Living in this World

Thursday, February 16, 2006

#40 Disposables

I remember, back in the early 60’s, puzzling with my mother over the fate of
an empty aerosol spray can. A notice on the can said “Do not incinerate”
and all our trash that didn’t get burned in the fireplace was stored up for
the trip to the county incinerator. Somehow the compost pile—-the other
place we threw things—-didn’t seem quite right either. Finally we packed it
up with a note explaining our dilemma and sent it back to the manufacturers.
It was a little act of defiance, and one of my earliest run-ins with the
problem of trash.

Things have changed since then. We have a flourishing recycling program in
our neighborhood. Two Saturday mornings a month, people converge from all
over to a common point, laden with cardboard and plastic. Cars line up to
unload stuffed trunks and back seats. Neighbors walk, pulling grocery carts
and red wagons, trash bags of plastic bottles over their shoulders,
cardboard balanced on their heads. It’s like a cultural rite, binding us
together. But they take only two kinds of plastic. The city takes only
paper, glass, and cans. There is so much more.

So it was a thrill to find a place that recycled everything—-seven grades of
plastic, waxed cardboard orange juice and milk containers, styrofoam and
packing peanuts, batteries, clean rags, eye-glasses, electronics, aluminum
foil. Seeing big bales of material there, saved from the trash pile, en
route to being reused, was deeply satisfying.

I hadn’t realized how much my unwillingness to throw things out has to do
with hating the idea of contributing to the volume of landfill. Once I
discovered that somebody could actually do something useful with those old
plastic containers and the worn-out clothes that I had saved for rags
(enough to last a life-time or two), I was delighted to get rid of
them—-just as I had happily parted with piles of carefully saved scrap paper
when became recyclable. I came home from that wonderful center feeling like
I’d solved a problem that had been nagging me on a low level for years.
Finally I could do the right thing.

Yet this solution brought unexpected problems of its own. Where would we
store seven different kinds of plastic? What about packaging that has no
numbers? How can you be sure of the difference between #1, which crinkles
but doesn’t tear, #3 which leaves a white line when folded, and #6 which
crinkles and tears (unless it’s #6 styrofoam, which is separate)? What if
it kind of crinkles? The very next day we had Asian food and I was faced
with Korean packaging that had no number and did not clearly fit any
category. It just didn’t seem fair.

In our attempt to learn and organize (we recognize we’re on a steep learning
curve), our kitchen is now covered with little signs—-and I hate signs.
Having rinsed our glass and cans for years, we now get to clean orange juice
boxes, spaghetti sauce lids and styrofoam cups as well. I found the plastic
wrap from a package of vegan hot dogs in our new #1 bin. It has no number.
Is it really #1? How much do I care? I look longingly at the trash can.

Now, with each piece of plastic that comes into our house calling out for
cleaning, scrutiny, decision and storage space, I feel the enormity of my
collusion with this throw-away culture run amok. I didn’t ask for it.
Never in my wildest dreams did I feel a need for seven different kinds of
plastic—-or packaging that defies access—-but I am surrounded. I think a
group I know that invites people from wealthy nations to share with the
poor—-their mission is to ease the burdens not only of poverty but of
materialism. My trip to the recycling center reminds me of the burden of
stuff that I carry every day.

Knowing now that it’s possible, I will sort my plastic, rinse and flatten my
orange juice containers, separate my metal and plastic lids, save my
batteries and rags, and invite everyone around me do the same. I know it
matters. I know that consumers, defying market assumptions, have been the
driving force behind our fledgling recycling industry. I’m glad to fish all
that stuff out of the waste stream to keep it from going to the
landfill-—but I’m also sad. I’d so much rather be able to go upstream to
where it all gets produced, and just turn off the switch. Then we could
redesign the whole system, thinking together about what we really want and
need, designing it to last, remembering that there’s no real “away” where we
can throw things.

Pamela Haines

A few things that have made me hopeful recently:

Neighbors who watch out for one another.

Old men from the south, new Asian and African immigrants, and urban
professionals finding common ground in a community garden.

Poor women in third world countries banding together to improve each others’
lives with the help of micro-lending projects.

The growth of an evangelical Protestant movement in the U.S whose message
includes action on poverty and the environment.

Winter Seeds

The greetings that I sent to family and friends in Philadelphia last year at
this time are the same greetings I would choose to share again:

In the dark of the year
Good news is all around us
Quietly waiting to be shared.

Seeds of hope abound
Looking for fertile hearts
In which to grow.

Some things that have given me hope recently:

A young Polish woman teaching girls in a remote village in India to juggle
as part of an empowerment program, giving them an edge in a sexist world.

Nine and ten year old boys who have had enough playful and respectful
attention from adults that they can listen respectfully to each other’s
hopes and fears.

Voices from all faiths from all over the world, speaking out for the release
of four Christian Peacemaker Team members kidnapped in Iraq.

Individual states that are taking initiative to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, despite US government refusal to acknowledge the problem.

Pamela Haines

#38 Empty Lots

As I've gotten older I've grown less certain about many things--like who
are the good guys and who are the bad guys, and which simple formula will
change the world. But I've grown in my confidence that our future lies in
loving this earth and all its people. I think of you as part of a great
army of lovers--and I'm glad to be with you.
My offering this month is a poem, and a short list of things that make
me hopeful. As I was riding the trolley to work thinking what that list
would include this time, I wasn't in a particularly hopeful mood, but the
act of creating it shifted my perspective. I invite you to do the same.

Empty lots

Empty lots grow rank
with weeds and trash
construction detritus
appliances, old tires.
A cyclone fence
becomes an obstacle
that those who dump
seem eager to take on
and failed security
is added to the blight.

Neighbors step in at times
create a garden or a park
defend it stalwartly
against all odds
but this is rare.
The city cleans
(amidst publicity)
yet can’t hold sway
against the lack of caring
in the air.

But now a miracle
stronger than blight
spreads from lot to empty lot.
Some wise force
has conjured grass
within a picket fence—
a spell of stunning
power and simplicity.

These peaceful spots
deep symbols of civility
are startling
require a new response
call forth restraint, respect--
a barrier more powerful it seems
than angry metal mesh.

Pamela Haines

Some things that make me hopeful:

The enormous generosity of the American people (and others) in response to
natural disaster--an indication of our true nature.

All the college-age young people who are determined to play ultimate frisbee
just for fun.

Mixed race and mixed class urban neighborhoods with trees.

Two women, one young and one old, growing closer as they plan a workshop for
women of all ages.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, PA

#37 Family Reunion ~ Bedtime

It was a Native American pow-wow at a rural county fairgrounds in northern
Pennsylvania. Tents and trucks were scattered amidst the booths surrounding
the central circle, and participants and spectators mingled freely. It
couldn’t have been a more informal event.

The dancers presented a stunning variety of types and costumes. Some had
features that could have come straight from those old nineteenth century
Indian photographs. Others were as blond and Caucasian as anyone could
imagine. People wore skins and feathers and beads and furs. Men had fancy
tops over shorts and jeans, slacks decorated with ribbons. Women wore
dresses of deerskin, cheap shiny fabric with fringy shawls, modest cotton
prints. Hair was long, braided, short, hairdresser-perfect, wild, dyed red.
No pre-conceived notion of what an Indian looks like could hold up against
this outpouring of individuality. The deeply personal nature of people’s
relationship to their tribal background and native identity was out there
for all to see.

One drumming circle was made up of half a dozen pale-faced young men with
short hair, matching red t-shirts and backward baseball caps—the image of a
small town high school sports team. Yet here they were sitting around a big
drum, utterly intent on their task, with native music pouring out of their
throats and through their drumsticks. The second circle was older, with
native heritage clear in the faces of three of the men. In a different
context the fourth could have been anything. Here at the drum singing, he
could be nothing else.

Yet in the midst of all this diversity, there was a common thread. Everyone
in that circle of drummers and dancers claimed some relationship to a native
heritage. The tribes may have been different, and for some the relationship
looked thin, but it mattered.

Why would that elegant professional-looking woman, those working class
families, that little blond girl, those all-American teenagers around the
drum, choose to claim this identity when they had other choices available?
And why would those for whom choice would never be an issue take them in?
There was a spirit of enormous and unexpected generosity in the air. If you
claim these roots, it said, if you’ve made your regalia and come ready to
dance, then you are welcome to be one of us.

Where were the gatekeepers, the purists? How could the welcome be so
all-encompassing? For many of these people, seven of their ancestors out of
eight had to have been among those who stood by while native tribes were

Perhaps it is like the story of the prodigal son. People want to come home.
They want to be part of a larger family. They want an identity that has
meaning beyond themselves. They want to be proud. In the midst of all their
flaws, they want their goodness to be seen and reflected back. And their
family still wants them, regardless of where they have been and what they’ve
done. In this scruffy little fairground, with no outward sign of prosperity
or success, that welcome was made manifest, and hundreds of people made a
home. It was a most unlikely and heartwarming family reunion.


The workshop will be on
putting your garden to bed--
all gardeners are encouraged to attend.

But wait!
My garden isn’t ready to go to bed.

Carrots, kale and swiss chard
are still going strong.
New lettuce has come in thick.
Turnips just keep getting fatter.

They are awake, alert, full of life.
Why can’t they stay up a little longer?
(And why do other gardens
need such an early bedtime?)

Some things that give me hope--

Empty lots in struggling neighborhoods planted in grass.
The simplicity and power of listening for drawing out each other's stories.
Cuba's hurricane response system and strong neighborhood ties that virtually
eliminate fatalities.
Bogota, Columbia's great network of well-used public libraries.

# 36 Access to the Fast Lane

Our city expressway is among the oldest in the nation, and our local ramp is
a challenge, providing easy access only at the best of times. Yet it serves
as a powerful metaphor on the relationship among speed, access and equity in
our world.

When there aren’t many cars on the expressway, there is no problem. The
spaces are wide, cars on the ramp are already in motion, and anybody can
find a way in. When there’s more than enough to go around, everyone can get
what they need.

When the expressway is so crowded that everyone is already moving slowly,
then those on the ramp simply edge in. The distinction between fast lanes
and ramp has disappeared and it’s like one giant merge. Everyone takes it as
a matter of course that they will have to yield to someone on the ramp. If
we’re all in the same situation, then we acknowledge our peerness and our
common need, and all work together to move forward.

Yet when the expressway is fully of fast-moving cars, getting on from the
ramp becomes an incredible challenge. Most of those who are zooming along
pay no attention to the line waiting to get on. Moving steadily on their
way, happy to be experiencing no difficulty, they are not inclined to make
any for themselves. Even if someone would choose to make space, when the
passing lane is full it is not easy to do. Slowing way down requires
entrusting your safety to the reflexes of many drivers behind you (as well
as incurring their wrath), and still may not offer a big enough gap for the
cautious person who has to proceed from a complete stop.

The more speed some of us have, the harder it is for the slower ones to get
in. In no way are those on the ramp less deserving of speed. Nor do we
have any particular right to our speed; we just happen to be already on the

Equity will only be achieved when the expressway becomes so crowded that no
one has an advantage, or when those of us with the speed decide together
that there are some advantages for us as well as for others in slowing down,
or if we put resources into a massive redesign of the whole system to allow
equal access to those fast lanes.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 9/05

Five things that have made me hopeful recently:

--Farmers and consumers in a rural county outside of Philadelphia taking a
day to talk with each other about sustainable communities.
--A struggling young artist in Nicaragua catching the vision of helping
others, and starting a little art school for street children in his town.
--Last Chance in Texas, a book by John Hubner describing the redemption of
criminal youth in a state correctional school.
--The growing number of opportunities to responsibly recycle more stuff,
especially electronics (check out
--A 22-year-old young man and his 87-year-old grandmother living together
and loving each other.

#35 Sacred Spaces ~ Puppies

Sacred Spaces

This summer I started a support group in my neighborhood, inspired by all
the women I have met through my job with child care workers, and based on my
experience with peer counseling. I wanted a group that would cross barriers
of class and race, where women would listen deeply to each other and be
supported in moving forward with life goals.

I spent time cleaning so the environment would be welcoming. I left work
early to be unrushed and fully present. I brought fresh mint from my garden
for the ice water. My friend brought flowers. I talked about the precious
gift of listening that we can give each other. I set up moments for us each
to appreciate that gift. Reflecting on all these things, I realize that I
was creating a sacred space, building a container for an experience that was
more centered than our ordinary day-to-day lives.

During this same time I have been grieving over the ending of a three week
vacation my family had with dear friends in Poland. The defining element of
my experience there was the irresistible invitation to be fully present with
and open to those people and the environment around us. In a way, the whole
trip was a sacred space. My attention is pulled to what I can do to
maintain that openness with those people—-and to create more of that kind of
space in my daily life.

For many of us, a religious service is the container for a sacred space. It
provides rest and refreshment, anchors us in goodness. I’m still learning
to do the preparation as an individual member that helps keep the container
strong. And we all have much to learn about extending that container
beyond the sanctuary itself.

As I frame the question, other pieces fall into place. It took me a while
to realize the role I’ve played in a small family group in my congregation
in creating and holding such a container—-being present, centered and
welcoming. I think of the discipline I try to use on the trolley. When I
remember to offer a silent prayer of blessing for each person as they get
on, my life goes better. And there are all the times I give someone my
full and undivided attention, focused on reaching for the very best in them.

After realizing what I had been doing very methodically and intentionally
(if subconsciously) with my support group, and in these other ways, a
question came up at work about the monthly gathering of our child care
workers economic justice campaign. We had been experimenting with
different forms—-straight business, training, social hour—-and hadn’t quite
gotten it right. In a way, we were bumbling toward the same idea. What
would it mean to make that a sacred space? I would have to be more
intentional. It would require stepping out of the busy/work/task mode, and
focusing on being relaxed and fully present to each person. I think it
could be done; I think it would make a difference.

Now that I get the concept, I see the potential for so much more. I’m left
wondering if there’s any limit. At home, with family or dishes, at work,
with friends, on the street—-where are the unformed sacred spaces waiting to
be called into being?

Pamela Haines


These young people
Have taken the world on their shoulders.
Already leaders, teachers, mentors,
they see great need,
look for their place.

Yet here
they play
like puppies.
Day in and day out
on the river,
in the woods.
they romp
rush and attack
chase and catch
nuzzle, play
curl up close
sleep in piles.

They are wild to be together now,
with nothing on their shoulders
but each other, soaking up connection
in endless laughter and play.

Pamela Haines

#34 Natives and Aliens

I have finally learned the history of the public flower beds I’ve been tending these last few years at the trolley portal in West Philadelpia. They commemorate our country’s preeminent early botanist, John Bartram, and the plants he recorded finding here. They are all native Americans.

I hadn’t felt free to bring new flowers to these beds, but now I am empowered to fill in the empty spaces. Considering the plants that have multiplied at our community garden and could easily be transplanted, I pick up a little wildflower book to check which are native. No day lilies or chrysanthemums here. No daffodils or tulips. No roses or clematis or peonies. No lilies of the valley. Intrigued, I find a larger book that conscientiously notes each non-native as an alien. Bachelors buttons and cosmos both turn out to be alien. I go for something more obviously all-American and try daisies. Yet they too are listed as aliens. Seriously disconcerted, I check out the most ordinary plants I can think of, ones that no gardener would ever consider. Clover: alien. Dandelions: alien.

Somehow I have to stop and wrestle with this concept of “alien”. It is a hard word, vibrating with unwelcome, with not belonging. Yet these are plants that are deeply familiar. Many were brought here as beloved companions, carefully tended in hopes that they might flourish in foreign soil, along with those who loved them. They are really immigrants, and became un-hyphenated Americans long ago.

Then there are the ones that really are not welcome—like the kudzu vine—the alien invasives. Now there’s an even harsher label. Yet we have native invasives as well. The gardener is always choosing which spreading plants to encourage, which to contain, which to try to eradicate completely. And different gardeners make different choices—a weed, after all, is simply a plant this is not wanted in that particular place and time. Most gardeners have no idea of the country of origin of the plants they love and those they could happily do without.

So, if the concept of alien is bogus, what about the idea of native? Does long lineage in this country make a plant better? As I explore the plant/human metaphor, the big difference that stands out is that we were never in such competition with our native flowers that we felt compelled to push them out entirely. Most flower beds might be filled with immigrants from other lands, but the natives are still around.

Perhaps that’s the reason for these public beds I’ve been working in—to remind us of the vitality of the native Americans who were here so long before us. The beds are beautiful—with violets and black-eyed susans, asters and goldenrod, and many others whose names I have not yet learned. I have loved flowers indiscriminately—not knowing their country of origin—and I would wish that for everyone. But it has been a pleasure to learn about the natives and give them a place to shine.

Pamela Haines

#33 Abundance

Scarcity seems to have a hold on our lives much of the time—scarcity of resources, money, space, time, skill. Whatever we need, it feels like we don’t have enough. The things that we have so obviously in abundance—shoe styles, beauty products, packaging, toothpaste and cell phone choices, TV channels—don’t seem to make our lives better. The true life-giving abundance that surrounds us can be hard to see---yet I’ve had such a concentrated dose of it recently that I can’t help but notice.

I was digging in the big front flower bed of our community garden last Saturday, trying to bring some order to that profusion of life. Just as I was asking an elder member her advice about getting rid of plants that had spread too far, a big yellow bus let out a crowd of would-be gardeners who had come to learn from our model. She told them that we had flowers to give away, and soon I was wrapping plants that had been destined for the compost in newspaper and putting them into eager, grateful hands. Our overabundance was transformed into their treasure.

Soon after, I was spending time with a young woman and her toddler and newborn. As the toddler explored the sidewalk in front of the house, an older neighbor came by and greeted this little family with enormous warmth. He engaged directly with the toddler, bringing a big smile to that serious face, and walking on down the street he turned back to wave at intervals until he was completely inside his door. To me, a stranger to the neighborhood, it was a stunning act of gratuitous kindness—a gift of value to that overstretched young mother, yet one that appeared to leave him no poorer. Our attention is a precious and ever-renewable resource.

At a recent community greening workday I met a woman who lives in the African American neighborhood that lies just beyond mine. She was eager to do more work on a project dear to my heart, and I’ve since made a call and a visit—and acquired a new friend. I can’t help but notice the abundance of potential for human connection in this world.
On a somewhat different note, finding our restaurant of choice closed, my husband and I ended up instead at a little hole-in-the-wall with Japanese food and take-out beer. We were treated to a sweet sermon by a friendly drunk and authentic Japanese working class fare, a first for us in the city (on both counts). If we keep our eyes open and are ready for the most unlikely possibilities, an abundance of adventure is waiting to be had.

Most recently, I’ve had the privilege of attending a conference on regional equity—making our city/suburb/farm regions work in terms of jobs and housing for everyone. Here were hundreds of people from all over the country—activists, funders, politicians, business people—passionate, articulate and effective—all working on issues of equality and justice. What a pleasure to witness this abundance of commitment and energy for issues that are not my direct work but are dear to my heart.

There is real scarcity in this world. But we are also surrounded by life-giving plenty that most of us rarely notice. To address the scarcity well, we need to root ourselves in that abundance.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, PA 5/05

#32 Justice Is Us

One of the things that makes me mad about death penalty advocates is their
position that the state’s ultimate punishment can somehow make things better
for those who have lost a loved one, that people can’t find “closure” or be
at peace without an act of retribution from on high. It seems like such an
abdication of responsibility, such a self-defeating defense of
powerlessness. After all, the state can’t do the work of our hearts; we are
the only ones who can do that grieving and healing and forgiving. As I get
more of a glimpse of the power of forgiveness, I wonder at institutions that
seem set up to shield people from the necessity of learning it.

When I shared this position in a conversation with a friend—-confident that
she would agree—-I was startled that she didn’t. She said that the state IS
responsible for the healing of its members, because the state is us.

I find this a role that I’m pretty unwilling to take on. I like my
formulation much better, that each of us is responsible for our own
healing. Yet it does have that tone of individualism and isolation that
gives me pause in so many other parts of our culture.

So, what is our shared role in restoring wholeness that has been broken by
the hurtful or violent action of one among us? It’s always easiest for me
to get a grip on what I would wish for all of us by thinking about what I
would wish for our children.

If one child has hurt another, I assume that it is my role to help restore
wholeness. I know about how both a bully and a victim need attention. I
know about checking with both parties about what can be made right, what can
be negotiated, and what just needs to be grieved (and I know our tendency to
jump quickly over the grieving to a focus on solutions that often brings
only a momentary and uneasy peace). I know my role of holding out
everybody’s underlying goodness, and addressing the roots of what made
someone lose track, I know the feel, the tone, of a situation that has
truly been made whole again.

I’m willing to do that in controlled situations with small children. But
how to make the leap to grown-ups, and to larger groups where people don’t
even acknowledge the existence of the relationships that might need repair?

I’m reminded of something I read on an e-mail list—-a story traveling
through cyberspace that lodged in my brain—-about a society (in Africa, I
think) that has done this. When a member of their community does something
to tear its fabric, they all gather with that person in a special place, and
they tell him or her all the things they value, all the strengths and
abilities and goodness they see. They do this—-sometimes for a very long
time—-until that person can claim his place in the community again. Then
they can move to repair the other parts of the situation that need

With this image of shared responsibility in mind, I can see the flaws in
both sides of the argument: the state must punish so that the person who has
been wronged can find closure, vs. state punishment undermines the power of
the individual to heal and forgive. If we, as victims, expect the state to
do the work of healing and repair in our name without our participation, we
have given up our individual responsibility. Yet if we, as bystanders, say
that the state is not in the business of healing its members, we have
abdicated our corporate responsibility. They’re both easy ways out--they
both let us off the hook.

We’re not good at being the state. We need to practice on a small scale
before we’ll get it right with murder. This means moving beyond the little
children, and finding the next level of holding each other accountable, in
our extended families, our neighborhoods, our social groups. “We love you
and you did this. You need to look.” “I don’t want to look, but the
reality is that I did this. Will you still have me?” “How can we,
together, make it right?”

I know the field of restorative justice is rich in examples. I wonder how
many of us, like me, have to get over the hurdle of individualism (in
whatever form it takes) to embrace the wisdom and experience that is there
to be found.

Pamela Haines
March 2005

#31 Brand Names

As I was meditating one day on the elements of a good life, it occurred to
me that one of them was immunity to the seduction of advertising, and
freedom from slavery to brand names.

Brand Names

Brand names
are not the work of the devil, I guess
but they seem close—
seducing us to pay more

Yet I do like my bowl of Cheerios
in the morning,
a modest brand name attachment,
my only one, really.
The generics simply
don’t compare.

So I clip coupons
look for sales
argue that I deserve
this one little luxury.

But oatmeal is tasty too
with raisins.
A good bowl of oatmeal hits the spot.

I give myself the oatmeal challenge:
Could I be happy with it all winter?
not pine for the cheery ohs?

Wonder of wonders!
I survive the winter and spring
without a twinge of martyrdom.
In the heat of summer
I experiment,
enjoy home-made granola,
cornflakes (generic is fine)
with fresh fruit (generic too).
I even treat myself
to Cheerios.

They are tasty as ever, it is true.
But they no longer hold
that brand-name power.
Free at last
I look forward to the cool of fall
and oatmeal.

Pamela Haines

#30 The Con ~ Traffic Dance

This column came out in the form of a meditation, so that's how I'm
sending it on to you. I'm also including a little love poem.

I've just finished reading an exciting and hopeful book about local
agriculture (Eat Here by Brian Halweil). It reminded me that, while it
helps to pay enough attention to the problems that surround us that we
understand their structure and dynamics, there is more than enough food for
despair in this world. What really needs watering and loving are the little
signs of hope that are always springing up everywhere if we just take the
time to notice. If you are looking for a regular dose of down-to-earth hope
for this world, check out Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures


I know about cons,
have dealt with my share on the doorstep,
been taken in once or twice
learned some of the signs.

I remember one woman
with an artful smile
and a polished tale that needed just five transit tokens
for a happy ending.
I said I didn’t believe a word of her story
but offered a token
in case the con covered real need.

But what about this man, this time?
He’s been on my doorstep before,
asked for work or tokens to ride the bus.
If this is a con, it is worn by a man
who is also my neighbor.

What is the cost of trusting him?
My good money could just go to drink—
there is a whiff of that smell about him—
and he would surely come back and ring my bell again.

But there is a cost in not trusting him too—
a separation between myself and the street.

I know how detail can coat a con,
make it easier to swallow.
Well, here’s detail enough to drown in.

The story he tells is full of truth
of people who have fallen
and are struggling to get back up
or have always been without
in a system that makes life hard for the poor—
landing job interviews without a phone
getting to the suburbs to work
without cash up front for the bus
jumping through the endless hoops
set up by those who would help.

This story is real—-but is it his?
I wish I could be sure.
I stand at the door and listen and listen
not wanting to be conned
hating my doubts.

In the end I give him tokens and money.
Even if it was all for drink,
he has opened a window of truth,
spoken with authority,
told a story I need to hear.
And the price of not trusting is just too high.

The view is not pretty through this window.
I wonder how I would fare out there—
how to come to terms with a broken life,
be thankful for systems that give something
but not enough,
hang on to dignity,
wake up each day still clinging to hope.
I don’t like to think about it, would rather not look...
We are encouraged not to look all the time.

If this was a con at my door
it was a very little one
to draw me in, invite me to connection,
play on my generosity.

There are much bigger cons out there,
cons with power and wealth and enormous seduction,
cons that plays not on our goodness,
but on separation, fear and greed—
the look-out-for-number-one individualism con,
the pay-to-be-happy marketing con,
the pay-to-live-risk-free insurance con,
the pay-to-be-safe-from-enemies security con.

If I would choose to not be conned
then I need to choose it all the time.
I need to look to the lies beyond my doorstep—
the lies that saturate my consciousness,
make me believe I have a right
to freedom from this kind of discomfort.

Besides, I think the man at my door
was telling the truth.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 2/05

Traffic dance

I love four-way stops--
Together we weave a pattern of cooperation,
a dance among strangers.

Sometimes it is seamless perfection,
steady progress through that age-old system
of taking turns.

Sometimes it is not so clear.
Then we make eye contact
one gesturing for the other to go first,
chivalry (of both sexes)
playing out in the streets.

The rare driver who has forgotten his manners
somehow gets excused.
He is the loser,
outside of the dance.

Pamela Haines

#29 Wanting

I’ll never forget a time I was upset about a situation where my husband didn’t respond to what seemed to me like a fundamental human request. Worse, he didn’t even seem to want to. I felt stopped in my tracks, could see no way forward. A wise friend said to me, “If it’s truly human, of course he wants to, even if he can’t know it yet himself.” Somehow these words transformed my attitude. I didn’t have to rage—or despair—in the face of this wall of non-responsiveness. I could know that he was reaching out to the best of his ability, be confident in his essential loving nature and love for me, and continue tending to my role in the relationship.

I’ve been reminded of that lesson as I’ve struggled to build a friendship with a woman of a very different background whom I met in the course of my work several years ago. We’ve had enough moments of good contact to know that we like each other and would choose to do more together. But it’s been hard going. She rarely returns calls, hasn’t responded to a variety of other initiatives, seems consumed with her own life. It’s a situation in which I could easily imagine getting confused—starting to believe that she didn’t like me, or want me, or have room for me. It would be more comfortable in a way to decide to give up, to cut my losses in order to avoid feeling rejected once again. Yet I’ve been sustained by the sure knowledge that she wants this relationship as much as I do. I don’t know how it happened, but it’s a blessing to be so sure, when all the obvious evidence points in the opposite direction.

This world is crowded with wonderful human beings who want all that is good and human—for ourselves, for others, and in relationship. We just aren’t always in touch with that wanting, or able to act on it. Most of the time most of us live crowded in by the confusion that this difficulty breeds, our sense of confidence diminished by the action (or inaction) of others. We live hedged in by doubts and uncertainties, focused on protecting ourselves from being hurt.

Yet the truth is that we want each other. With this woman, there are a host of barriers, some as simple as the priority of the moment, others that probably neither of us fully understands. On the surface it looks like nothing is happening, that we remain as separate as ever. Yet I see a much more dynamic reality—a wanting each other, a reaching out that just hasn’t been completed. There’s a possibility that we may never make that strong connection we’re reaching for; I don’t have total control of the outcome. But when I keep this picture in mind, it’s not hard to keep trying. It’s what I want to do.

We all make choices about how to invest our relationship energy—and there is wisdom in not pouring it all into places where nothing comes back. But there is a difference between thoughtfully deciding to put our efforts into more promising directions, and cautiously giving out only as much as we get, hedging our bets, focusing on defense and protection.

I’m deeply attracted to a way of living my life that assumes we are all reaching out as best we can, all wanting the best for our world. Then I don’t have to take personally the places where others seem to fall short. I don’t have to waste too much energy in anger and disappointment, or judge my efforts by the immediate response. I can continue to do my own wanting and reaching and not giving up, confident that it keeps me more alive, and that it matters in ways that I may never fully know or understand.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 1/05

#28 Good News & Seeds of Hope


As the boys have grown I’ve spent more time in my little vegetable plot at
the local community garden. (It’s on the site of a warehouse that burned
down years ago—-I remember digging piles of brick and glass out of that
barren place, hauling in anything that could break down into soil.)

This year, letting a few of my non-hybrid vegetables go to seed, I watched,
fascinated to see what kale and leek and lettuce flowers look like and how
they provide for their future, as they have done for who knows how many
years. It was like learning some very old, deep magic. I gathered up seed
pods and flower heads, and in the dark of winter evenings, separated out the
seeds to save for spring.

Their bounty is incredible—-one plant alone produces hundreds of seeds, many
times more than I could possibly use. I am awash in abundance.

(I am noticing seeds everywhere—-just waiting for the right conditions to
take root and grow. My son brought home some dried chilis from the grocery
story that reminded him of those in Nicaragua. We crushed a few, picked out
dozens of tiny seeds, and now little chili pepper plants are growing on my

Lettuce has already come up from seed that I harvested. I feel tuned in to
the cycle of life on this planet. Finding sturdy plants that will thrive
where we live, offer us food, and produce good seed for the next year—-and
the next generation-–is work of such basic worth and goodness that it takes
my breath away.

Magic, abundance overflowing, a living link with past and future
generations—-the harvest from my garden this year has been rich indeed.

Pamela Haines


(excerpted from a report on a community trauma healing workshop,
which has now been offered to more than 500 people in Rwanda, Burundi and
Uganda, by David Zarembka, of the African Great Lakes
Initiative, in Quaker Life, 10/04)

Hearing someone else’s story, you could realize that you are not
alone in the struggle. And when it came to telling others about your story,
it was like something heavy was pulled out from the heart.

In the Rwandan workshops, ten of the participants are Tutsi survivors of the
genocide and ten are Hutu from the families of the perpetrators or, in some
cases, “released prisoners” who confessed to participating in the genocide.
Although most of the people at a workshop are from the same community and
know each other, they have not communicated with each other for almost a
decade. When they gather the first day, each group sits apart, and does not
make eye contact with the others. The most important aspect of the first
day is to develop a secure environment where everyone feels free to talk and
respected by the others. This may be the first time since the genocide that
this has happened.

Before, I was thinking that only having lost family members is
traumatizing. But now I have seen that the wrongdoer can be traumatized by
the horrible things she/he did.

The second day beings with learning good listening skills, followed by
learning the stages of grief and loss and how to come out of the trauma.
Constructive and destructive ways of dealing with anger are presented in the

Myself, as well as my neighbors, have lost many relatives and the
situation we are in is unbearable. But I discovered that the main issue is
that we have been keeping all inside us. We did not want to tell God,
neither our friends about those feelings. Grief can destroy one’s life and
body. We now find new skills. God and friends can comfort me.

On the third day the participants list the roots and fruits of mistrust on a
drawing of a tree—-retaliation, revenge, capital punishment. They conclude
by cutting down that tree. Next they discuss the roots and fruits of trust,
eventually concluding that the bad roots need to be replaced with good root,
which then yield good fruits—-rehabilitation, resurrection.

Participants expressed how the mistrust tree is real in their
hearts, and what has been the consequence of such evil. They openly
manifested their willingness to uproot that mistrust tree because, they
said, it is the origin of all horrible times they passed through for

We have to plant the trust tree in our hearts so that every Rwandan
can eat its delicious fruits.

There is a trust walk during which each Hutu participant is blindfolded and
led around by a Tutsi participant. Then the roles are reversed.

Each time I tried to find something to hold on to, my friend told
me, ‘Don’t worry, I see for you’ and I believed.

It was very touching, inspiring, full of love to see how
ex-prisoners ‘Hutu accused of participating in the genocide’ and survivors
‘of the genocide’ were holding each other and carefully they walked

By the end of these workshops people, who only three days before would have
stayed out in the downpours of Central Africa rather than seek shelter with
their opponents, who would have refused to ask for water if they were
thirsty because they were afraid they would be poisoned, leave talking and
laughing with each other, inviting each other over for dinner.

#27 Finding Common Ground

My husband and I used to have tremendous battles with my father-in-law. How could he be so wrong about so many things?! We would all get mad and raise our voices, dig in our heels and defend our positions. Not surprisingly, nothing changed. I can’t remember how long it was before I got smart and began looking for places where we could agree. As I focused on the things we held in common, he stopped seeming like such a jerk, it got easier to like him, and he even began seeing some merit in our point of view.

I think one of the big problems we’re facing right now in our deeply-divided country is that those of us around the big cities of the northeast and the west coast don’t have enough fathers-in-law in the south and Midwest to do that work of relationship building. There’s a scarcity of both contact and motivation, making it so much easier to just dismiss them all as jerks. (And, of course, the fact that many of them are doing the same in our direction doesn’t make things any easier.)

Without that regular contact it is too easy to fall into the traps of self-righteousness and separation. These are dangerous forms of self-indulgence. One of the defining characteristics of a racist, I’ve come to believe, is being content with the ability of your own world view to explain the experience and behavior of others. As I listen to many liberal/progressive/leftist types being so dismissive of those who have differing experience and views, I worry that we are willing to occupy that same destructive psychological space.

Our country is rife with manipulation and disinformation for sure. There are people in power with enormous blind spots in their humanity and scary agendas. But there are also millions of hard-working, ordinary, decent people who are not our enemy, whom we need to claim as part of us. It is the forces and lures of separation that are the real enemy.

We’ve been served up a plate of hot-button issues on which it’s practically impossible not to take sides. But there are real questions as well. What does the sacredness of life require? What is valuable about diversity? What is the essence of democracy? What are the values that give our lives meaning? What do we believe in deeply enough to sacrifice for? What is at the heart of what is right about this country? What is an abuse of free speech? What responsibility do we have for our neighbor? Who is our neighbor? Who is too different to respect? What is precious about the environment? How much is enough? What will make our children wise? These are important questions, and not ones that have easy Democratic or Republican answers.

Then there is another whole level of questions. What scares you? What makes you mad? What do you grieve? None of us has had enough opportunity to share fully and openly on these levels—and much of the good thinking of our citizenry is beyond our reach, hidden under layers of feeling.

I have a vision of everyone who despairs of a country divided into hostile camps finding someone on the other side, and making a commitment to engage in truly open communication, with the goal of listening, learning and finding common ground. I have a vision of religious denominations making matches between their congregations in different parts of the country, of sister city programs pairing towns in New England with those on the plains, of everybody looking to mine the potential of all their extended family networks. It may be more important at this time in history to make cross-cultural trips of understanding and relationship building within our own country than across national frontiers.

If the majority of people in the United States were persuaded by the message of our president, as they appear to have been, and if we want to shift those numbers, we can’t do it by talking to ourselves. And if we want to move beyond raising voices, digging in heels and protecting positions, we have to stop seeing those who disagree as gullible jerks. If we are really on the side of truth, there is nothing to lose, and everything to gain by going in search of other people’s hearts and respectfully engaging with their minds. We will have to face our fears—but we are already afraid. Rather than using our self-righteousness as a wall to protect us from the dangers that mass at our door, listening for truth can be the armor that takes us safely deep into Republican territory. Maybe this is the historic battle of our time.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 11/04

#26 The Dads of my Childhood


I was back at a reunion of the community I grew up in--and the whole weekend was a pleasure. I loved seeing people that I hadn't seen in five, ten or even twenty years. I loved showing my children the swimming hole and the house I used to live in and all the spots that I treasured in my childhood. I loved visiting with old playmates. But most of all, I loved being around the people of my parents' generation--now in their seventies--who had meant so much to me as a child.

Every time I thought about them--every time I think about them even now--my eyes fill with tears. There are four in particular, four men who lived close by, whom I could cry and cry about.

They were all big--but who isn't big to a child?--and friendly, with a ready smile. Ed Simons was my next-door neighbor, and my violin teacher. I remember the time he presented me with a big old folder of sheet music--so old that it was tattered around the edges--and said, "This is a difficult piece, but I think you can do it." When I took it home proudly to show to my mother she was skeptical, but I was unfazed. The fact that Ed thought I could do it was enough.

Charles Lawrence lived in the next house down--a bear of a man with a deep voice, a rich laugh and a ready hug. He always looked glad to see me, like I made his day a little brighter. He seemed so sure of people's goodness, he was like a rock. The fact that he was African American made my world feel that much safer.

I didn't know Irv Wolfe as well but again, he always had a smile, a greeting, a warm word for me--as I'm sure he had for all the children. Vic Sabini was more in my life than the others. Our families did many things together, and I counted on his good humor, his cheery optimism, his love of his fellow human beings--with me always included.

As I think about it, the role they played in my life was very simple. I doubt if any of them put much time into thinking about me. I'm sure they didn't put effort into planning out ways to make my life go better. What they did was include me in their world. They claimed me as a part of their life, as a valued neighbor in a community that they valued. They always smiled when they saw me, and greeted me warmly. They wished me well.

It was so simple. Yet it meant so much to me. Their warmth and welcome helped me to be rooted, helped me to flourish.

The conclusion is inescapable. As adults we can make an enormous difference to children who are not our own. And it doesn't have to take a lot of time or energy. All we need to do is decide that they are part of our world--smile when we see them, ask them how they are, communicate that we like them, be a consistently welcoming presence.

Of course it helps to live in a stable community where relationships endure over years. One of the real losses of our modern society is the transience that continually breaks up relationships outside the nuclear family. But if we can remember that we make a difference, we can look for opportunities, in our neighborhoods, our religious and social organizations, our extended families, to help children know that they are important and welcome in the world at large. We can be shade trees, like the dads of my childhood, providing a cool, refreshing resting place for the little ones who pass our way--a blessing in their lives.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 10/04

#25 Public Garden Encounters


Someone had a grand plan
for the flower bed by the trolley portal:
lay a layer of newspaper
over the weeds
cover it all with mulch
set in a few new flowers
and leave.

It looked pretty,
fresh and new

Yet the plan was flawed.
The weed
I had been patiently digging for weeks
was hardy.
It crawled happily along
under the newspaper
till it found a crack
then burst forth
ready to take over
once again.

The newspaper blocked my shovel.
I struggled to get through where the leaves appeared,
missed the root
struggled again.

For weeks we faced off.
the weed seemed stronger
under this protection.

hours of drenching rain
gave my shovel access.
I sliced
through pretty mulch and rotting paper
getting to the fat roots
of the problem.

How often does a surface fix
look good
(for a while)
but make it harder
to get at what really needs to change?

(Is affluence
the pretty surface
that keeps us from struggling through
to what would bring real joy?)

Pamela Haines


We’d met before.
He was sleeping behind the flower bed
at the trolley portal
when I came to work.

I felt awkward, intrusive,
but not afraid.
So I dug
while he slept.

When he woke,
rolled up his things
I wished him a good morning
as neighbors do.

The next time
he was leaving as I arrived.
We exchanged a nod
and a smile.

This morning I am not prepared
to find him sleeping so close
hardly concealed by a bush.
Will we always share this space?
I worked here long before
he settled in,
have thought of it as mine.

I tiptoe around
digging quietly
my back to him when I get close,
trying to respect
his fragile bedroom wall.

Then sounds of rustling
the smell of a cigarette
his start of a new day,

Pamela Haines

#24 Gifts

I’ve always known that the opportunity to love is a gift. Loving unconditionally is the biggest perk of parenthood, though it can be obscured by work and worry. I’m seeing that gift these days unadorned—stark in its power and beauty.

You may remember Chino, the young man in Nicaragua who claimed my son as a brother and me, by extension, sight unseen, as his mother. I knew enough to take that claim seriously, and when I met him he was not hard to love. I knew little about his home life—only that it was not happy. Since our common language was my Spanish we couldn’t speak in detail. Intention, body language and tone of voice were as important as words. I would sit outside in the early mornings watching the world go by, he would come over from down the street and I would welcome him to my side.

As I sit here thousands of miles away, remembering those times, I think of how simple and profound a welcome can be—open smile, open heart, open arms. I hadn’t realized how starved a life can be for such a welcome. I hadn’t thought that I was giving a gift.

At the airport, as we were leaving Nicaragua, my attention was mostly for my first born. He was lonely, weighed down by responsibilities, needing places to let down and complain. I did my best to invite Chino to that role, to be a resource for my loved one. His mind was on other things. He asked, rather wistfully, “Vas a regalarme?”, literally, “Are you going to gift me?” I was a little taken aback. I’m not much into presents and I had nothing there to give. When I asked if he wanted anything in particular he mentioned a nose stud, something unavailable in Nicaragua. So my first act as his mother back home was to go the teen rebel part of town, find a body piercing shop and spend good money for strange adornment. The alternative—not gifting him—seemed worse. I sent a loving postcard, included his gift in a letter to my son, and wondered what else I could do. Though I didn’t forget, my life quickly filled back up with all the responsibilities and relationships of home.

Finally a letter came. With my poor Spanish and his poor handwriting and spelling, I wasn’t sure I understood. But I was afraid that I did. He was not happy. He had been drinking, doing bad things. He wondered if his life was worth living. I was the only one he could tell. All of a sudden this situation was transformed, from a sweet cross-cultural claim of connection to the real thing. This young man needed a mother now, seriously, for real—and he had chosen me.

I got help that confirmed my fears of what his letter said, and started wording phrases in Spanish in my mind. Yet how could I—a virtual stranger, at a distance, and with such a blunt and limited instrument— hope to make a difference in this time of exquisitely fragile human need? Thank goodness I got an e-mail from him soon after, offering both reassurance that he was doing a little better and a more direct way to be in touch.

The only thing I had to give was love, so I tried to offer it without limit. I said I loved him more than anything in the world, and with all my heart. When he thought about drinking, could he think instead of drinking in my love? I stayed up late that night, building my sentences, trying to forge our connection and my love into something that he could use.

He was in my mind constantly the next day and the day after. At breaks in a busy work week I thought of other things I might say. I invited him to rewrite history with me, to have me there in his memory, every morning of his unloved childhood and every evening. I used the dictionary, started sentences over when I ran into verb construction I couldn’t handle, prayed that my best would be good enough.

Miraculously, something of what I intended got through. He wrote back, eager, thankful, open. I wrote again, profligate in my love, saying things I would never say to my birth children, where a look or a touch would do. This narrow window of contact required me to offer as big a love as I knew how. Perhaps it was just as well that I couldn’t be subtle in Spanish, and that in its unfamiliarity I could try out a new, more extravagant persona.

We have been exchanging undying professions of love all summer. He says that he has stopped drinking, that I would be proud of him. I feel like I’m living in the middle of a miracle. All the clutter has been stripped away to reveal the simple and unmistakable truth that my love is as nourishing as good food and clean water.

This gift that I’ve received of experiencing love in such a pure form may be rare. I don’t have to interact with all the things that would worry me to death or drive me crazy in this young man’s daily life. And this may be the simplest phase of our relationship. There’s certainly no guarantee of a happy ending (though I don’t believe another person’s happiness can ever be ours to give—and that may be the hardest part of parenting). But the lesson is clear. Our love matters. And we can give all of it away, over and over again, just because it’s there to give. Any way we express it—through our eyes as we do with newborns, through open arms or poor Spanish—makes everybody’s life better. And if we are alert to the possibility of loving in unexpected and dry places, we may get the biggest gifts.

Pamela Haines

#23 Generosity and Invisibility

I was listening one morning to an African American man talk about helping a group of white folks address racism. Someone had said that we white people shouldn't expect black people to help us out all the time, explaining things to us, getting us to see what continues to be so invisible to us. We need to learn to do it for each other. He said that, while it wasn’t his responsibility to help, he had decided years ago that communicating his rage about racism in such situations made nothing better for anybody. By focusing instead on how he could help, he was able to respond to white people's blundering ineptness with power and grace.

Almost immediately after that conversation, in a different experience of invisibility, my husband was biking through Center City and was forced off the road by a big car. The driver was talking on a cell phone and never even saw what he had done. My husband's first response was pure anger at an unawareness that could have killed him. His second was a wish that he would never be as oblivious as that driver. He would choose to see what was going on in the world around him, even if it hurt.

We all want to be seen. At the same time, there are many things in this world, including the generosity of others, that are invisible to us. A friend was telling me of the role he has played in a political group all year--consciously backing the man who anchors and leads the group, bringing warmth and attention to the meetings, maintaining a hopeful and positive tone, making sure that people had fun together. He had chosen to play that role; he was glad to do it. But he struggled with its invisibility. Everyone loved the group, but no one considered that there was effort being expended in making it go so well.

He said that maybe he was learning something of what it's like to be a woman, quietly tending to the needs of the group, intuitively knowing the importance of that work, but weighed down by the total lack of recognition.

And so I thought of the African American man who had decided to be generous with white folks. And I wonder which was harder--his decision to choose generosity over rage, or the invisibility of that choice to those around him. It had certainly been invisible to me. I had liked him, appreciated his accessibility, rested in the lack of guilt or blame I felt in his presence, but I had not seen what lay underneath.

So I am challenged on both fronts: to be generous in the face of unawareness; and to see and more fully appreciate the generosity that comes my way. I like the idea of being generous, and not needing my issues or feelings to take center stage all the time. As a woman, I find that my life goes better when I act on the basis of my love and best thinking around men, rather than focusing on how I’m being treated. Yet I find it difficult to know when a decision to be generous in the midst of unawareness may not be a good one.

I know that if the loving source of my choice or the importance of my work is so invisible that even I can’t see it, we all lose. If I am clear, it may not matter if the recipients of my generosity see it or not (and I certainly don’t want to have an open-hearted impulse transform into a stratagem for extorting appreciation). At such times I can look for support and a place to be seen to others who have made similar choices. At other times it will make sense to look for ways to address the veil that obscures the recipients’ eyes, inviting them to clearer sight.

We are most likely to not see when we are in the positions of greater social power. Much of women's work is invisible to men. People of color stretch in ways that whites rarely know. When we are required to look, it can be painful. I have a working class friend who is very aware of class issues and refuses to be invisible. I chafe at her insistence. Yet since I would choose to be seen, I would choose to stretch to see others and see how my behavior affects them. I would choose to be prodded to grow. Otherwise I stay part of a power dynamic that degrades the quality of all our lives.

I particularly hope that I could take in the loving choice of a man who has a right to be angry and has decided to not direct that anger at me. If I am content with invisibility, I have unaware access to that man's generosity. But I can't know him fully. I can't learn from his struggles. I can't make use of his light to illuminate the parts of my life that remain obscure. I can't give thanks for his gift.

Pamela Haines
July 2004

#22 Neighborhood Art

Though I had walked through this part of the city dozens of times, somehow I had missed this particular corner, with its little mural tucked under the railroad trestle: a banner reading And the Angel of Philadelphia sayeth:, a pastoral scene with human figures portraying strength and love, and a signature, Rainbow Warriors, 1993. Who are the Rainbow Warriors? Who is their angel? What forces came together to create that mural? This is a big city, and I may never know. But I was warmed by the energy that put such a message on the wall.

I remember reading a review in the newspaper of the art in our city’s mural program. The critic was, well, critical. The murals were so heroic. The themes were so simplistic, so one-dimensional, so determinedly upbeat. Where was the complexity, the ambiguity, the struggle with darkness, the angst? Could this really be called art? I remember thinking that, while critics might choose to take a museum trip through ambiguity, darkness and angst, not many of us need more of that confronting us on the street corners of our gritty neighborhoods. There is something right about wanting visions of hope and humanity in our daily lives; my heart is touched every time I see the mural of the two old folks, so clearly in love with each other and their vegetable garden.

I pass by the big mural of Frank Sinatra every week. Hands in pockets, leaning back a little, he croons to the adoring fifties-era fans at his feet. I am not a Sinatra fan, but the mural is in his old neighborhood, and I imagine how it evokes warm feelings for so many people passing by. Somehow it seems fitting and right that he be there, calling forth all that love. Other neighborhoods have different heroes, but the quality of love seems the same. Having such a variety of public portraits, picked by whole communities to look out over them from neighborhood walls, provides a context of respect in the midst of sometimes contentious diversity, and calls out the best in us.

An arts project has grown up in a run-down part of the city—from the vision of one remarkable woman. With her energy and that of the neighborhood children, attracted like moths to light, murals, sculpture, mosaic pillars, flights of fancy have spread like living things, squeezing through alley ways, blossoming out in open areas. I read in the paper of how a homeless unemployed man, not long out of jail, found his salvation in tending and expanding that startling beauty—and claimed his identity as an artist and a healer in the process.

Murals need empty walls, and blighted neighborhoods where row houses have been torn down have lots of them. A heavily-Spanish corner of our northern city now has a look of the tropics—with wall after wall full of bright flowers and lush country scenes, murals in a greater density than any other part of the city. It is so fitting that, for once, those who have the least get the most. (These murals, combined with the vibrant garden project that is reclaiming vacant land there, gives a glimpse of new possibilities for city living.)

Local art brings people together. An artist who works with glass and tile mosaic has single-handedly created a signature look on the walls of one whole neighborhood. His art has overflowed from his studio into a long-vacant lot next door. The owner, now wanting to sell, has demanded that it all be removed—and the neighbors are up in arms. This place of beauty, created by one man, is now enjoyed and claimed by all.

On a recent visit to my son in colonized, poverty-stricken Nicaragua, it was the murals of a small town in the north that most lifted my spirits. We admired many from the revolutionary era, then came across a young people’s workshop where teenagers have been gathering to create art, including big new murals. My son had a long conversation with a passionate intense young man who directed us to their greatest triumph—a block long panorama of the history of Nicaragua. It was a striking testament to struggle and hope, a gift to the town from its youth.

There are many social institutions that reflect back different pictures of who we are as human beings. The advertising world shows us as busily pursuing happiness through purchasing. The evening news offers a sobering portrait of a people prone to violence and victimization, consumed by fear. The art that we create for our communities, in contrast, draws its inspiration from our hearts and our spirits. As such, I am coming to believe, it reflects back to us a picture that is much deeper and much more true.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 6/04

#21 More than a Critic

I grew up in the fifties and sixties, in a period of hopeful expansion of the American Dream. Coming of age in the Vietnam War era, I joined others in probing beneath that complacent surface, and found more and more--in the economy, the environment, our relations to poor countries--that was not well. We were being lied to. I became a confirmed critic. With such powerful voices saying that we were blemish-free and blameless, it seemed vital to shout out the part of the story that wasn’t being told. My conscience was clear; I knew what I was saying was true.

Now we are in a similar tumultuous time, yet I am not the same.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, one of my political mentors came back from a trip to Russia with a perspective new to both of us. “They have no history of volunteerism,” he said, “no experience organizing themselves.” I had never even considered that this was something to be had or not had. Deciding to get together to pursue some common task seemed as natural as breathing. Yet if the state did everything, I could see how citizen initiative might not develop.

This offered perspective on the some arguments we were having with a friend from Poland. Though we had much in common politically, he simple wouldn’t enter in to our wholesale critique of our country’s motives and values, and argued that there were many things Poland could learn from the U.S. Where we were concerned about profit-making gone wild, he saw entrepreneurship and private business initiative as necessary parts of a healthy economy.

At about the same time, a woman we knew from the Netherlands, a fiercely loyal member of the minority language group and an acute observer of oppression, spoke of her love for the United States. “I feel free in the U.S. in a way I have never felt free at home. There is space for me. Everything is organized so closely at home; everyone is expected to fit in.” I had never really thought about this space that seems so natural.

More recently, I was taking a walk in our part of Philadelphia with a woman from London. She appreciated all the things that I love--the architecture, the big trees, the diversity of class and race. But she also saw things that had been invisible to me – in the community vegetable garden that had grown so organically over the years, the neighborhood association’s little park on a corner lot, the plantings along the entrance to a transit tunnel that a garden group had put in. I knew the history of these places, but I had taken their roots, their seemingly natural ability to grow and flourish outside any formal system, for granted. She did not.

Volunteerism, opportunities to make different choices, citizen initiative, a belief that people can get together and make things happen--I’m finally learning that these are not just automatic attributes of any organized society. They are perspectives and skills and attitudes that have grown and flourished in the particular soil of our culture. They may flourish in others places too, but in many they do not. Wherever they are found, they are to be cherished.

So my job as a critic of our society has become more complex--but much more interesting. I still see all that is not well here, in the arrogance of power, the deep inequalities, the worship of private profit that skews our values and our institutions. But now I cringe when I hear hatred and wholesale disgust in the tone of fellow critics. And I find a way to connect with the fierce loyalty of uncritical patriots. I disagree with much of what they say, but something in their passion about protecting treasured values rings true.

A friend was despairing recently about the erosion of rights that has followed 9/11, seeing no way forward. My mind turned to the new Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Why not promote love of the rights it protects? Our democracy is lurching under a two party system dominated by moneyed interests. Yet I would stand with what is right about democracy and explore the exciting potential of run-off systems that could give smaller parties of conscience a real voice.

We need the courage to look clearly at what is wrong in the people and institutions that surround us. But we also need to see what is right in them. All the critics in the world, no matter how accurate or active, are not enough to create change. Ultimately, I have come to believe, we cannot transform anything or anybody that we cannot love.

Pamela Haines

#20 Belonging

I sit on the steps of my son’s house in a small town in Nicaragua watching the world go by, and wonder what I am to do with it all.

I have learned the rhythms of this tiny house that he shares with his cousin--and whichever of the young people they have known from the street project over the years who need a place to stay or something to eat. I sat with him the first morning as he washed clothes on the concrete washboard at back, early in the day when there was still running water, then hung them on the barbed wire line to dry. I have gone to the tiny store-front down the street to buy soap, jam, or a couple of eggs from his neighbor. I have helped cook the rice and beans that are part—or all—of every meal.

He is doing okay. There are others who seem to be doing okay here as well. The car mechanic has steady work. So does the barber, a short old man with unruly curls around his bald top. An old friend has gotten a job at the bank. But what about all these people who are passing by—the man whose horse-drawn cart has such a small load of firewood (I worry about him—and I worry about the trees), the old woman walking by with a small basket of food on her shoulder, the man with a shovel fastened on the back of his bike? I watch a man with a big basket on his head ease it down to negotiate with the woman who sells soap and eggs to her neighbors. How can they survive on such tiny margins? (I’ve heard the official unemployment rate is 75%.)

Humanity streams steadily by: Japanese minivans that serve as little buses, where people are packed in like sardines, often hanging out of open doorways; the big yellow school buses that could no longer pass inspection in our country put to service as the fleet of Nicaragua until they fall apart; cars; motorcycles (carrying whole families); three-wheeled pedicabs; horse carts; ox carts; carts pushed by small children; lots of people of all ages, in all combinations, carrying all manner of burdens, on foot.

I am witness to the journeys of these people who live in of one of the poorest countries in Latin America. What am I to do with what I see? Our son wants to show us more of the country, so we drive to a small city in the north. (I’m acutely aware of the luxury of the car; we watch a bus pull away from a stop with four people still hanging out the back, gradually pushing in till the door can close.) Now I watch the countryside pass by—some cattle, the bare fields of the dry season, coffee spread out to dry (world coffee prices have plummeted—the farmers are in crisis), desolate little schools, all bravely painted white and blue, impossibly poor houses. How can they survive? After only five days here I have seen almost more than I can bear.

Our hotel in Esteli has a narrow courtyard down the middle (full of laundry) with two stories of cubicles in either side, and one common toilet, shower and washing area. (I continue to be thankful for running water, even as I struggle to remember that the toilets can’t handle any kind of paper.) Our eight by ten room has barely enough space for the double and single bed, each covered in mismatched threadbare sheets. It is enough.

Early the next morning, I sit at the window looking out at that narrow courtyard, and find the beginning shape of a response to the question that has haunted me all week—what am I to do? Esteli was a stronghold of the revolution in the 80’s, and there are signs of it here that I haven’t seen anywhere else. The walls are covered with murals—some from back then, others created more recently by a young people’s mural project. There is an ecology-oriented park for children, with broken-down playground equipment and cheerful hand-made signs on the trees saying how each one enriches our lives with its oxygen, shade, fruit, wood. There are buildings that house the women’s employment project, the public health program, the office of the environment. Perhaps I have missed these signs in other cities, but for the first time I feel a sense of community. People are caring for one another, thinking together about the whole.

My body relaxes. I realize that my time spent sitting on the steps watching people pass by, my time in the car, was all linear—one individual, one mile after another. But in Esteli, I have been reminded of the web of connections. The question of what I am to do has lost none of its urgency, but much of its loneliness. People here care too. We all belong to one other. Our lives and the lives of others around us go better when we can remember and act on this truth.

Chino, a close neighbor of my son’s, is an engaging young man, an aspiring artist, struggling with a stepfather who wishes him elsewhere. He has claimed my son as his friend and brother and me, by extension, as his mother. (How strange to have acquired a nineteen year old in the blink of an eye. Yet I notice how it matters. Both of us are prepared to love, to make up for lost time. We look for opportunities to be together, labor to understand and be understood.)

Roberto, who grew up on the streets, is now getting help to be an auto mechanic. He pours over an engine diagram in a magazine my husband has brought down, eagerly explaining internal combustion principles to my now-bilingual son. Donald, also from the street project, is studying to be a construction engineer. He dreams of being an architect, doesn’t have money for food, hates the constricted opportunities of his country.

My son has had me as a mother all his life; Chino has just claimed me. Personalities have begun to emerge from the throng. Roberto is eager, Donald is mad. There are more. They are all mine. They are all ours. We are all theirs. Whatever we do, we do it belonging to each other.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia 4/04

#19 Insignificant Acts ~ Sighting

All she wanted from me was a book.

Her people in Africa are caught in a brutal civil war. The rebel leader gathers his army by kidnapping children, terrorizing his own people. The government is only too glad to repress the population brutally in response--glad for an excuse to go after this tribe. This is my closest view of such struggles, though I know they are happening all over the world. She sits in my kitchen, here for a visit, tired, discouraged. People don't sleep in their beds, seeking rather the safety of the bush. My bed is safe, my life orderly, my food secure--I have more of everything than I need. I want to do something dramatic, something that could even out the differences in our circumstances--and all she wants from me is a book.

It is a book on the history of the Acholi before 1800, maybe the only book in existence devoted to her people's story. "If we'd had a written language we would have been able to pass more down. Maybe if we understand where we've come from we can change the situation."

How can a book stand against such forces of destruction? It seems like the thinnest of threads, the faintest of hopes. But this is what she wants, and she doesn't have a credit card. Of course I will help her get this book.

Luckily it was published by the University of Pennsylvania. I call the bookstore. Not in stock. I call the publishing house. Out because of the storm. I call back later, going through interminable preliminaries before hearing that it is out of print and unavailable. Uneasily, I try our old home computer; I have never shopped on line. I am nervous and confused by the busyness of the screen--find the book, but can't seem to register to buy it, am deterred by a window cautioning that I am about to send sensitive information through vulnerable airwaves. It's like pouring time into a black hole. Finally I give up. I can't order the book. The one thing she asked of me, the one thing that seemed too utterly insignificant, but was available to me because of my privileged access to the systems of advanced technology, I can't do. I weep.

She calls to inquire. I knew she would. She is tenacious. (How else could she have built a school of 1500, starting with a handful of war orphans under a tree?) I say I will try the more powerful computer at work. I go in early, struggle again, and finally succeed. Almost giddy, I order five copies from bookstores all over the country. (How many are out there? Have I cornered the market?) She is pleased--not surprised--and impatient for them to arrive. But now the delay is out of my hands.

They start to come in. She fingers a book lovingly, talks of having copies at the library of her school, giving them out in her extended family. She wonders how many I could buy for her, at what price. (She would definitely corner the market if she had the means.) Her hope has been assaulted so many times; this is one way forward that has not been blocked. Her eyes gleam with purpose.

I wonder if it is even a good book. What, in the early history of her tribe, collected by an American ethnographer, will make a difference for the future? But she reads, and talks about it, about names she recognizes, movement from place to place that has meaning. There is something here for her.

It is so small. I cry for her people, her country, her continent. I've done what she asked. I'm glad. At the same time I can hardly stand to be making such a pitiful contribution. I remember, and am comforted by, the words of my friend Walter Wink: We must let all the pain of the world pass through us. But we must not attempt to mend it all ourselves. Rather, we must do what we are called to-and not one thing more. Then we can, very modestly, anticipate the impossible.

I have been called--pretty directly through my friend--to put this book in her hands. It is not enough. In the face of the need it is totally, ridiculously, insignificant. But my lesson is to remember that it is enough for me, for this moment. As I do this one small thing to the best of my ability, even as I cry for all that is wrong and all that is needed, I am keeping open my path forward. It is hard. But living in this world is hard-and not taking it in is harder.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 11/03


As a species
the mail carrier
is a loner
marking his own territory
making his rounds
in solitary self-sufficiency.

Yet here was a pair
male and female
each marked with that distinctive
uniform and bag
moving side by side
down the street
up steps together
and back down
as if inseparable.

A remarkable sighting
An invitation
to turn what we know
on its head--
to imagine
the impossible.

#18 Taking Up Space ~ February Thaw

I had found the last seat in the back of the trolley and was idly watching as a pleasant-faced young man worked his way in my direction. He found a friend across the aisle and as he turned to chat, I saw his backpack barely miss the head of an old man sitting in front of me. Every time the trolley swayed and the young man moved to balance, the backpack moved too. In horrified fascination I watched as it swayed away from the old man’s head, then came back closer, bumped lightly, swayed away. The old man hunched forward. The friends’ conversation continued uninterrupted. The pack swung. Finally I could stand it no longer, and called the young man’s attention to what he was doing. He turned immediately to apologize, and adjusted his position. Clearly he had been unaware. He apologized again as he left the trolley, and I should have been satisfied to let it go.

Yet it stayed. Somehow that backpack had become a symbol for me of all the well-intentioned people in this world who take up more than their share of space, and are cosmically unaware of their impact on others. It has stayed with me as well since this issue of taking up space pulls me hard in two very different directions.

On the one hand, I have a goal of taking up more space in my life. If you think of all of us having a certain allotment of space in this world—the exterior of our bodies, how far our arms and legs extend, the air space around us, I tend to be pretty conservative. I can squeeze into a small bit of a bed or a couch, am pretty quiet in groups, and spend more time in my interior than on the borders I share with others. Yet I think it makes sense to venture out from the safe fortresses some of us have built deep inside. It makes sense to explore our frontiers, live out to our very edges, inhabit the places where we overlap with and bump up against others. I think that’s the only way to be our full selves, to be as big as we were meant to be. And, for a conservative like me, that might means risking the mistake of taking up space that isn’t mine.

On the other hand, it is painful to see the unawareness with which people fill up space that doesn’t belong to them, or that clearly needs to be shared. I am particularly conscious of the space that wealth takes in this world, the resources it uses, the size of the footprint it leaves on our earth. I would not wish to take up so much space that others are left without enough. And I think we, in the richest country on earth, do that all the time without even knowing it. We’re certainly not trying to hurt anybody. And, unfortunately, the solution is not as easy as taking off the backpack and stowing it between our legs. But I think we have to start by noticing, and by being willing—if only in principle at this point—to be content with our share.

So I’m left with the challenge of stretching all the way out to my edges (and maybe beyond at times, if that’s what it takes to find them) and, at the same time, of not taking up more space than is mine. It sounds impossible, but I have a hunch that if we all rose to the challenge we would find that there is enough for everybody—maybe not to have all the stuff we are used to, but to stretch and breathe freely and have a big life.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 2/04

February Thaw

Coming home
the commuters look different
They have sprouted with flowers
bright packages
Edges soften
Hearts peek out
Love that must be
there every day
made visible
And I
hardened foe of consumerism
am touched
this Valentines Eve.

#17 Reclaiming Labor

The shovel digs into the pile. After 27 pushes and lifts, abs and arm muscles working, the big wheelbarrow is full. It's enough to mulch five or six feet of path. Each trip, from the pile of wood chips in the parking lot, through the gate of the community garden, down the narrow path that separates the front flower bed from the vegetable plots, gets a few feet shorter. The November day is warm, the red of the setting sun shines in the windows of the houses along the street, each trip from a slightly different angle. The wood chips are fragrant. It takes about twenty loads in all (I wonder how many lifts of the shovel). By the end my muscles are protesting-but what a satisfying job!

The next week I read in the paper that, along with $48 for cell phones and $40 for cable TV, average monthly expenses for Americans now include $59 for gym membership. We work long hours to afford labor-saving devices on the one hand and gym memberships on the other, when real work is out there, waiting to be done.

I can imagine how wasteful my labor must have looked. Certainly some device, a fork lift-type automatic mulch spreader could have been invented (or maybe already has) to save my muscles all that hard work, so I could be privileged to use them at expensive specially-designed muscle work-out machines at the gym. (I remember a friend wondering how much better off we all would be if everybody got out every morning and swept the sidewalk in front of their house. We'd get the exercise, the fresh air, the experience of community, and free cleaning, all at the same time.)

A good carpet sweeper works as well as a vacuum cleaner but you have to put a little weight into it. A push lawn mower requires the push. Stirring a cake by hand does work that arm. An errand on foot or bicycle can get the heart pumping. Why have we decided that this is bad? How is it that our lives will go better if we exert less energy?

Somehow labor has gotten a bad rep-as something people do if they're not smart enough to work with their brains, or rich enough to avoid work at all. Throughout the ages greedy rulers, slave owners and industrialists have been-and still are-happy to use people up and throw them away. Long hours of hard physical work have worn people down, worn them out. Perhaps the experience of generations has worked its way into our psyches; our desire to be saved from labor has assumed mythical proportions.

Yet what are we being saved for? Theoretically we could conserve that energy and turn it to something that we care more deeply about. Some of us have chosen for exercise. So long as there is no smell of work, so long as it doesn't accomplish anything, we will exert to the utmost-run, lift weights, climb rock walls or mountains. Probably more of us are seduced by the societal message that relaxation is the ultimate goal, and end up squandering our saved energy in front of the TV or restlessly searching the malls and the internet for well-being.

Exertion and relaxation are two halves of one whole-and somehow we are being short-changed at both ends. Our culture is our enemy here; our labor-saving economy is enslaving us anew. It offers too few ways to exert our bodies that produce results that matter, too few forms of relaxation that provide true rest. I would choose to do more shoveling, pulling, lifting, sweeping and stirring-and more just sitting on the stoop watching the lighting bugs and welcoming the night.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 1/04

Others' thoughts on play:
Re making your own fun. Just walking down the street with my Deaf friend Mark is fun because he keeps looking around and commenting (with his hands) on the beautiful or interesting things he sees. He has had to stay indoors a lot of his life because of having a twisted leg, so he gets great joy out of walking down the street. Young children do that too, I guess.

For me, "connection" is the key concept. The way I think about it (and this is not new) is that what we perceive as the separateness of external reality is an illusion. Underlying this illusion is the deeper reality of Oneness. The more we mirror the underlying spiritual reality by finding authentic ways to connect with each other, we find more love, joy and peace because we are getting in touch with your real natures as spiritual beings. Now that's exciting.

My book of garden poems, "Garden Encounters" is available for $5 at 919 S. Farragut St., Philadelphia, PA 19143

Homemade Play

My son has discovered a group that plays Capture the Flag every Saturday afternoon behind the Art Museum. Ages range from seven to twenty-five. Whoever comes late joins the side most in need. They race around, capturing and freeing, bopping each other with homemade foam swords, having a glorious time. It is a miracle. With no adult supervision, no fees, no leagues, no uniforms, no defined teams, no championships, no ranking by age or skill, no exclusion, this is play at its most human.

We have a music-loving friend who hosts an annual sing of Handel's Messiah--pushing back furniture, borrowing chairs, and inviting everyone he knows to bring their voices--or other instruments--and goodies to share. We group by parts, the less secure singers looking for strong ones to follow. Sometimes people volunteer to do the solos, sometimes everyone joins in. We stumble throught the hard parts, but when we stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus, chills run up and down our collective spine. Together we create a magical evening.

I see these both as acts of cultural revolution. People have made their own fun. Nobody has had to buy a place in the league or a ticket to the show, or a set of rules made up by somebody else. All that is needed is a little planning, a few props, a generous invitation, and an expectation that the fun will be had in everybody playing--or singing--their hearts out.

Whenever we play together just for fun--in games, music, theater, art, whatever--and count on each other as our resources, we are claiming and growing a space that is free of consumerized entertainment. This is a precious space, where it is possible to breathe deeply. Finding it these days can be like pulling barbed wire from around our bodies, scraping grime off our eyes. We all need this space. As mass culture closes in, our children in particular are dying for it. Such play is worthy of our time, our energy, our creativity, our priority. It is a profound expression of humanity, and hope for the future.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 12/03

#15 Books through Bars

Witness to Humanity

The part of the exhibit that caught my attention was the collection of envelopes--regular business-sized envelopes covered with art. Some of them had been used to send mail, with the art surrounding address and stamp. Others just provided a blank four by nine inch canvas. There were restful pastoral scenes, a lovely close-up of a child with a missing tooth and engaging grin, cute cartoon figures, symbols of love and ordinary life--hearts, birds on fences, cars. One of the most striking was an image in black and white, with the envelope on end, of hand over hand reaching out through prison bars.

I had never thought about it. If you're stuck in jail with virtually no resources, endless time on your hands, and little affirmation of your humanness, an envelope can become a precious and powerful vehicle for self expression. The exhibit did not call me so much to be a critic, or to indulge my love of art, as to be a witness--to respond to this hunger to be seen as creative and individual human beings.

This was my second up-close contact with Books through Bars, a local initiative to provide educational materials to prisoners. Theirs was the address on these envelopes, full of letters requesting books. The exhibit grew out of a boxful of saved envelope art, and a desire to share it more widely. My first encounter, an afternoon responding to the letters inside, led me to a poem. So art, witness and time, inside and outside, come together in an affirmation of our common humanity.

Books through Bars

The letter said
I'd like to be a pilot
and I need to know more about my diabetes
and I want to learn Spanish
Can you help?

I read the return address
checked what the prison would allow
and went to search the shelves
It was pouring rain
the collection of used books was carefully raised
off the flooded basement floor.

The health section had cancer, AIDS, asthma, heart atack
I found hang gliding, astronomy, rocketry--
close, perhaps, yet impossibly far
The Spanish texts were all hard-cover
forbidden in this prison
I ended up with one little Spanish phrase book
a pitiful offering to a hopeful man
In my long search
crouching in puddles
straining to read titles
I'd grown to care
My note, saying how sorry I was
seemed criminally inadequate.

The next letter requested a Bible dictionary
a way to prepare for the GED
someting to help with sex and relationships
He said God bless you.
I found a simple math text
(hardcover okay)
and a book on writing
There was no Bible dictionary
but I fingered a book of devotional essays
The author, it said on the back, was true to her midwestern roots
would she speak to this man?
The self-help section was full of possibility
what were his struggles?
what did he need the most?
it seemed a momentous choice.

This was a more hopeful stack
not what he asked for
but maybe something he could use
I wanted the best for this man too.

So it went all afternoon
letter after letter
men wanting to read,
to learn
to make the most of endless time
I never found just what they wanted
I tried.

Imagining that a long-awaited package
might just bring more disappointment
seemed more than a body could bear
But some would see value
have doors opened
For some it would matter that I had tried.

And as I sloshed through those basement aisles
doing the best I could
for each man
my heart was opened.

Pamela Haines

Thoughts from others on column #14, On Love and Grief

I love grieving. It's not only a source of energy and vitality, as you say, it's a source of fundamental hope and creative thinking. Like anger, grief is a deep recognition in the wrongness of something. Without doing grief work, I end up cycling in the same cycles, following a path of hate and vengence, or subtly assuming that I also should burn-out (like my potential mentors before me). Without what I call anger, I move into my middle-class complacency -- okay with slowness of justice work, and focusing on personal health. I think nobody should remain content with justice taking its time: we should want it now. (And, I believe we can't get trapped into thinking it will come now, or not being present to the moment we live in.) What anger does for me is indicate urgency -- a valuable contribution to keep us moving, keep us involved, keep us close to the hurt itself.

I'm angry, but also very, very sad. I didn't think that it would be this way when I got old. I guess I had hoped for a relaxed, peaceful, reassuring old age. No way. As a nation we seem to be bent on doing all the wrong things. The fallout abroad is obvious. How it splinters lives and relationships at home perhaps not so obvious; but the pain is. And the impact on children is very much a cause for grieving.