Living in this World

Friday, July 28, 2006

#46 Sock Bunnies Save the World

Sock Bunnies Save the World

They’re cute little guys, softly stuffed, with round bits tied off for feet
and tail at the toe end, button eyes and nose in heel end, and two long
cut-off floppy ears.

It was a week-long morning program for ten and eleven year olds where they
were encouraged to explore widely with trash and found materials and play
games without equipment, as children in any part of the world might do. We
had lots of odd socks in the environment, and on the second day one girl
discovered that our high school staffer had learned to make sock bunnies
from her mother. They spent 45 minutes together on the floor, stuffing an
old sock with the fuzzy stuff that a cattail turns into when it gets old
(I’d brought along a couple of dozen old cattail tops picked from the edge
of a pond), then tying off legs and tail with bits of string, carefully
selecting three old shirt buttons, and learning the simple skill of sewing
them on for a face.

At our closing circle, when everybody shared what they had made, she proudly
introduced her sock bunny to the group. The next day there was a cluster of
girls around Megan and the bunnies multiplied. By the following day they
had leapt the gender gap. One little boy who had been able to do nothing
but talk of Game Boy for days was now the proud papa of his own little
bunny. The girls had gone on to use rags and bits of wood to make bunny
beds, bunny clothes, bunny houses and bunny babies. The supply of cattail
fuzz had been decimated and every sock with a good heel was gone. Yet as we
were getting ready to close up for the week, we had to deal with the urgent
request from another boy to scrounge enough materials and find enough time
to make one last bunny.

They were so eager, so proud of what they could create with their own hands,
so tender with their babies, so ready to love. How could so much come from
so little? These were the simplest of cast-off materials. What if every
child in the world had access to an old sock, some loving attention, and the
lore of our mothers? It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. What if every
child could make a bunny? (And what if they all had access to a tree to
climb as well, but that’s another story, as is the soccer ball made from an
old rag covered with rubber bands…)

I think of all the children of the world. There are those who are powerless
in the face of destitution—-who have nothing, and see nothing to hope for.
There are those who are becoming ever more powerless and passive in the face
of affluence, who are force fed entertainment and information, and denied
the opportunity to be actors and creators in their own lives. They are all
craving more, some because they don’t get enough and others because their
diet is so rich in addictive junk that nothing can satisfy for long.

I think about power. If you can’t be powerful within yourself, then you’re
vulnerable to promises of power without, and this tends to be the power that
dominates and destroys.

As these children I was with created more and more sock bunnies, fully of
love and joy and simple pride in creation, I caught a vision of the bunnies
multiplying, as bunnies do, and maybe, just maybe, saving the world.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia 7/06

Some things that have given me hope recently:

The Network of Spiritual Progressives, started by Rabbi Michael Lerner as an
alternative to the Religious Right;

All the people in the US who have become passionate about the plight of the
children of Northern Uganda;

Consumer demand beginning to drive the sale of recycled-content office
furnishings--just as it drove the growth of recycling;

A report from a Bolivian grandfather about the spirit of hope that is abroad
in his land in their new indigenous president Evo Morales.

#45 Milestones, Pride and Equity


It was a ceremony marking the graduation of 128 formerly out-of-school youth
from a very special high school program, YouthBuild. The evening was
profoundly moving, yet there was an undertow that has been pulling at me
ever since.

This was an over-the-top celebration. Even at the quietest of times it was
never quiet-people were just too excited, too charged up to be still.
Pride was palpable from the very beginning, as the graduates walked single
file down the center aisle to the front of the hall. Everyone stood to
cheer and cheer-for each and every member of the class, and for the class as
a whole. The director started by inviting all the parents to stand and be
recognized for their role in this great accomplishment, then all the other
family members, then all the friends. There were dozens of awards. Clearly
the ceremony had been planned to give recognition as widely as possible,
giving lots of people a chance to shine in their own way, to be seen for
their own special strengths. Getting to this point had been a whole group
project, and the sense of community was strong-among the students, between
students and staff, between students and family. The message was clear: if
I can do this, if you can do this, if we can do this, we can do anything. I
can't imagine how a graduation could be better.

Yet the whole context was wrong. Nobody should have to work that hard to
get a high school degree. (I learned afterward of how staff would bring in
bulk supplies of bread and peanut butter so people could have something to
eat and still stay in school.) Graduating from high school guarantees
nothing in this society; it is more like staving off certain disaster than
providing opportunity. Each one of those 128 who were sent off so proudly
is enormously and painfully vulnerable. They now have the right to step out
onto a perilous path toward economic security where one false step or one
unexpected set-back can easily knock them right back into the abyss.

My high school graduation couldn't have been more different. Though few
people knew our names, everyone in our class of 500 was expected to
graduate. Everyone in my family was expected to excel. This path had been
cleared and smoothed before me. It was well marked and well traveled.
While the journey required plenty of hard work, it was far easier to stay on
the path than go any other way. My parents, complacently marking this
milestone on my educational journey, serenely confident in my future, noted
the expected honors with due pride, took a few pictures, and went on with
their lives.

What kind of a country do we live in, where the same amount of effort gets
such wildly different results, where graduating from high school is as
normal as breathing for some, and an almost impossible attainment for
others? How can we get some better guarantee that hard work, determination,
and playing by the rules will keep us off the streets? And how can we all
get the chance to work that hard, be seen by a community that cares about
us, and have a room rock with pride in our accomplishments?

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 6/05

Things that have given me hope recently:

The power of laughter.

What a good ex-president Jimmie Carter is.

The 30-40 million families in China who have solar water heaters on their

A note I got from a member of this group, Cassilde Ntamamari in Burundi: I
want to ask you if you know other friends who would be interested in
following our work at and inform them on my behalf.
Please keep on praying, let's do our part , and stimulate the good
intentions, since there are many ready to contribute, to make our world a
better place to live.

#44 Wealth and Poverty; What is Enough?


When you travel from the richest country in the Americas to one of the
poorest, the issue of wealth and poverty cannot be avoided. Yet in a way,
they are very relative terms.

Take my experience last month in Nicaragua. I stayed in a quiet
neighborhood in a mid-sized city. Streets were cleaned and trash was
collected. You could count on regular morning delivery of newspapers, milk
and fuel. There were convenient corner stores, the outdoor market had a
great supply of fruits and vegetables, and the supermarket was within
walking distance. Inexpensive taxis and cheaper public transportation were
easily available. Our house had electricity, a stove and refrigerator,
bathroom and laundry as well as ample living and sleeping space, all
surrounding a lovely patio full of flowering trees, where you could always
find shade, and often a breeze. Computer access was convenient and cheap.
People worked and went to school, laughed and played, and hung out with
family and friends. It was safe to be out at night. All in all, it was a
very livable city.

From the perspective of North American wealth, however, it was an impossible
place. Public transportation was a fleet of decrepit school buses,
cast-offs from the US, and microbuses into which people were shoehorned till
there was barely space to breathe. Many families’ means of transportation
was a bicycle—-carrying two, and often three, people.

Our stove was a two-burner table top affair, but gas was expensive and beans
got cooked in big batches over a fire in the corner of the patio; a man
pulling a load of wood up the street was the source of fuel. You had to
bring a pitcher out to the man with a bucket on his bicycle to get your
milk. Fast food came from a corner of your neighbor’s living room, and our
diet was a variation on beans and rice.

The toilets couldn’t handle toilet paper, and the water ran only
erratically, sometimes only an hour or two before 6:00 in the morning.
Clothes were washed on a concrete washboard and hung out to dry. You had to
go to a cybercafe to check your e-mail. Work was hard to come by, signs of
poverty everywhere. The heat was incredible. Being out in the sun was
exhausting and air conditioning was nonexistent. There was no escape from
the dust.

It would be good for this city to have more wealth. The schools are in
desperate need of resources and the cost of uniforms and supplies is a
barrier for many families. The public health system is under-funded. They
could use a good public library, more amenities by the lake, a movie
theater. More jobs and more income would help, so men didn’t have to pull
heavy carts from the farms into market, up and down the street, so parents
could ensure the basic health and well-being of their children. Maybe they
could even increase the public shade.

But, at its heart, this city works. It doesn’t need to be transformed to a
western model to be a good place to live. And the fact that it does work
calls into question some of our assumptions about the good life.

Are washing machines and twenty-four hour running water necessary for our
well-being? Are we deprived without video games and an infinite choice in
food products? Is it so bad to spend free time in the evening sitting out
on the step with our neighbors? Do we all need our own cars and computers
and air-conditioning to survive? If these people can manage without air
conditioning, then anyone can! Alternatively, if it’s a necessity for a
good life, then logically, they need it too, and we’ll have to be willing to
share out the world’s fuel for everyone.

As we move toward the end of the cheap fossil fuel era, our wealthy country
is going to face increasingly hard choices. We may need to study the models
of livable neighborhoods and communities in poor countries as we consider
how to retool our lives. Perhaps what we have to give up will turn out to
be excess--stuff we never really needed in the first place.

Pamela Haines
May, 2006

Some things that have given me hope recently:

Friendly and welcoming rural Nicaraguan families.

The sale of Philadelphia's newspapers from a profit-focused absentee
conglomerate to a group of local investors who love the city.

Three young men who went to Darfur for an adventure and came home
permanently, energetically and creatively committed to the children of
northern Uganda.

Prisoners who start vegetable seeds to be raised by urban gardeners to feed
the hungry.

My Nicaragua travel letter:
I went to Nicaragua to help our son Tim decide whether to take a job
with the house-building/workcamp program he's been helping out with. They
offered him a job starting a new site, near the same city he is now, working
closely with this US woman, Bonnie, whom he counts on and admires so much.
But he didn’t want to make a wrong choice and isolate himself from life up
here, so he asked if I would come down and take a look at the whole
situation and help him decide. What a pleasure! (I couldn't have decided
to go just for a vacation--it felt like an expensive luxury--so it was great
to have it be part of my job as a mom.)
Of course there’s way too much to tell... The first morning he rode me
out to the house-building worksite on his bike—-on dusty roads way out into
the country. I was surprised at how easy it was to balance on the bar, but
very conscious of how much extra work it was for him.
These people in the little rural community of Los Lopes that he’s been
helping to build houses for were so warm and open, and it was such a treat
to have access to their lives through their friendship with him. They’re
real people: Rafaela, Juan, Luisa, Andrea, Temporita, Ervin... It was
hard to be around people who had so little that one sickness or loss could
send them over the edge—-hard to have so much in that context. I also
became very aware of the difference between the young men Tim’s been
supporting, who have been surrounded by violence and drugs, crime and
dysfunction, and these hardworking, generally functional families. It makes
it seem all the more important to halt the migration from the countryside to
big city slums.
So I lived for a week in an ordinary house on an ordinary street in an
ordinary mid-sized city, spending a lot of time doing what ordinary
Nicaraguans do. What a gift! I struggled with the heat, and wished for
more soft places to put my body (cushioned furniture and rugs are
impractical because of all the dry-season dust—-thank goodness for
hammocks). But I was proud of the time I was the first one up and checked
to see if there was running water, ready to fill the barrels in case there’d
be no more water till evening (or 36 hours later, as happened one time).
And after I’d washed my clothes at the concrete tub/washboard that is part
of every house, I felt like I’d passed a rite of initiation. It was an
experience trying all different kinds of food, walking around the city in
the cool of the evening with everybody’s living room spilled out onto the
street, being at the market, squeezing into public transportation. One time
we climbed into the back of a bus, standing amid crowds and big bags of rice
and I thought, “All we need now are the chickens”—-and I looked down and
there they were. So many stories I could tell...
We spent a lot of time with our informally-adopted son Chino. I got to
watch him paint a picture that I then took home to sell (he’s good!) and see
the art class he’s offering to neighborhood children, and have intense
conversations about religion. I have a bigger, fuller picture of who he is
now, which I think well serve me well in the future (and it’s clear that
we’ll be in each others’ lives forever).
And what a pleasure to be with Tim! We had long talks, and he ended up
deciding to offer to work for them for one year, starting in December, and
spend the fall between home and Grammy in Kutztown, with a goal of looking
for leads for meaningful work up here, so it doesn’t seem like Nicaragua is
his only choice on into the future. I’m so proud of him I could bust.
It was good to get a better picture of Bridges (the group he’ll be
working for), to join the house-building process, spend time with Bonnie,
sort donations, get a sense of their accomplishments and conflicts. What a
challenge to be the interface between the richest and (almost) poorest
countries of the Americas—-a microcosm of the opportunities and pitfalls in
redistributing wealth. I came home recommitted to playing what role I can
in creating a global order that works for everyone.
So, the visit was just right. And I spent my whole day on the trip home
writing articles (on the city, on Bonnie, on the people in Los Lopes, on
Tim), which helped to ease the transition and make it more than just an
exotic interlude in my wealthy North American life.

#43 Spending and Saving


I struggle at my little plot at the community garden with
waiting too long to harvest my vegetables. I’m always waiting for them to
grow just a little bit bigger, or saving them for later when I might need
them more. But if I wait too long, they get bitter or tough, or fall off
the vine. It’s particularly hard in the spring, when everything edible
that’s made it through the winter seems like a miracle. You don’t want to
just gobble up your miracles!

I’m not a big spender in general, while I’m a very good saver,
so I guess this attitude toward the garden shouldn’t surprise me. But it
really doesn’t make sense. As I promise myself this year to pick generously
and go for the goal of using everything up, I find myself pondering the
larger question of spending and saving. Are there other things that are
better spent than saved?

Well clearly, for starters, there is our time. One of the
problems with all the emphasis in our culture on technology that helps us
save time is that it offers no help in making wise decisions about spending
it. Yet if we don’t choose to spend our time today, it’s wasted and gone.

When we think about energy, spending often has a negative
connotation. We have expended too much, or it is spent. Conservation is
seen as wise. True, it’s not good to push our bodies beyond their capacity,
or deny them rest when they have been assaulted and need to recover. But in
a way, our energy is like our time. If we don’t make choices about how to
spend today’s supply, it’s gone forever.

Then there is caring. Again, the inclination to be protective
and spend it cautiously is strong. We want to put our caring into safe
investments, where we can count on it yielding good returns. This is
understandable, given how often it has been abused, starting when we were
very young. But from another perspective, it is our nature to care, and
withholding today will not increase the amount we have for tomorrow. If we
can get access to that well of natural caring, there is an endless supply
(though we’ll probably have to grieve as well, to keep the channels clear).
We can care hugely, every day, and there will still be the same amount left.

Money may be the hardest. Good arguments can be made for both
spending and saving. But I wonder, if we put our attention to being big
spenders in other ways—-in time and energy and caring—-maybe the money
choices will be easier to sort out.

In the meantime, I plan to harvest this season with more thought
to the present. Yes, I’ll try to spread out the season and think about what
can be preserved. But then I’ll pick my vegetables when they are new and
when they are in their prime and not wait. I’ll use them up—-enjoying each
mouthful—-and put my faith in the seeds and the land’s ability to produce

Pamela Haines

Some things that have given me hope recently:

People I know, and others I don't, who are having success in creating a work
life that gives them time with their children.

So many people of all religions who enter into the transformative heart of
their faith, rather than using it as a tool to judge or divide and repress.

All the people who dig holes to plant trees--and all the trees they plant.

#42 Just One

Just one

One water bird on the Delaware
flapping in oil

Oh, my heart
stay open for this poor bird--
it is just one.

One family cold, without a home
in a rich land

It is not my greatest wish
to be numb.

One tropical tree, sustainer of life
felled out of greed

We were born to love
and grieve in times of loss.

One scared young man set up to kill
brave to the end

No matter who claims him
I know he is mine.

One starving child in a land far away
facing the end

I cannot save this troubled world,
but surely I am big enough
to hold this one
and weep.

Pamela Haines

Some things that give me hope:
--People who become more thoughtful and reasonable as you listen to them
--Early childhood program directors, working with limited resources in a
for-profit chain serving the poorest parents, passionately committed to the
well-being of children and hungry for help to do a better job.
--Car share programs that are popping up all over the country.
--Indigenous Bolivian peasants being represented by their country’s
president for the first time.

#41 Connections


This story begins in the 1970’s, when a man from the US (Chuck) met a
political refugee from Uganda (Abitimo) at an early childhood training
program. They made friends. He invited her and her children to play at his
family center. When her children were grown, the danger was past, and she
was ready to go back to Uganda to start a school (anther whole story), he
wanted to help. He thought with her about how to use the peer counseling
practice she had learned with him back in Uganda. His wife (Pamela) worked
with her to design fundraising materials. They stayed in touch with her
grown children (especially Aaron and Patrick), and Chuck helped Patrick
through a hard time. When Abitimo was back in the States for a longer period
of time, they gathered some supporters (including Barbara) to listen as she
prepared for the challenges of returning to a home wracked by civil war.

Fast forward to 2004. Barbara tells Pamela that there was an op-ed piece
in the paper by a reporter about that part of Uganda. (Uganda has never
been in the paper.) Pamela writes to the reporter (Carolyn) asking if she’d
like to meet a local Ugandan family with strong connections to home.
Carolyn is interested, and Pamela introduces her to Patrick, Aaron and
Aaron’s new Romanian wife (Anna). Carolyn gets Abitimo’s number in Africa,
and ends up spending a month in northern Uganda. She learns about the
school Abitimo has built, and also meets a young woman (Jennifer) who was
terribly burned in a civil war atrocity. Carolyn calls Chuck for background
information for her series, which has a prominent place in the paper in the

Readers (like Davida) respond. They want to help Jennifer. Carolyn
answers each one. A hospital offers to do surgery. Carolyn arranges for
Jennifer (now 15) to meet Abitimo and stay at her school in Uganda while
they arrange for visas. Finally it is all worked out and they fly to the
States together.

Fast forward to a month later, early 2006. Chuck and Pamela have invited
everyone to their house for dinner. They finally meet Carolyn in person,
along with her husband (Tim) and five-year-old daughter (Olivia). Patrick
arrives and helps Chuck in the kitchen while Pamela plays with Olivia, who
is sorry that Patricks children weren’t able to come. Anna brings Abitimo
and Jennifer who have been living in the family house (Aaron is at work).
Davida doesn’t arrive till dessert.

Over dinner Pamela learns that Tim and Carolyn have also lived in
Cambodia, Macedonia and Rwanda. It is the first step in a promising new
friendship. Carolyn jokes with Jennifer, in their limited half dozen common
words in Acholi and English, with Abitimo and Anna joining in. Withdrawn
and silent when she first arrived, and terribly disfigured by burns,
Jennifer laughs and laughs. (Tim and Carolyn have gotten to know her on the
long weekly drive to the hospital with Abitimo. ) The young people get tired
of table conversation and go off to play together. Olivia is eager to show
Jennifer the letters of the English alphabet that she has been mastering,
and Jennifer is eager to learn.

The grownups get to work to revive the corporation that the family had
set up years ago, to create a non-profit to support the school and the work
for peace in northern Uganda. They want to raise money to pay Abitimo, who
is near retirement but doesn’t yet qualify for Social Security. Chuck leads
the discussion. Patrick has gathered together all the old documents. Davida
offers the help of her lawyer. Pamela, and then Patrick, zip around the
corner to the African video store to make copies. The group drafts a mission
statement and clarifies a to-do list. Dinner ends with appreciation for new
friends and old, and for this opportunity to do something together.

When this story began, there were just two. Now it includes not only
Abitimo and Chuck, but Pamela, Patrick, Aaron, Anna, Carolyn, Jennifer, Tim,
Olivia, unnamed doctors, Davida, Barbara, and everyone’s friends and
families, spreading out wider and wider, all around. This description is
the merest summary, the barest plot line. There are whole chapters, filled
with other people, that haven’t been told. And the story is far from over.
Maybe it is really just begun.

It has grown through a collection of simple, ordinary acts—-greetings,
offers, requests and invitations: How are you? I’m pleased to meet you.
Would you and your children like to come? Can I help? Did you notice that
opportunity in the paper? Would you like to meet somebody? Can you help?
I’d be glad to do what I can. Can I give you a lift? Would you like to
learn something I’ve just learned? Shall we see if we can do this?

It is a story of people being human—-reaching out to make connections
with each other, taking those simple ordinary acts seriously. In the
process of reaching, they discover that barriers of age, language,
nationality and race are paper-thin, no match for our common humanity and
our deep underlying desire to have this world be right.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, 2/06

Some things that have given me hope recently:

Automotive students from a poor urban school (West Philly High) beating
Honda, Toyota and MIT, among others, to win an international alternative
energy car competition.
A group of twenty people who care about the environment each sharing
something they love about this earth, then going around the circle again
because there was so much more.
An older man from an inner city neighborhood speaking of the community he
has nurtured there, through horses and rabbits and vegetables and Boy Scouts
and listening and youth looking after their elders.
A young woman who has risen above her racist upbringing, while still loving
and valuing her family.