country are both inspiring and worrisome to me.  Thousands of brave individuals have banded together to draw more attention to the average American believer, and they are met with armies of officers intending to absorb any positive effect created.  The police force is frightening with tanks, riot gear, rubber bullets, tear gas and other military crowd control weapons like LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device/sound canon.)  Believers see the militarized police force as crucial for safety, since they have been conditioned to fear people and want to maintain their comfortable routines.  They cannot imagine the dedication to a cause it takes to gather peacefully and have to face this

Boston Police State April 19, 2013

Boston Police State April 19, 2013

violent army.  Isn’t it astonishing how there are budget cuts in every government service to help people, yet there always seems to be money for war or to spend on police equipment when anticipating a protest?  Believers would prefer tanks down their streets and swat teams surrounding their homes to provide the illusion of safety.  I wonder how residents of Boston felt, in April 2013, when they were removed from their homes at gunpoint in the hunt for a teenager?

Trying to communicate rationally and educate about facts is often met with justifying the need to fear people, the need to place blame and the need to continue the militarized police strength.  Americans blindly give faith in their government officials to fix it.  They are convinced their values have to fit in either red or blue, conservative or liberal and stand by their identity.  Separation tolerated more blame and ignites arguments.  Being a non-believer, I cannot comprehend how 2 opinions fairly encompasses the views and needs of over 300,000,000 people.  Especially when those in power on both sides, are serving corporations and promoting the rich to get richer.  Americans feel the cognitive dissonance, wanting to pretend everything is fine, we are free and our democracy works; also recognizing the status quo cannot sustain us.  Constitutional rights and human rights are being violated in an effort to support a broken system.  The problem with admitting the belief is over and it’s time for a change evokes fear.  How do we give up how things are without knowing what is to come?

I know there is happiness in Christmas after Santa Claus.  I also know the believer’s reality where the police are given the power to use against people is a scary future for everyone.  The people don’t have to agree on how America will look in the years to come, there just has to be a united agreement this has to change.

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Victims, Criminals and Floaters

Who would volunteer to go visit a prison?  Hardened criminals, manipulative and egotistical minded individuals locked away from society for good reason.  Those people behaved badly and did things they knew were wrong, they knew better and should be punished.  Why would anyone volunteer to go visit a prison?

I would, and I did go.  For me, I don’t carry the typical view of Americans incarcerated like the description above.  From years of working with youth, I have watched children learn from violence, addictions and unstable environments.  I have seen them removed from their homes and placed in worse conditions in some foster-homes and group homes.  I have noticed the pattern of getting in trouble with the law starting early in life when kids don’t have proper role models.  I have observed the discrepancies which take place in how youth are dealt with based on race and socioeconomic backgrounds.  I have been disappointed by the influence mental health has on effecting behaviors which get ignored in the judicial system.  I don’t judge youth as being bad seeds, I can see the good in them and understand who they have become is a reflection of what they have been through.  They way kids think, speak and behave couldn’t be any different.  They honestly don’t know ‘better’ it’s the only way they know how to be.

It’s easy for us to have pity on children and have sympathy for the situations they have been through.  Why does this stop with children?  We accept kids don’t know better, and somehow by the age of 18 magically people should now know right from wrong, how to handle anger or cope with stress, how to create a substantial income legally or who to trust not to lead you down the wrong path?  It’s hard for me to buy this, if their circumstances were different I know their actions would be different too.

In America we have established a system of ridiculing, harshly judging and locking up victims of unfair circumstances.  Victims of abuse, addiction, trauma, poverty, learning disabled and mentally ill.  Justifying the incarceration of hundreds of thousand non-violent offenders.  Encouraging wealthy investors to build prisons and profit off the contracts to incarcerate some of America’s most oppressed population.  This is occurring at such alarming rates we are leading the world in locking up our citizens.

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From a class I recently took, volunteers were invited to attend a prison and visit with the inmates as a celebration of Vesak, a Buddhist holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.  (For my first story on this click here.)  On the day of the prison visit I felt nervous, not in fear it would be dangerous, it was more related to how I would manage my own frustration with the prison system and maintain equanimity through the experience.  It wasn’t until I showed up for the ride to Leavenworth when I found out we would be going to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the Department of Defense’s maximum security military prison.  According to Wikipedia: Only enlisted prisoners with sentences over ten years, commissioned officers and prisoners convicted of offenses related to national security are confined to USDB.  As I would later hear from the inmates, this is the most dangerous prison in the United States since all of the inmates are trained to kill.

To me, this visit suddenly took on another level of social justice problems.  These inmates were more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes, yet I still hang on to the notion they are also victims of their circumstances.  Being in the military trains them to be violent, asks them to go to war and causes them to witness unimaginable trauma.  It is impossible not to be effected by these circumstances, and many individuals are mentally unprepared to cope.  The military has seen a substantial increase in the rates of domestic violence, assault, murder and suicide in the last ten years – directly related to tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Countless enlisted men and women joining the services to serve and protect their country end up with their lives ruined by war.

On the drive to Leavenworth I road with a fellow classmate and talked about gardening, TV shows and travel.  We shared our anxiety about what we were going to see and I confided I desperately wanted to know the circumstances of each of their crimes and what lead to them, even though I knew I wouldn’t ask.  We presented our id’s at the gates to Ft. USDB2002Leavenworth and caravaned with other vehicles through the base up to the prison.  It seemed to be the furthest possible location on the grounds passing officer’s homes, army barracks, a cemetary lined with identical and symmetrical tombstones, down long winding roads, dead-ends and finally approaching ‘The Castle.”

We entered into a quiet building about 7:15pm and climbed a staircase to a front desk manned by two guards in combat uniform.  The lobby felt like a high school with lockers, restrooms and a seating nook overlooking the dense wooded area beyond the parking lot.  We each had to be cleared with a background check ahead of time and present our identification to get a visitors badge.  Our group of 15 people were escorted by another guard, entering only a few at a time.  One giant glass door slamming locked behind us so the next giant locked door could open.  After the breeze way another guard with a baby pimpled face asked if the first guard would need assistance escorting us to our meeting room.  I was sure these two finished their varsity sports, attended senior prom and put in resignation at McDonald’s about 12 months ago before heading off to boot camp, completely unaware of the commitment they had made and how deeply it would impact their life.

We walked down a long corridor, passing metal doors with small glass windows to other wings of USDB, it reminded me of entrances to different sections of the state mental hospital where I used to work.  There were some inmates passing us in the hallway, none were handcuffed or escorted, and I got the impression I wasn’t in danger being there.  We entered a room, about the size of a classroom with two long tables set up for us to eat and visit.  The prisoners we would be visiting were already in the room and waiting spread out amongst the folding chairs.  I shuffled in shyly with the other guests, waiting for instructions which never came.  Eventually assuming the responsibility to find a spot to sit down and introduce myself to those around me.  My classmate and I sat down next to each other for some security and comfort.  We overly smiled and shook hands with the prisoners across and next to us and then felt the awkwardness sink in unsure of what to talk about.  I bit my tongue to prevent the question of “What did you do to get here?” from blurting out.

At the start I was painfully conscious of my body positioning and every word I uttered into conversation.  We shared how each of us started taking the Basics of Buddhism class, both those from the outside and those from within the prison. We related on why we started a meditation practice and how the practice was going.  The prisoners shared the need for meditation to help calm their minds down, cope with emotions and come to terms with being at USDB.  During dinner I felt by apprehension fading and my body relaxing.  Two of the prisoners I had met were born in other countries, one joining the Navy from his home in California and was last stationed in Hawaii, never imagining he would end up incarcerated in Kansas.

Another prisoner I spoke with told me about being from the East coast, stating he quit college half way through to join the Marines.  He had been enlisted for almost a decade, traveling the world and completing three tours to war.  We discussed the paths of life, influences which shape us and how everyone makes mistakes.  “It would be boring to be perfect,” he remarked, “No one is perfect.”

“Everything is perfect,”  I challenged his view.  I explained my perception, nothing could be the way it is now without everything else which fell before it.  Perfection is neither good nor bad, it is just as it should be.  We couldn’t have been at the table meeting each other in USDB had any circumstance in his or my life been different leading up to that day, not good or bad, just perfect.  The veteran agreed and said he has become keenly aware of situations in his life, choices he has made and what has lead him to where he is at right now.  He feels it is exactly what was supposed to happen and put him in touch with life again.  We talked about people who are aware of their past, intention and purpose.

“And then there are the floaters,” he said.  “Don’t get me wrong, I was a floater for a long time too.”  From the discussion I took that a floater refers to a person who is existing with indifference to themselves and the world around them.  Someone who is oblivious to their impact or lack of impact on others.  Individuals who don’t carry attachment to relationships and situations, rather busying themselves with getting by in life without thinking or place value too highly on material things.

There are victims of crimes and then there are the criminal victims of circumstance.  Their actions are not legal and are not to be condoned, yet our judicial system is not creating a healthier society.  The problem will continue to perpetuate as long as there are floaters unaffected by what is happening and stay disengaged from these conditions in society.  We need to help each other wake up to stop judging criminals, change the criminal system and correct the errors which lead individuals to do bad things.

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If this post peeked your interest and you want to learn more, here is some recommended reading:

The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery?      From Global Research

Locked Away, Army Struggles with Wounded Soldiers     From The Gazzette

I’d also recommend checking out The House I Live In a documentary regarding the war on drugs:

Finally, out of curiosity: Have you ever been a floater and what helped to wake you up?

Our Country in Crisis

dalailamaAt a time our country is in crisis, another city stricken with terror and fear, I thought this quote stood out as a reminder not to take action from a place of fear and anger.  What happened in Boston is tragic and it’s effect will continue to ripple through our society shaping our view of safety, causing us to feel insecure and allowing us a false justification to judge others.

We cannot make determinations about individuals by looking at them.  We cannot view ourselves as better than, above or more noble than anyone else we encounter.  We cannot understand anyone else’s actions, connections, opinions or beliefs.  We cannot allow our fear and anger of situations we see publicized dictate how we engage with each other and with the world.

The very best message I saw on television following the bombing at the Boston Marathon was a short clip from a late night TV news broadcaster I had never seen before.  When I heard his comments it was the reminder I was meant to hear and something I wish all Americans could have seen.  Following 9/11, many American’s condoned torture as revenge for the killing, injuring and terrorizing we all felt on that day.  Except 12 years later we can reflect on the torture which was carried out, the lack of insight gained from it and the knowledge that many tortured were simply as innocent as the Americans caught in the towers.  Out of fear and anger unthinkable actions were allowed to carry on in the sake of maintaining our safety and capturing “evil-doers”.  This time we must learn from our mistakes.  We have to rise above the devastating emotions and act with compassion or we will be turning our terror into terrorism.

Please watch this clip from Chris Hayes and spread the word. (here)

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Time to Take a Stand

Political crap you don’t want to read about, right?  Just hear me out.  Avoidance develops ignorance and reflects as tolerance.

Guantanamo Bay is not a place I think about on a regular basis, as I am sure most American’s can relate.  I know it was constructed to detain terrorists and protect the world from their lethal plots.  I know there has been controversy surrounding who is actually being held there and how they are being treated.  I know, and still Guantanamo Bay is not in my mind.  The individuals residing there for over ten years have no face, no name and no presence in my life.

Until the other day I was struck by a news story on the radio about a hunger strike taking place at Guantanamo Bay.  The story was brief, explaining several dozen prisoners had chosen to withhold eating starting back in February as a means to draw attention to the fact they have been held without trial for eleven years.  Immediately it reminded me of hearing cases of men who had been farmers, cooks and drivers with nothing to do with acts of terrorism who had been sent to Guantanamo Bay.  HELD WITHOUT TRIAL FOR ELEVEN YEARS.  The news story reflected the government’s position as downplaying the severity of the hunger strike despite admitting eight inmates had been placed on feeding tubes due to their declining health.

I researched more on the situation going on at Guantanamo Bay and was saddened to find there weren’t many news sources reporting on it.  What I was able to discover is of the 166 prisoners the majority have been participating in the hunger strike, most of them have not been Camp_x-ray_detaineestried (85 prisoners there today have been cleared for release since December 2011),  and over 80% of the prisoners had not been captured by the U.S. military in combat.  Of the 779 detainees brought to Guantanamo 80+% had been turned in by Pakistanis and Afghans in exchange for a $5,000 bounty provided by none other than your United States government.  This means no proof, no evidence, just one man’s word over another who was in the wrong place and the wrong time to be turned in as a terrorist.  My stance is not all prisoner’s at Guantanamo Bay are innocent, there are likely some who have bad intentions and justifiably should be punished.  However, for those who have been captured, interrogated, locked up and not allowed an opportunity to return to their homes – it’s sickening.  And this is without even mentioning the reports of beating, torture, abuse and humiliation which the U.S. denies despite claims be substantiated by other investigative agencies.  This has been an eleven year nightmare I have turned a blind eye to, demonstrating tolerance in allowing this to continue.

A hunger strike by the detainees represents a means to an end of the suffering.  An effort to draw attention to the injustice of criminalizing innocent people we have accepted as part of the conditions of being at war or to die and slow and miserable death by starvation.  It is tragic the American people have not been offered the honest facts happening at Guantanamo.  Or is it more related to our judgement and fear related to terrorism which is publicized and overshadows the terror our military has imposed on others?  In either case, this has to end.

We have more to fear in the United States about violent acts of crime committed by other desperate Americans.  Americans cope with poor education, sexual and physical abuse, lack of proper medical care, astronomical rates of mental illness, addictions and the inability to sustain themselves financially.  We are constantly faced with situations to condition fear, anger and hatred of others.  The terror is happening at home with Americans in conflict with each other, yet trillions of our tax dollars have been spent overseas to fight a war with no end in sight and to imprison innocent men at Guantanamo Bay.  Our American troops are terrorized too, their lives and their families lives are forever impacted by the missions they have been ordered to carry out.  Soldiers are returning home carrying the stress of fear and guilt, causing depression, addiction, violence and suicide.  We are more at risk of an act of violence by an American then by an “act of terrorism” from overseas.

I’d like my tax dollars to focus on making America safe by providing for the next generation to learn to love, ensuring everyone has a proper standard of living, education is a priority, healthcare is affordable and social services are easily accessible for those who need it.  Enough is enough, it’s time to take a stand.

If you agree and want to take a stand with me, please share, voice what you know to others especially when you hear someone making judgments without the proper facts.  Silence is acceptance of the status quo, please don’t accept the crimes against humanity happening for the last eleven years.  It’s time to release them from their suffering and to bring our tax dollars home.

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Ha ha – I didn’t say that!

When I first started writing a blog naturally I began reading other blogs too, one of the first I started following was Breezy K’s “The Camel Life.” I couldn’t tell you exactly how I stumbled across her, since web surfing can easily take you away into clicks and connections you had never imagined.  Needless to say, I have been near tears time after time from reading the hilariousness of her twenty something, professional, Canadian life.  Breezy K has not only entertained me with laughter, I have  learned a few valuable things along the way too.

Many people who follow my blog are friends and family, then there are connections I have made through WordPress when things are published, and finally there is the good ‘ole internet search engines.  One lesson I noted from Breezy K is to check the searches to my blog to see what terms people have Googled their way to you. “The Camel Life” has been discovered through some shockingly unique search terms you can see by clicking here.

Searches to Inspired Living KC were relatively common sense and directly related to things I have written about specifically.  And then there was this: my husband makes the furniture stink.

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After the laughter subsided, I figured I had two choices. I could either keep it to myself or tell everyone and reinforce when someone searches this term again they will come here.  Just to be clear, with 100% certainty, I have never spoken or written the words “my husband makes the furniture stink,” (until today) and while sometimes he does make your nose run away screaming stink I don’t remember ever thinking it was effecting the fragrance of our furniture.

I am not clear about which post was related to this inquiry or if her interest was met from reading anything on my blog. But just in case someone is searching now, first I would like to give my sincerest apologies.  It must be a pretty heavy aroma to require an internet search.   I would recommend purchasing some hygiene products for the hubby and some Febreeze for your furniture.  If this does not suffice, consider purchasing some furniture of the plastic variety which can be taken outside and hosed down on a regular basis.  Good luck.

Round 2: Winter Wins

Okay, round 2 of snow in one week is unusual for Kansas City, especially in the amount of snowfall we have seen. Never again will I say out loud “I think we are done with snow for the year.” Because after the simple phrase was uttered from my mouth, nearly 2 feet fell, multiplying snowfall totals for Kansas City’s winter.

Monday night we were buzzed about when the storm should come and how much more could it really snow after last week. When I went to sleep there was only a few flurries and when I woke up it was white out conditions and another 10 inches of accumulation. The street in front and on the side of the house only had a few tire tracks, signaling most of the city rightfully opted to stay in for the day.

05In our backyard a tree branch had fallen square on my daughter’s play house/slide and tore down phone lines with it. I feared they were power lines and quickly text my neighbor where the lines connected to ensure she had power. She told me her land-line phone was not working and her cable was cutting in and out. We made mention of the downed lines to the online city reports, though it’s unlikely we will see anyone out to fix it soon as there are still so many more people without power in the city.

This round of snow was heavier and more hazardous than last week’s due to the weight and wetness. It clung to the trees, sagged branches to the ground and snapped limbs over cars, houses and power lines. Roofs even collapsed from the volume of snow it was unable to withstand. This snow would have been much better for snowball, snowmen and forts too except I couldn’t convince anyone to come out and play with me.

I spent about four hours off and on throughout the morning shoveling my driveway, my deck and my neighbor’s driveway and sidewalk – it’s only fair since it was our tree to knock out her cable and phone, right? In breaks I would go into the house and plead with my two-year old to put on some snow pants and come play. She adamantly said no and I would go back outside again, hoping she would change her mind and want to come along. One time I even tried to force her into her winter attire which only caused a two-year-old fit and mommy failure.

My husband, also home for snow day, stationed our toddler at an open window in the living room. She stood on a chair supervising my shoveling job and jabbered to me loud enough for our whole block to hear. She had enormous burst of laughter when my snow balls hit the screen for her entertainment. And she called “where’s Harper?” to alert me when my only snow pal pup ventured too far from the yard so together we whistled for him to come back.

03By the afternoon my body was exhausted and I couldn’t wait to nap along with my toddler. While she got a solid two and half hour nap I laid in bed where I could view the intersection outside my window. After only moments of relaxation I watched a car attempt to turn the corner and quickly halted in the deep ridges where only trucks and SUV’s had been able to pass before. Two passengers got out of the car laughing at their situation and tried to push forward and back, it was quite obvious with the spinning wheels and ammeter effort, neither the driver or passengers had been through conditions like this before. I went outside and offered my shovel then went to get my coat and helped push the vehicle on wards.

Further interrupting my nap, not long after, I noticed yet another car begin to drive down the same way as the other car and then reverse back to the intersection to get stuck. For a brief moment I wondered if maybe I should just shut my blinds and get some rest, until I noticed this was an older gentleman with no passengers so I went to get my coat. By the time I reached him an unmarked white truck with a plow on the front happened to arrive also except in his efforts to shovel a path for the man’s car he also got stuck. I provided the man with the truck with my shovel and while he freed his truck he explained he was only in the neighborhood to get to his son, I assumed maybe he plowed parking lots or private drives and did not work for the city. The older man explained he usually didn’t come down these roads and his usual street was blocked by a downed tree. He had to reverse back through the tracks to the intersection because another car was stuck and blocking his path further down the street. 04

Quickly everyone was back to moving and getting to where they needed to go, except the white truck with the plow I kept seeing after this. This generous individual might have made his way to see his son, then continued to drive through the neighborhood with his plow down to clear safe paths and intersections. I felt like cheering, hugging and telling everyone in the neighborhood what this kind stranger had done for us. After living in this home for four years I understand our neighborhood streets don’t see city plows for days after a storm, so this random act of kindness meant a lot to me and made an immeasurable positive impact on my neighborhood’s ability to commute safely.

With the streets cleared and the city resuming to normal, there is still some anticipation of conditions being treacherous as the snow melts and refreezes. And until my yard is a muddy mess of melted precipitation, I will enjoy the beauty of the snow-covered trees.

Grassroots for Women & Children

If you examined the laws in India you might consider the country to be progressive in human rights, finally putting person equality before cultural traditions and religious justification.  As a society with its own history of discrimination, we can understand how the attitudes don’t immediately change once a law is put in place and it often takes decades for perception to shift and acceptance to find its place, even then there are some exceptions.

So why is it that despite laws being in place to protect the rights of women and children in India, there is still such blatant disregard for their welfare?  The Child Marriage Restrain Act was established in 1929, yet there are still too many cases of children under 18 being arranged to marry.  This is only one of many issues – human trafficking, child labor, infanticide, and the exchange of a dowry.

A dowry is one representation of why women are not valued in Indian culture, it is a gift or form of payment a women’s family must pay to the family of her future husband.  Although dowry became prohibited by law in 1961, it is still common practice in India.  A daughter being born does not benefit her parents at all, she is seen as needing to pay off a debt from a previous life.  The daughter will be taken care of then a dowry raised to marry her into another family where she will help to take care of her husband’s parents – not her own.  Since a son is valuable in terms of meaning and future roles he will play for the family, a boy is what Indian parents want.  Because of this view gender selection has begun to curve the ratio of male to female in India.  Infanticide happens with poor or rural families who cannot afford to care for a girl, and aborting a female fetus occurs with couples who can afford the prenatal care and want to avoid the stigma of a girl.

The dowry perpetuates the idea of women being less than men and leads to so many other problems.  Despite the laws being established to protect rights, the laws don’t appear to be enforced for the welfare of the women and children.  Beyond corruption in the systems and the desire to hang on to how things have always been, slow progress is occurring because of the lack of knowledge women have.  Most Indian women believe they are nothing without a man, either their dad, brother or husband.  They don’t know what their rights are or where to get help.  They are born into a world where they are looked down upon simply for being a girl and limit themselves accordingly.

One of the field trips our group went on in Kolkata was to an organization creating changes with their grassroots effort.  Child in Need Institute (CINI) focuses on empowering women with the idea if you can help the mother you can help the child.  They have centers throughout Kolkata serving different purposes.  CINI focuses on the health of the mom’s and their infants, educating them about nutrition and conducting support groups.  Health workers act as a first means of contact going door to door in villages and slums to provide basic health needs and resources, then can help support mothers and children in getting in to the CINI offices if further medical assistance is required by nurses or doctors.

We toured one location during a time when there was a free health clinic.  Hundreds of bright-colored sari adorned the women gathering with their wide-eyed infants.  They weighed babies, obtained supplements, and met with nurses or doctors for medication.  Another CINI location we visited was in the middle of the city, it was designated for street children.  Kids could go there for safe overnight shelters or attend evening school.  Even though the Child Labour Act has been prohibiting this practice since 1986, many children work as child laborers and miss out on gaining an education.  CINI provides education to help reintegrate children back to regular schools within 6 months to one year.  Making this program even more impressive is considering the behavioral problems some children have from both trauma and the need to be independent to survive on the street.

Because of the efforts Child in Need Institute, and other programs like it, has made towards bettering the lives of women and children there is hope for changing the culture in India.  With women coming together to gain confidence in how to do things and knowledge of how the laws protect them, attitudes will turn.  And with the next generation of youth pushing to gain an education, they will be different.

Much of the beauty and intrigue of India lies in its cultural and religious practices.  Their dances, food, and tradition are uniquely Indian and should be valued and preserved as such.  I wonder, is it possible for India to maintain their rich traditions and religious practices while omitting the inequality?  Maybe as the women take power…

If you are interested in learning more check out the Child in Need Institute’s website.  They accept donations to continue their work and proudly contribute 90% of donations directly to the women and children – greater than average for an NGO.  http://www.cini-india.org/

This post is part of a series written about my travels to India as part of a social welfare class.  Feel free to look back through previous posts about my experiences or return to see what’s been added.

Progress (or passing of time since last posting) on the yard.

My backyard/snake pit/unattractive heap of debris continues to be an eye sore.   However, there are some items to report regarding the mess since last writing.

Last weekend a random dog walking neighbor knocked on our door.  Mind you, this is less than 10 minutes after laying our daughter down for a nap instigating our dogs to spring into protective barking action at the knock.  The gentleman and his two dogs alerted us to the fact a tree on the side of our house was catching fire from sparks between the branches and the power lines.

Immediately the fire department was contacted and by the time the truck arrived the branches already burned themselves from connection to the power lines or the trees.  Thankfully no flames and no harm came from the excitement, it was just another reminder of the work that needs to be happening on the yard – including a good trim of the trees.

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Secondly, we have been in touch with a friend who owns a landscaping business.  My husband and I contacted him knowing of his business, although knowing nothing of his business.  Let me explain, our relationship with this friend is from a former colleague of mine.  In years past, friends from work would gather with our spouses and enjoy socializing with a few beverages.  So our interactions with this friend are limited to observing his Coors Lights in a collapsible cooler and speaking fluent Spanish to bail out an employee from jail during one such gathering.  After approaching him regarding help reaching our goals, I then checked out his business website…  Holy Crap, the million dollar estates where he was responsible for the stonework on patios and driveways, along with irrigation systems and landscaping were an eternity away from the insignificant yard and miniscule budget our call was regarding.  I gave him an opportunity to get off the hook and not be obligated to a friendly favor, he insisted no job is too small and often small jobs turn into referrals for big ones.  No wonder he is so successful.

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Finally, the last piece of news to report…  Like a teeny bopper with a blushing squeal – I GOT AN E-MAIL FROM PETER WALSH.  After I wrote my post about how he inspired me to look at my house as my life and work on my yard, I thought I would try to let him know.  I looked up his website, directed a sincere message of appreciation and included the link to the post.  Within the week I was startled and jubilant to receive a response as follows:

“Thanks so much for the email Holly and for your kind words.

I love the blog!

Best

Peter”

Okay, it totally could have been someone who works for him and sorts through his e-mail.  I would have still enjoyed a response had it have said “Best Peter’s People.”  I like it better to assume it was my organizing idol, he read my words personally and acknowledged how he influenced my life.

In Honor of Memorial Day.

Enlisting in our nations military are some of the bravest and strongest individuals among us.  These men and women commit to the purpose to serve and protect our country, making personal sacrifices most of us cannot relate to or even begin to imagine.  1.6 million civilians have become veterans in nearly a decade since the war in Iraq began.  While this number is astounding, many U.S. citizens don’t know a soldier, don’t think about the war and don’t recognize how irresponsible it is for us not to support our troops and their families.

In honor of Memorial Day please consider the over 6,000 soldiers who have been killed in combat.  They leave behind parents, spouses, children and friends whose grief of a senseless loss will have infinite effects throughout their lives.  In addition to combat deaths, statistics regarding suicide rates of soldiers should be enough to alert the military and the government to discontinue their efforts and re-evaluate how to gain peace.  Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have to cope with the effects of post traumatic stress related to the devastation they have witnessed overseas.  Troops experience real life nightmares and exist in a perpetual state of alert anxiety to survive.  Many soldiers returning have to rediscover their place within their family and in society, some uprooted again for redeployment.  Many soldiers struggle to find employment in our suffering economy, some statistics suggest unemployment for veterans is higher than 27%.  Many soldiers, 45% of veterans, need some form of services related compensation do to injury or trauma.  And many soldiers need more mental health services then the military is prepared to support, some give up seeking help because of the amount of paperwork required by the VA.  In the last two years suicide rates of soldiers has surpassed the combat death rate.

In honor of Memorial Day please consider the over $4 trillion which has been spent related to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  It’s difficult to say what we have or have not accomplished with these funds because of the war efforts without being hyper critical of our government or cynical about their reports of accomplishments.  What’s not difficult to see is the injustice that has been served to our troops and their families because of the sacrifices they have given in honor of our country.  The physical and emotional pain these men and women will continue to deal with for the rest of their lives and the lack of support to them once their service is over is outrageous.  Even if you are an individual who doesn’t know a soldier and doesn’t think about the war on a regular basis, you are effected.  Every American feels the rippling effects of the senseless violence these brave men and women have witnessed.  We all feel the rippling effects from their families who stress at the absence of their loved ones.  We all feel the rippling effects from the hatred that perpetuates war.

In honor of Memorial Day please consider what you can do to help a soldier or help a soldier’s family.  And to honor those who have been lost in combat or from suicide – stand to put an end to the war and bring our brave men and women home.

My Indian Summer

Yesterday I caught myself wincing from the sunlight when I had forgotten my sunglasses.  It reminded me of the summer I opted not to wear sunglasses.  This was an intentional thought I had in preparation for traveling to India.  I wondered if it may be inappropriate for me to wear a luxury item in this part of the world where so many people went without basic needs being met.  Prior to the trip I even wondered if going without some lenses might help me fit in better with the non-sunglasses wearing Indians.  How quickly one can learn that a minority will stand out regardless of what they are wearing on their face, and a minority with light skin is regarded in a sort of freakish celebrity status in West Bengal.  The irony of forgetting my sunglasses yesterday is that today marks the fifth year anniversary of arriving in Kolkata for my Indian summer.

Within two minutes of reading there was going to be a program studying in India I had determined I would apply to attend.  Along with seven other students, I was chosen to study the social welfare systems in Kolkata, West Bengal.  It wasn’t until after all was set in stone, I began learning about what I had signed up for.  My stress was high as the days led up to the adventure.  I believe part of my anxiety was knowing I was in for a life changing experience; I would witness things I had never imagined and be in more unfamiliar territory than ever before.

Feeding monkeys in Puri, Orissa

I was accurate with my worries.  I had never felt further from home.  Clothes, food, traffic, language, and everything seemed unrecognizable at first.  After about a week and a half I was exhausted thinking I wasn’t even half way through the program yet.  Our group of eight went through fun then turbulent then close again stages having to spend so much time together.  Despite being diverse in age, background and interests, we were all an important contribution to the group as a whole.  The sights, sounds, people and culture I witnessed during this month deeply impacted who I am and how I think about the world.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to travel to India and get an up close look at the systems in place to help an impoverished population.  One of the most important lessons I learned is that even people lacking resources have a lot to teach Americans about traditions, values and happiness.

In the next month I will be posting stories, photos and links to the agencies I visited while in India.  It’s been five years of reflection which I am overdue in sharing.  During that trip I felt a great desire to do something with the information I was gathering and become more of a resource to those individuals who had made such a great impression on my life.

(left to right) Colleen, Julia, Michelle, Kate, Natalie, me, Jesi & Abbey