White House Response

Recently, I wrote a letter to President Obama apologizing for the embarrassing way he was treated when he visited families of the Umpqua Community College shooting here in Oregon.  Today I received this thoughtful response, and I thought I would share it.

Dear Mr. President

This is a letter I am sending to President Barack Obama.

Dear Mr. President,

I know I speak for not only myself, but for many other Oregonians, when I offer a deep, heartfelt apology for the way you were treated when you visited our state.  As as native-born Oregonian, I'm embarrassed and ashamed by one of the most unpatriotic things I have ever witnessed.

Planting Our Gardens by my friend Neal Lemery

This blog post was written by my friend Neal Lemery, one of the wisest people I know.

Spruce Eagle Poet: Planting Our Gardens: This was a week of planting flowers.  A few days ago, I’m able to tend some flowers in our town’s community garden. Over a cup...

Tillamook for Love!

Ah, small town life.  I live in a town where, if your house catches fire, a loved one dies, or you have a flood (which is common here), people will flock to your side with offers to help.  Maybe it's because our little community is geographically isolated.   We have the Pacific ocean on one side, and steep mountain passes and treacherous roads on all three other sides, which are prone to downed trees and landslides.  We have learned to take care of our own here, and we pride ourselves on it.  For several decades, our local high school has done a week-long charity drive that raises huge amounts and has received national attention.  I'm proud of our neighborly spirit and resilience.

We also have a darker side.  Our community, like so many other Oregon communities, was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold and a "Sundown Town," one that enacted a local ordinance requiring all black people to be out of town by sundown... or else.  It's been well-known that Tillamook isn't the safest place to be different, i.e. black, Hispanic, non-English speaking, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), Athiest, or other non-Christian, just to name a few.

Many intolerant attitudes remain, and I'm not so proud of that.  In 1996, a black student ended up leaving Tillamook after having hate speech scrawled across their locker and being otherwise harassed.  Other local high school students were outraged, and created a county-wide declaration and held a march in support of the student.  Still, things are slow to change.

For the last few years, I have been involved with the Rural Organizing Project, a statewide organizations that works in small rural communities to stand up for civil and human rights.  About two years ago, I began coordinating an LGBT and Allies monthly social, to bring people together to create a community where all felt safe.  It quickly became apparent to me that Tillamook is a very closeted community, still shrouded in fear and the kind of misinformation that supports oppression.  I have long dreamed of a gay-straight alliance being formed at our local high school.  We need to do far more than practice tolerance; we need to actively support all members of our community.  Every kid has a basic right to a safe educational atmosphere, free from harassment and bullying.  I have been on this soapbox for some time, and trying to find ways to build that support and create an active local voice for equality.  But it's hard when people don't feel safe being who they are.  

Something happened on Tuesday, May 19th, which was a game-changer in my sleepy little town, and it started with one teenage girl.  

For months, two local men have basically terrorized downtown Tillamook.  They are aspiring street preachers, whose method of preaching includes screaming abusive and hateful things at passers-by, yelling that people are going to hell, and calling young girls and women whores (like a teenager who had just left dance class with her parent).  People had tried to reason with them, only to be screamed at abusively.  Local businesses, who need all the business they can get in our depressed rural economy, have been none too happy at having potential customers driven away outside their doors.  It came to a point that people largely ignored them, out of disgust and embarrassment.  Until Tuesday.

They began their usual diatribe on the sidewalk, by the parking lot of an eye clinic and a dance studio full of children.  This time, their focus was on homosexuality.  They were yelling about gay sex, and one was holding a sign that read, "homo sex is a sin."  Makaila Ragan, a local high school junior, heard them outside her mother's place of work, and decided enough was enough.  With her mother's permission, Makaila made her own sign, which said, "I <3 Gays."  She bravely walked out to the sidewalk and stood silently next to the two men, holding her sign.  She endured being yelled at and verbally abused.  Her mother was also verbally abused.  Horrible, hateful things were said, but Makaila stood her ground and did not return hateful words.

Within minutes, she was joined by one of her friends from the high school, then another, then a crowd began to grow, and stood surrounding the two men, while holding signs about love and tolerance.  I heard about the protest at my office right after a few of her friends had shown up and got a picture:

Makaila and a few friends about 5pm.

The crowd eventually spilled across the street to take up two street corners, while others drove by honking and shouting their support.  Makaila and her friends vowed to stay on the corner until the two men left, and that's what they did.  She stood on the corner with her sign from 4pm to 10:30pm that night, until they left.  Here's a picture from  8:45pm:

In a small town like Tillamook, we like to joke that if you do something, everyone in the county will know by the end of the day.  While gossip can be annoying, in this case it was a blessing.  More than one pastor came down to the corner to lend support to the group.  Local business owners thanked them for doing something about what had become a big problem.  Parents and loved ones of LGBT people came down to express thanks and support.  A Facebook group (Tillamook for Love) was created that night, that now has over 3,000 members from all over the globe.  Local papers picked up the story about the petite, brave young woman who handled two bullies with class and wisdom.   Her story has now been told in several national publications, as well as international publications, such as London's Daily Globe.  

There have been follow up rallies, as well as planning meetings, by the cohesive and committed group of people who wish to change community norms.  Our rally on May 23rd had over 75 people, some who had traveled from other areas, and a pastor and followers from a local church.   Not everyone supports us, but more people do than we expected.  

It has created a heated conversation in our small town, mostly around the line between free speech and hate speech.   My focus is on two other issues: One is the difference one person can make, with a simple action.  The other is the fact that there are many more caring, open-minded, non-judgmental people in Tillamook than any of us previously realized.  And now we have found one another and will make things happen.  We know who our allies are, there is a multitude of us, we are organizing, and we aren't going to back down!

We aren't going to put up with abuse, especially when it targets one group of people, often children, who are picked on already.  We are going to be meeting, holding conversations, planning, coordinating, and backing each other up to speak out when we see hate in our community.  Visitors come to our town, to enjoy the gorgeous coastal scenery and try the famous Tillamook dairy products.  Instead of being greeted by two men screaming foul and vicious things "in the name of God," they will be met with tolerance and kindness.  And our kids (speaking of God, God bless 'em) are creating their own culture at the high school.  They are organizing, gathering together, and supporting each other.  We adults have a moral obligation to support them in creating a safe community.  We can all be deeply proud of these young people, who are completely committed to love and kindness, when it would be so easy to respond with anger and vitriol.

Statistics show that one in three teen suicides is an LGBT youth.  There's something wrong in our society when someone is bullied to death, or wishes to die because someone has made them feel so wrong about being who they are.  We want our kids to stop bullies, and apparently we have taught them well.  They have banded together to stop adult bullies in the streets of our town.  They have even formed what I like to call a response team to show up with signs, using the Facebook group to alert when the men are spotted.

A friend of mine referred to Makaila's actions as a "Rosa Parks moment." I guess my point in writing this is that these "Rosa Parks moments" don't happen in a vacuum.  Her friends showed up, the community showed up, in my native town where I would have been less surprised if folks had thrown tomatoes at her.   I grew up and went to high school here and saw the deeply ingrained racism and homophobia.  I know many people who left this town for those very reasons.  I can't be the only person giggling at the irony of Tillamook being hailed as a place of tolerance.  At the same time I'm giddy with the potential for change, and I can feel the change in the air.  

Of course a Rosa Parks moment, while beautiful, doesn't excuse us from maintaining action.  If anything, it's a call to action.  There will be resistance,  and tough choices.  One young friend of mine has lost his job for participating in Tillamook for Love, on his own time.  There is still intolerance, and a solid need to remain steadfast in our common mission, which is create a safer and more loving community.

Our youth are ready to take this on.  Are we ready to stand alongside them?

Each one of us has a circle of influence, whether it is our church, our friends, our workplace, online, or any other place we have a presence.  Come join the group, be part of the conversation, and part of positive change.  We have a responsibility to not let these young people down, as well as their children and grandchildren.  What a golden opportunity!   If it can happen in this little dairy town, it can happen anywhere.  Let's make it happen! 

Check out the Facebook group: Tillamook for Love!

A Family Disease

My precious daughter has a crippling illness that could very well kill her.  It is progressive, and creates chemical changes in the brain and affects behavior.  It has destroyed her ability to parent her children, or have healthy relationships with the people who love her the most.  It has alienated her from loved ones, landed her in jail repeatedly, and pretty much destroyed her decision-making process.  It is destroying her from the inside out, and all we can do is watch this train wreck helplessly.

This disease is called addiction.  It kills countless people each year, yet it's one of the few diseases that carries a personal stigma against the sufferer.  People feel comfortable calling people with addiction horrible names, such as tweaker, doper, loser, piece of shit, and many other hurtful things.  I have even been attacked, as her mother, as it must have somehow been my fault that my daughter has this "flaw."

I'm guessing that nearly every parent of an addict has spent dark hours questioning where it all went wrong, examining every parenting mistake, every slip from perfection that may have caused hell on earth for their child.  It's confusing to vacillate between grief, hope, anger, fear, shock, guilt, worry, resignation, and many other emotions toward that person, often within the same day.  It's hard to look back through old photos and try to pinpoint something that maybe I missed, some clue I should have seen.  It's a very efficient way to slowly go crazy, yet I still catch myself doing it.

I heard a quote on a page called, "I Hate Heroin" on Facebook that said, "You didn't cause it, you can't cure it, and you can't control it."  This has helped some but there's still that "mom guilt," the worst guilt of all.  Defying all logic, a part of me continues to question what I did wrong.

Like any other disease, no loved one wants to "give up" on the sufferer.  We all love our family members, especially our children, and want to help them.  It's a very hard road to find that fine line between helping and enabling; I'm still looking.  What if the one time I turn my back was the one time she would have been ready to get help?  What if I shut down contact and something horrible happens to her?  Addiction doesn't just affect the person who has it; it's an equal opportunity destroyer.  It affects entire families, workplaces, communities.  Everyone who cares about the person is destroyed on some level, and it has changed me irrevocably. 

It's hard when I'm on Facebook, and see memes and photos and jokes poking fun at people with addictions.  I just can't see any humor in kicking people when they are down.  Everyone of them makes me think of my daughter.  The same people who think it's hilarious to put up pictures of "tweakers" wouldn't even think of posting jokes and pictures ridiculing those with other illnesses, such as heart disease or cancer.  I know her children will grow up hearing her called horrible names and ridiculed by society.  It's hard to know how to prepare them for this.  I can no longer see those "funny" pictures without wondering who that person was before their life was destroyed, and if someone out there is hurt that their loved one's illness is being exploited for cheap laughs, or if anyone cares about them at all.

I feel the same way about the "People of Wal-Mart" pictures and other pictures who make fun of strangers in a mean way.  How much intelligence and class does it take to kick someone when they're down?  I don't know that person's story, whether it involves poverty or mental illness, or why they are dressed the way they are, but it's none of my business.  How is this any different from the playground bullies who gather around to taunt others for their clothing and appearance?  Can't we adults do better than that?

I KNOW who my daughter was, and is.  She's a younger sister to two loving and protective brothers, and a kid sister to all of their friends.  As a child, she was one of the most sweet and loving children I have ever met, and she still is one of the sweetest people I know.  She loved everyone, and everyone loved her back.  She was bubbly and funny and kind.  She liked to sing, and had an adventurous tomboy spirit.  She once had a dream of joining the coast guard and doing water rescues and saving lives.  She still has a goofy and hilarious sense of humor, plays guitar, and loves to do outdoorsy things.  She is an easy person to talk to, and someone her friends would often go to for advice, because she was always level-headed, empathetic, and wise.  I raised her to be loyal, and she is; unfortunately, her loyalties are to people who don't deserve it, rather than to herself. 

Last year, her mug shot was posted online, on a Facebook page that seems to exist for the purpose of giving unhappy people someone else to ridicule and hurt.  As if it hadn't been bad enough watching this disease ravage my girl, worse yet was watching people post cruel, mocking comments on her photo as if she were some circus sideshow.  It was horribly painful, and I don't wish it on any parent.  Those people didn't know her, so it was easy to pick on her in her defenseless state.  Yeah, she's not a little girl anymore, and I can't shield and protect her, but that doesn't justify her being persecuted.  Her life is hard enough already, dammit.  Some of her friends saw it, and deluged the site with comments in her defense.  Tears streamed down my face, as I read the beautiful things that were said about her.  They will never know how much that meant to me.

But what about those other people, those who don't have anyone?  Are they worth any less?  Why do we have to be so unkind, just because it's a stranger?  Maybe you don't know that person who's in the People of Wal-Mart line-up, or in that mug shot.  Maybe it makes you feel better not to know.  But what if you did?  Would you still post it?  If you are ridiculing someone with a disease, what does that say about you? 

I'm not doing it to "out" her, or to evoke sympathy.  Our entire family has been devastated by her disease for over two years, and kept fairly quiet online, for the sake of her feelings.  But it's not just about her at this point.  It's a family disease.  I don't feel I'm doing her any favors to tiptoe around this, when I feel her life is on the line.  I'm writing this in the hopes it will help others to understand.  I also hope that someday she will look back and read it and know how very much I love her, and I DO understand.  With one out of twelve people in our society suffering from this disease, I know our family is not alone.  There's a lot of us walking wounded out here.

Just like mental illness, addiction is seen in our society as a character flaw.  There are genetic components to addiction, just as there are to eye and hair color, and diseases such as cancer and heart disease.  In 50% of people with addiction, genetics plays a role.  Some people can dabble in a substance and walk away; my daughter apparently couldn't.  I've been trying to learn and understand the very complex facets of addiction, the physiological effects on the brain and body, and the chemical changes that take place in the brain that make a loving, warm person walk away from those she loves.  And then the hardest part: applying t hose facts, not to some nameless statistic, but to my daughter.  Here's some myth dispelling for starters:


Numerous studies show unequivocally that shaming people does not result in lasting, positive behavior change.  So calling addicts weak, worthless, losers, etc., isn't going to give them the impetus they need to turn their lives around; it's only going to affirm what they believe about themselves to begin with, perpetuating cycles of self-destructive behavior.  There's no "magic bullet" for addiction, but there is plenty of evidence to show that punishing people doesn't help.  Rehabilitation can be very effective, if they are ready to take that step.  Certainly calling someone horrible names is not a proven or effective method to help someone get straight.  For that matter, even the word "addict" is a label and can hurt.  A person is more than their addiction; it's like calling someone in a wheelchair a "cripple."  Words can hurt.

I don't know what my daughter's future holds; everyone is different, but I will never give up hope.  I plan to remind her at every opportunity that her family loves her and we are here for her.  When she is ready to combat this beast, she won't be alone.  Even in moments of deepest grief, I believe with all my heart that eventually she will find recovery and create a healthy life.  So do the other people who really know her.  I will not allow myself to lose sight of her real self, and I see glimpses of it in our sporadic conversations, and in pictures and moments, and I hold on tight to those.

But for the sake of every addicted person out there, and their families, let's please all be kind.  Remember that person who looks terrible, whose picture you posted on your Facebook page, who everyone laughed about and said things like, "gross," and "what a loser," etc., is another human being less fortunate than you.  Consider that they may have no knowledge of, or did not consent to, that picture being online at all.  Think of some of the lowest points in your own life, and ask yourself how you'd feel if they were exploited as online entertainment.  A little empathy goes a long way.

Finding Faith

This is one of those posts I started and never finished.  It went into a pile of "do laters," along with the ones about Robin Williams, celebrity sexual assault scandals, and police-involved shootings, to name a few.  I started writing about a year ago, about the start of the new year, and my hopes and resolutions.  Then life intruded, and it was put aside.  Little did I know that inspiration to finish would come from Jim Carrey, the goofy rubber-faced comedian known for his bathroom humor.

Carrey was addressing graduates in a commencement address for Maharishi University, and showed an insightful, serious side, sprinkled with humor.  He was profound.   Here's a link for anyone interested in watching the whole thing: 
Jim Carrey commencement address

It is well worth your time.

The part that meant the most to me, which has reshaped my thinking, was on faith:  "Oh, and why not take a chance on faith as well? Take a chance on faith — not religion, but faith. Not hope, but faith. I don’t believe in hope. Hope is a beggar. Hope walks through the fire. Faith leaps over it."

What's been missing for me is faith.  Hope has been in short supply as well, but faith has been all but nonexistent for some time.  Maybe I had viewed faith as something that requires a certain set of religious beliefs, and there's a rebellious part of me that defies being told what to believe, or even to believe in anything at all.  In resisting drama, I have resisted faith, for faith's sake, and forsaken myself.

There have been situations in my life that have tried my soul, and denied me peace.  I'm not saying I'm unique; we all have problems.  I seem to be bombarded with the lesson of letting go.  Yet how can you let go without faith?  I'm not talking about the faith that drives people to church on Sunday though I have no problem with that.  I guess it's a faith in life, in the universe, in the big scheme of things... the faith that what is meant to happen will happen, and it will all work out.  There has been no deity handing faith my way, although I'm not an Atheist.  There's just been an emptiness, plodding along daily in an uninspired manner, waiting for something to feel better.  Some people call it depression.  I'm not sure I'd go that far; it's more of a shutting down of spirit, like hunkering down.  Either way, it's dismal.

I knew something was holding me back in my soul, but I blamed it on circumstance.  I listened to Jim Carrey's words and then listened again.  I realized that when I let go of the requirement to deify my faith, a funny thing happened: it began to return.  I realized my faith belongs to me, and I get to define it.

I want a deeper faith than to pray to someone that I get what I want.  I'm trying to be more in tune with the infinite, and the cycles of life, knowing that everything comes around eventually.  Maybe not in my way, or on my schedule, but that's okay.  I don't need to be in control, because something great and infinite is already managing that balancing act.  I have about as much control as a wave on the ocean, which will crash into the shore, then drift back to sea.  A wave doesn't have to worry about cycles, it just is.  A wave also doesn't experience critical thought, which can be a blessing and a curse.

Under the steady fluidity of a wave, obstacles eventually wear away.  If I adopt this philosophy I develop faith, even when things feel hopeless.  It also gives me permission to accept the choices of others, because they're riding their own wave, and it's pointless to control that either.  I have worn myself out when I've tried.

Faith is about more than letting go of control; it's an acknowledgement that I was never in control in the first place, and don't need to be.  There's no point in worrying about outcomes, because I can't do anything more than my best. 

So my goals for 2015 are to let go of the negative, take care of myself, and have faith.  If I can let go of worrying about others' choices, I can grow my compassion, because I'm not personalizing those choices.  So I will move through this year with renewed faith, hope, and compassion.  A tall order, but if Jim Carrey can pull it off, I have faith that I can.  There's a defiance in faith that I can respect.

My wish for everyone this coming year is to find your faith and peace in your heart.

Father's Day

I spent this last Father’s Day in silent, burning rage at my dad, and it’s taken me three months to sort it out enough to write.