Cultivating True Security in a Post-9/11 World

There are only 2 kinds of actions to take in life: a reactive one, or a proactive one, and if you want to know which corner you’re in, just climb down your basement stairs and see how much is floating. Drenched as we’ve been lately on the east coast, all ‘state of emergency’ and ‘the sky is falling’ factions have conspired to either congratulate you on your preparedness or illuminate your lack of it.

I ponder my placement on this why-axis as I pull on my rubber boots to survey the damage from yet another weather frenzy. Glad as I am in this moment to be a nomad instead of a nester, I’m even happier that the house I’m temporarily calling home has been tended to: toolboxes on shelves, washer + dryer raised on pallets, no flotsam and jetsam to reel in. Phew. No soup for FEMA today.

Flashing back to 1999, I recall sitting in front of the loan officer at the bank I’d been affiliated with my whole life. I was applying for a mortgage for my first house, and it was proving tricky. Apparently my occupation at the time – waiter – wasn’t what he liked to call traditional. Gratuity-based income didn’t seem to please his rather narrow bankerly mentality, and despite years of consecutive, steady income, tips tripped up his ability to ascertain my cash flow.

“You just can’t count on them,” he said.

“I’ve been counting on them for years,” I replied. “It’s no different from your salary. Look at my taxes – they’re the same year after year. They’re as real as this desk.”

No matter the black and white numbers on the official forms before him, he just couldn’t see it. He was using the wrong mechanism. Security, financial or otherwise, is not something you measure with a calculator or even calipers. Indeed, all we do to protect ourselves out in the big, bad world merely proves it to be an illusion. Don’t be fooled by the necktie. It’s just an expensive, strangling accessory anyway.

I got the mortgage eventually (of course, at a higher percentage rate to compensate for my “unusual” situation), painted the library, unpacked cartons of books, and settled into my new home. It was in this room one morning, in fact, listening to the radio I heard the unfolding news that rocked our cushioned world. Confusion, horror, overwhelming sadness…we all felt it – our sense of safety crashing all around us. From mighty steel…to dust.

In the aftermath, I searched for wisdom and meaning. My philosophizing called into question words like security and patriotism, like my nephew as he learns to speak his world, asking incessantly, what’s this, Aunt Kellie? What’s that called? Why?

In the ten years since, what I’ve come to realize is that security is not collateral to be measured concretely like a regular paycheck or the automobile industry or our ranking in the world or all the crap we stuff into our buildings. It’s nothing we can lay our hands on and say: this technology, this law, this bomb will protect me.

What gives us staying power, the ability to keep calm and carry on is how we proactively position ourselves – the resources we build well, within: Our constitution in the face of great force, whether flood or famine. Our emotional athleticism – being limber enough to feel beyond our own periphery. Our intellectual agility – informing ourselves with multiple perspectives to counteract propaganda (especially from authorities we tend to trust). Our ability to pause – for when the shit hits the fan, we need to move intentionally. And, overall, our lovingkindness – because an open heart always trumps envelopes and embraces fear.

The best place to find shelter…is inside. It’s the strongest, most resilient structure you can create. Just make sure to keep the base(ment) clean, because if you don’t do it now, it’ll be that much harder when you’re forced to.


“If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born.
“Come in,” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.

~ Bob Dylan



Welcome Back, Obama. Yes, We CAN Be Better.


Tragedy.  It shocks us into this very moment – which is truly all we ever have. This moment, right now.  When we find ourselves here, and now, we have Beginner’s Mind, a place of openness, without defenses or preconception.

Tragedy also has the power to bring out the best in us.  I recall those days after September 11th, walking around New York City and its citizens had one big pulsing heartbeat.  Unity was ubiquitous and kindness pervasive.

Listening to Obama’s Tucson speech this morning, I not only mourned for the lives lost and injured in Saturday’s shooting but also… I was filled with gratitude, humility, inspiration.  Here is the Obama that shines, who lifts us up and holds us to a higher standard.  He calls upon us to be better citizens ~ more compassionate and civil human beings.  I will heed his call.  I implore you to do the same.

With my beginner’s mind, I eagerly allow myself to be lifted up and carried.  To  intently carry and uplift, with all the resources and skills I have.

I will abide by my President’s words:  I will expand my moral imagination, I will use my words to heal and not to wound, I will align my priorities with my actions, and I will commit to forging an America that lives up to the expectations of our country’s children.

I will take responsibility for the immense privilege I have to call this great country my own.

Words By Anonymous, Jenny Holzer, And Sarah Palin

Construction Wall, NYC

I’d like to get to know a little about you, dear reader, so here’s my version of a Rorschach test:  What response does this picture elicit?  What’s more significant, the words or the format?  Is this graffiti or art?  Do you care who wrote it?

Portland Museum of Art, Jenny Holzer Exhibit, 2010

We now live in a world where remaining anonymous is easy – there are many outlets to express ourselves without revealing our identities. Do you demand an author take full responsibility for their words?  Are there instances,  perhaps in the comments section of the New York Times or some other online forum, when you don’t own up yourself?

And when we do sign our names, where do freedom of speech and personal responsibility intersect?  Can we place blame for how words and messages are interpreted?  We cannot deny the power of our voice.

What is truth and what is propaganda?  And who among us is innocent?

Poetry by Wisława Szymborska, Projection by Jenny Holzer, 2010, Portland Museum of Art

Nominated For Nobel Peace Prize: Adolf Hitler, 1939

It’s true.  It was rescinded soon after, by E.C.G. Brandt, a member of Swedish parliament.  Stalin, too, was nominated – twice – in 1945 and 1948.  However, Gandhi, high priest of non-violence, never won, although he was nominated many times.

"Truisms" by Jenny Holzer, Portland Museum of Art

I wonder about awards in general and their purposes.   Are they just meaningless arbiters of politics determined by the richest and most privileged?  Are they meant to draw attention to an issue or project, to rev its momentum?  Or does their importance come at the end, as a formal  acknowledgement of effort, dedication and perseverance?  Maybe they are just arrogant declarations of self-importance, at least until you do something foolish like nominate a genocidal madman.  Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, asked after the 2009 winner was announced, “Is the goal of the Nobel Peace Prize committee to reward progress of an individual or to encourage the progress of society?”

Maybe this venerable prize is a bow in recognition to humanity’s pursuit for the dignity of all of us.  When Barack Obama won last year, what I learned about myself was revelatory.  In some ways for the first time, I saw myself as a global citizen.  Although I have traveled and lived abroad, including China, up until that time I defined myself foremost as an American, sometimes proudly and sometimes with  weighty shame.  I felt an affinity with many people I met along the way, yet I never realized the strong nationalistic perspective I wore like a second skin, despite not always agreeing with the administration.  America is number one! – that was a given.  The men who’ve led our country have all rung that bell, until it reverberated in our textbooks and movies and in the dreams of disadvantaged people around the globe.

While people around the country debated the merits of Obama’s new medal, my attention gradually turned inward.  I stopped pushing up against the government and media fear-mongering.  Although I was still mourning the loss of personal freedoms, I began to feel relief.  I felt lighter and freer.  I felt… safe.  Anti-nuclear negotiations and signed peace treaties are undeniably significant, but they never changed how I walked in the world, how I carried myself.  This did, however.  Possibility expanded, optimism exploded, humility and a sense of civil responsibility took root.  No longer was I going to live in the shadow of darkness and arrogance, although who among us doesn’t have fear or hatred somewhere along the spectrum from seed to sprout?  We can’t deny the Hitler inside, any more than we can deny our inner Mother Teresa.  Every emotion exists within us all;  rather it’s the one we call upon in response to an injustice that defines us.  Will we rise above?  Or sink to our base tendencies?  I’ve done both, and undoubtedly, so have you.

This year’s prizewinner, imprisoned Chinese dissident and longtime human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo, has said, “The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.”  These are great and true words, but to stand in the face of oppression takes monumental courage and fortitude.

There are many ways to consider tyranny, for it is ever-present.  It lies within ourselves – the tyranny of addiction;  in our families – the tyranny of secrets and abuse;  in our institutions – the tyranny of hierarchy, of exploitation.  We are immersed in it.  How will we navigate our escape from suffering?  How can we take our cue from Liu Xiaobo?  By remembering we are equally immersed in love, too.

At this week’s TedWomen Conference in Washington, D.C., a transforming and inspiring story was shared.  Aicha El-Wafi and Phyliss Rodriguez, two mothers whose lives are forever intertwined told their tale of forgiveness – Ms. Rodriguez lost her son in the towers on 9/11, and Ms. El-Wafi’s son, whom she hasn’t seen since long before, was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the attacks, and is serving a life sentence.  They met each other because of the tragedy, and formed a friendship in spite of it.  That’s the transformative power of forgiveness.  It liberates us, brings peace in place of strife.

It is not the first time forgiveness has overcome something so horrific, and it is but one of innumerable messages of peace in today’s otherwise dreary soundscape.  Indeed, there are bulletins of hopefulness and reports of spiritual stamina in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles springing up in all corners of the world, even in the unlikeliest of places.    By merely looking for them, you will find them everywhere – gaining in velocity and magnitude.  You are an example yourself, for we all have the seeds of kindness and compassion germinating and blossoming, too.

I have pursued freedom my whole life, in all its forms.  In fact, it has been in the driver’s seat most of the way.  I am exceedingly fortunate that I live in a country and an era where I can do so, for at no other time in history would I be able to live my life as I choose.  That there are still places in the world, in the United States, and in our very communities where the need for people like Muhammad Yunus, Wangari Muta Maathai and Liu Xiaobo to sow their seeds of change means that we are all called to choose paths of forgiveness ~ paths of compassionate action ~ paths of tolerance and acceptance.  Nothing less will do.

Together, we will define global culture.  Our conscious responses to conflicts both large and small will move us forward, away from atrocities and  trespasses and grudges.  Understanding will replace fear.  We will protect each other.  We will all wear medals of peace.

Sculpture by Robert Indiana, Farnsworth Museum of Art


A Cyclist In Limbo

Central Park is a place in which to retreat from the craziness of the city.  There is much there to delight and rejuvenate oneself.  It is not a place you expect to see someone die.

Yesterday, while rambling around the Upper West Side of the park, I saw a middle-aged cyclist lying on his back, motionless, along one of the busy thoroughfares.  His bike was pushed haphazardly to the curb.  His eyes were closed, his skin grey and someone said he was not breathing.  Being Sunday, the park was filled with joggers, strollers, dog-walkers, and fortunately several doctors.  A few stopped as they approached the scene.  One pony-tailed woman in running shorts squatted down, put her fingers to his neck checking for a pulse, tilted her head to the side, and listened for any signs of breathing.  She began to perform CPR on him, while a woman in black sneakers phoned 911 and paced the asphalt.  A large crowd gathered along the bike path.

It took 8 minutes for an ambulance to get there and I thought how often I’d seen cars and cabs NOT pull off to the side while sirens screamed behind them.  Eight minutes are an eternity when a life is hanging in precarious balance.  No one seemed to be panicking, however, and I surmised that perhaps he was alone.  Maybe he said to his wife that morning, honey, I’m going out for a ride, I’ll meet you at Zabar’s for bagels in an hour.  And he never shows.

The ambulance arrives, and the EMTs climb out slowly, like they’re heading into the deli – no sense of urgency, but I attribute that to the CPR in progress.  He seems to be in capable hands.  The woman continues pumping the fallen man’s chest, her arms stick straight, leaning over his torso with all her weight.  Then I see him take a breath – and briefly I feel relief, until she resumes.  If she’s still working on him, does this mean that breath was involuntary, just a reflex, or is he on his way out of danger?  I wish I knew more.  A fire truck roars down the transverse, honking at the crowd to disperse, and pulls up along side the crashed bicycle.  The truck blocks my view and I leave.

Countless people die every year in New York;  that I was possibly witness to such an incident shakes me as only dying and death can do.  Split second upheaval.  Everything changes instantaneously, and not just for the victim, or the victim’s family and friends.  But all of us are affected, whether we realize it or not.  I feel duty-bound now, a social responsibility to be prepared.  What if someone’s life is at risk, and I am the only one around?

I resolve to learn CPR, first aid, the Heimlich.  I want you to do the same because we are all connected and maybe one day, my life will depend on you.

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