Thursday, March 18, 2010

Gene Stoltzfus, man of Spring

I've been thinking so much this week about Gene Stoltzfus, remembering some of the things he said during his several visits to Austin in recent years. I've been re-reading his blog posts and the moving testimonials written about him since his sudden death on March 10. I remember liking very much the way Gene often used terms like "enliven" or "awaken" in his talks, referring to the positive growth that peacemaking can engender. He had a way of being able to talk about very difficult things with a gentle and discerning approach, so that one could listen, empathize, and then discover the energy to act.

The first time I met Gene was in the Spring of 2005 when he drove through Texas on a Christian Peacemaker Teams speaking tour. While he was in Austin, he spoke to a peace studies class at the University of Texas, a meeting of Veterans for Peace, a group at the Mennonite Church, with an editor at the Austin American-Statesman and at a bakery with a writer friend, Greg Moses, and me for a story we co-wrote about Gene and CPT (published on Counterpunch).

I liked Gene right from the start. His demeanor made a person feel comfortable and welcome. It was partly the Santa Claus beard and figure, but it was more than that. You got the feeling that peacemaking was something he knew very, very well.

The final time I saw Gene was last October, when he was a guest speaker at the second annual Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience, organized chiefly by members of the Austin Mennonite Church. I took notes. Gene's first words to the assembly were, "Hello, everyone. Thank you for what you are doing!" That was very typical of Gene -- to thank others, even though he was the one to be appreciated for coming so far to be with us.
I also recall Gene talking on that occasion about something I hadn't heard him discuss before. He related his own experience with PTSD, finding much in common with GIs who also spoke at the assembly. Gene's PTSD had developed as a result of what he saw and experienced in Vietnam when he was doing alternative service as a conscientious objector in the 1960's. He said that when he returned to the US, he could sleep only about 20 minutes a night for about the first 6 months back. He had dreams about the dead he had seen in Vietnam. He also had a recurring dream about LBJ and Ho Chi Minh -- that he was trying to get them together, and just when he was about to succeed, they'd slip away. In another recurring dream, he was in a speeding car racing down a hill about to crash. Gene said he'd kept a dream diary for the past 40 years, which he credited as part of his healing.
Acting from conscience has risks. It also, as he said, opens new relationships and closes others. "Fundamental to every conscious decision is saying yes to some things and no to others." Often, the trajectory of our careers changes.
"Conscience gives our imagination a new lease on life," he said. "We think of creative ways to act. Conscience is not captured by the right, the left or the middle, or even by religious people. It's available to all of us."

I've been thinking especially about Gene today, as I've been home, listening to music wafting in all my open windows from SXSW venues in the neighborhood. In the front windows come strains from a stage set up about two blocks down. In the back porch windows come voices, guitar licks and drumbeats from a backyard set-up nearby. I can see people in chairs, listening carefully and applauding generously. I think Gene would like this, too. It's all about creation. Spring is emerging. As long as the earth and we earthlings spinning on it remember our purpose, our creative centers, our lives will be re-leased.

Thank you, Gene. Your courage, compassion, wisdom, creativity and vitality endure.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Doris Haddock, my shero

What an inspiration you were, Granny D. I was thrilled to meet you when you were in Austin three years ago tomorrow for the premier showing of Marlo Poras' documentary film about you, "Run Granny Run." It was my favorite film of that year's SXSW lineup. I've kept this postcard from the film displayed on my desk since then.

My family spent summers near where you were born in Laconia, NH. Your spirit is like the mica flashing from the granite rocks under the surface of the cool, clear Crystal Lake water we swam in as kids. "Live Free or Die" was a motto we breathed.

Thank you for living free and being a model for us, especially for women over 50 -- or 60, 70, 80, 90... Some of those New Hampshire voters said you might not live to the end of a Senate term if they had voted for you in 2004 -- but you did.

Doris Haddock, presente!

"Democracy is not something you have, it's something you do."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

International Women's Day March in San Antonio!

I sure felt in good company today as 6 of our Austin CodePink group took part in San Antonio's 20th annual International Women's Day March. I was moved by the diversity of the crowd. The signs and banners were numerous and imaginative, containing messages that drew together all kinds of social justice issues: GLTB equality, labor rights (especially for hotel workers in the Hyatt, where the march began this year), environmental justice and safety, freedom from racism, greater funding for education and health care, and stopping the militarization of youth. Peace signs and messages were a unifying theme throughout.
Heidi made the bold banner we carried, WOMEN SAY NO TO WAR, and the pink fuzzy peace signs that always draw people. Plus, they make it easy to find each other in a crowd ...

Thank you to Sylvia Thompson for these awesome photos!

[See this good article about the march by Chris Kutalik, published in LaborNotes]

Thursday, March 4, 2010

March Forth for Education

I just happened to be waiting for a bus near the UT campus at noon today when I saw a poster for UT's rally planned in conjunction with the National Day of Action regarding higher education issues. So, I headed over to the West Mall where the event was underway and heard a number of the student speakers, as well as an associate professor of English and our State Rep. Elliot Naishtat (a UT Law School grad). Students had created a lot of good posters and signs, including the large "STUDENT POWER, not the IVORY TOWER" banner held by several students at the foot of the UT tower. At one point, the crowd was led in a march around the Main Building, but then, spontanteously, I think, those at the front decided to march right into the building and up the stairs toward the President's office. The chants of the crowd echoed nicely in the stair well, and some staffers came out to see what was going on. Those at the head of the march encountered locked doors at the President's office, however, so the crowd turned back after taping a number of posters to the doors of the budget office. Back outside, the rally resumed with more speakers. Students called for a tuition freeze instead of a tuition hike, citing their own challenges trying to afford school while having to work and pay living expenses. Another issue addressed was the flawed process leading to the announced closing of the very popular Informal Classes and the Cactus Cafe (my very favorite live music venue in Austin.) Also, several signs (including one I carried) called for UT to extend benefits to domestic partners of university employees.
I felt proud of students and staff for organizing this rally along with many other groups around the country today. Without affordable and accessible higher education, everyone loses.