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Ripple Effects

The Everglades are teeming, and not just with bugs—with ideas. Good, huge ones that are making a difference. I was there for a conference on humanism and was amazed to see how those who carry our culture forward (writers, teachers, lawyers, therapists, artists) are, one by one, positively impacting their own sphere of influence, which then radiates out to the world. Lawyers are inviting other lawyers in their community to discuss how to develop humanity in the courts. Professors are creating new systems of education. As the consummate humanitarian Dr. Daisaku Ikeda said, “A great human revolution in just a single individual will help achieve a change in the destiny of a nation, and, further, can even enable a change in the destiny of all humankind.” What we do, what we think, matters.

This came home to me years ago, when my then husband (a photographer) and I were doing a story for the Los Angeles Times magazine on alternative housing in Holland. The Dutch Tourism Board had arranged a number of appointments for us in different parts of the tiny country. In Rotterdam, for example, we covered a dizzying cube-shaped house that was all the rage. The next day, we were to meet with a woman who lived in a historic windmill outside Amsterdam.

During our briefing in the tourism office, the press relations director told us quietly that the woman’s husband, a physicist, had been killed a year earlier by the blade of the windmill while he was mowing the lawn. She hadn’t run the windmill since. It was a bit of a problem, he confided, because the apparatus must be oiled regularly and set into motion to keep it from deteriorating. But being Dutch—i.e., being sensitive to others’ feelings—he hadn’t mentioned it to her. He was telling us only so that we, too, would watch our words.

Directions in hand, we drove out to the countryside to meet her. It was April and still cold, but signs of spring were in the green fields and newly budding trees. The woman, whose name I’ve since forgotten, was delightful—a virtual encyclopedia of windmill knowledge. Outside on the grassy bank, she pointed to the canal and showed us, with gestures, how the mill converted wind energy to pump water. Then she took us inside. She and her husband had designed an attractive, modern living space within the round (and increasingly small as you ascended), five-story structure: open living room and kitchen at the bottom, bedrooms above, and finally, at the top, the windmill apparatus. As we knelt in the small round space, she explained its workings, holding a tub of lubricant for us to see. And then something in her life shifted.

“I’m going to turn it on,” she said. “You’ve come all the way from America. I don’t want to disappoint you.” The windmill creaked into motion, like an old man getting up from a long slumber. My husband and I exchanged looks. This was a moment we would remember.

Five minutes later, as we were tromping down five flights of stairs, the doorbell rang. Puzzled, our hostess ran to open it. Three neighbors stood in the doorway with packages of cakes, crackers and cheeses. From their homes across the canal, they had seen the blades of her windmill turn. One had run to tell the other. “We’re so happy,” they said as they hugged her, their tears flowing. “You’ve come back.”

Our hostess pulled glasses from the cupboard, opened a bottle of oranjebitters, and we all sat down on the circular sofa to chat, eat and drink. All that afternoon, neighbors streamed in with gifts of food and drink, and after a minute or two, all said the same thing: Thank you to the American journalists who had brought their friend back. We all cried. Peace travels.

Welcome to my blog. It’s about philosophy, the arts, travel (and whatever else moves me at the moment)—and their relationship to creating a humanistic global society. Sure, that’s a lot to ask of a little blog (change the world? sure, give me a minute), but each of us really does make a difference every day. So stay with me.

I’m usually a few years behind in my reading and film viewing, since I try to absorb everything that ever piqued my interest. So thanks to my friend Jen, who visited from Petaluma last week,  I found myself watching two movies that everyone else seems to have seen: Freedom Writers (based on the bookThe Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by the Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell) and Defiance (based on the book Definace: The Bielski Partisans, by Nechama Tec)— true stories, both of them.

I can’t even read the summary of Freedom Writers without tearing up at the victories these black, white, Hispanic, Cambodian, and Vietnamese kids from violent neighborhoods in Long Beach achieved through the determination and gut instinct of their naïve, classy, white, first-year English teacher. The story proves we humans are the same at a basic level—we all want to be heard and understood and we all have potential.

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles played a role in the students’ journey, so Jen and I went there too. I’m embarrassed to say it was my first time, though I live in the same city. I’m sure my thinking had been that I’m already tolerant (a pretty superficial quality when you think about it; tolerance implies superiority), so why go? My thinking was wrong. Seeing the displays made me ponder this segment of history deeply and consider whether or not the past impacts our lives now.  I’m familiar with the Holocaust, of course,  yet coming face-to-face with it, as it were, I was astounded that Hitler’s misguided and ultimately horrific ideas could grab Europeans by the heartstrings and dance with them towards such an unthinkable end.

Twenty years ago a mentor told me I needed to be more decisive in life, more opinionated. (I’m Themis, goddess of justice. I balance the scales.) She said that if I had been a European Jew in the early 1940s, I would have gotten on those trains and ridden with the others to the death camps without so much as a fuss. I did become more decisive, but ever since she said that, I wondered why they went like sheep, without a fight. Yes, they didn’t know. Yes, they couldn’t conceive of such evil. But would you allow yourself to be herded into a ghetto without suspecting something pretty bad was up? And then herded onto trains for relocation? I know it wasn’t that simple. But based on who I am today, I know I would have run like hell for the forest, even if I got killed on the way.

And that’s what Defiance is about. Four brothers in Belarus, whose parents are killed by the Nazis, hide in the forest and lead the Jewish resistance. It’s a story of courage beyond belief. At the end of the war, they lead some 1,200 people out of the forest. To survive the brutal cold, lack of food, and constant need to be on the move—while terrified and sick—and help others survive in the process was absolutely heroic.

So why didn’t I know about them?

My grandparents came to America early in the 20th century, so our family had no experience with the Nazis or war. My parents never spoke about it, although it must certainly have been on their radar while they were growing into adults. But wait a minute. The Vietnam War happened on my watch. I sort of remember the antiwar music, the protests, and the shortage of boys to date (thank you, draft). But I never spoke of Vietnam to my son, either.

Why not? What’s going on here?

Is there a good reason, other than the perspective it gives us, to remember awful times in our history? Some say it’s critical to keep the past alive so it isn’t repeated. (But have we learned our lessons? A definitive no.) Others say that if we keep those memories fresh, we invite repetition. There’s another school of thought, one that Joseph Campbell, one of the world’s foremost mythologists and a professor of comparative religion, articulated this way: In the realm of the transcendant, all simply is, without judgment. As soon as one moves into the field of time, one experiences dualities: good and evil, love and hate, light and dark. If in the realm of source energy all is well, how are we to look at history? At now? What do you think?

Why Don’t We Talk about It?