A lesson from my husband . . .

What’s so great about mindfulness?

It seems like almost every day I see an article online or in my news feed that has something to do with mindfulness.  I’ve read so much media hype about the idea, it may as well be called McMindfulness, and sold to the public with the slogan: you deserve a break today.  For a long time I didn’t even know what mindfulness was, guessing it had something to do with Buddhism or meditation.  Several years ago though, I experienced a very potent object lesson on mindfulness.

I was a high school debate coach at the time, and much more interested in Western competition than Eastern thoughtfulness.

Late one afternoon long after school was over and my teaching duties finished, I found myself still working, supervising about 30 of my debaters as they practiced for an upcoming tournament. 

I can still hear the metal scraping along the floor tiles as students shoved desks together to arrange their debate stage.  In the back of my classroom, Robert, a 17-year-old policy debater, stood over his partner’s desk and started yelling at her.

“This is not Lincoln-Douglas debate! Its’ called Policy, Chrissie, and that counterplan won’t work!” Robert stabbed an index finger into the paper Christina was holding in front of him.

Izak, my top debater, rushed over to make peace between the two, and stop Robert from bullying Chrissie (who happened to be Izak’s girlfriend).  That problem taken care of, I walked away to check on other debaters working in the hallway.  Ally was out there kneeling on the floor rifling through her big plastic tub of debate evidence.  Apparently, she couldn’t find what she was looking for so she began dumping papers by the handful on the hallway floor.  The janitor passed by with his wide-headed broom and just shook his head as if to say, “Don’t ask me to clean that mess up.”

Just then the take-out pizza arrived and everyone took a much-needed break, but I was too stressed to eat.  I began picking up some of Ally’s scattered papers when I glanced up and saw my husband, Dale, standing just outside the glass exit doors of the school.  It looked like he had a bag of hamburgers in his hand.  I opened the door and told him I couldn’t stop yet, there was still work to do.

But he took one look at my disheveled appearance and grabbed my hand, pulling me outside with him. That’s when I got my object lesson on mindfulness.

After setting the bag of burgers down on the cement steps next to us, Dale took my shoulders and pivoted me to face him.  He said, “Close your eyes.”

“What?  I can’t close my eyes.  I’ve got to get back inside!”

“Your students will be okay.  Just close your eyes.”  So I did.  I decided to humor him, hoping we could get this little game of his over—quick.

“What do you hear?” he asked me.  What do I hear?  Debaters debating of course.  But no.  I was outside the school now.  What I actually heard was a car engine down the street, and the wind blowing the tree branches above the sidewalk.  So I told him this and opened my eyes.

“No.  No!  Keep your eyes close.  What do you smell?”  I took a moment.  Someone had just cut the grass around the school and it was so pungent.  I inhaled a big breath, and surprisingly, smelled a color:  green.

When he asked me what I felt, I’d fully given myself over to the game by then, and told him I felt the coolness of the coming night.  I could feel humidity against my skin.

Then Dale asked me to open my eyes.  He surveyed my face and lightly tapped my chest, “Now.  What do you feel there?”

That’s when I discovered mindfulness—awareness—and how it can take you away, take you out of the chaos of whatever situation you’re in, and into the moment.

“Better—I feel better,” I smiled back at him.  After that we walked back into the high school and sat down, munching our hamburgers as my students finished up debate practice.

 

Image Credit:  Students debating, Image Credit:  Debate coach, Image Credit:  Mindfulness

Rape in a Religious Community

I went to a Mennonite college and have friends and family members who are Mennonites, so I was particularly shocked to read recently about how nine Mennonite men drugged and raped 150 women and children.  They were all members of an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia when the rapes occurred over a period of five years, 2004-2009.  The men used a powerful sedative, an exotic plant derivative, which the local veterinarian employed to render livestock unconscious. When the women woke up in their beds, they were nude and disoriented, and their bed sheets were dirty and smeared with bodily fluids.  They believed they’d been attacked by ghosts or demons.

My first thought was how could this happen?  This was a respected religious community.  My second thought was why didn’t the women go to the police, the authorities with what was happening?  According to Time Magazine, British Broadcasting, and Vice News, many of those attacked (ages 3-65) had experienced repeated assaults—and nothing was ever done to stop the perpetrators.  The Mennonite colony was essentially a self-governing community in Bolivia.  Church elders dismissed the women’s complaints as female hysteria until finally, two men were caught in the act.  They ratted out the rest of the gang, and all eventually confessed, providing lurid details.  The rapists were given 25-year sentences in a Bolivian prison.

The story doesn’t end there though.  This past year, pressure from church elders in the colony have resulted in several of the female victims sending letters to Bolivian authorities requesting their rapists’ be given early release. 

Church leaders told the women that in order to be forgiven by the Lord themselves–and assured heaven after they die, they must forgive and support those who have wronged them.  Still, some in the colony worry that if the prisoners are released, the cycle of abuse might begin again.  The Bolivian judge who tried the case noted the women were living in such a male-dominated, “patriarchal” culture, they had little power to go against church fathers.

I thought of the plight of these Mennonite women when I saw on the news that Jeffrey Epstein, a man who had engaged in sex trafficking for at least fifteen years, molesting underage girls as young as 14, was finally facing a possible conviction.  Jeffrey Epstein is a billionaire hedge fund manager and would seem at first to have little to do with simple-living, hard-working Mennonite men.

But both Epstein and the Mennonite rapists are examples of male privilege, where their respective cultures, one religious and one economic, freely grant their gender the appearance of authority and respectability.  They were given the benefit of the doubt repeatedly, and in the face of all the damning evidence provided by lesser mortals: women and children.

The Mennonite males in the Bolivian colony had so much power their women were not allowed to take the stand and testify against those that assaulted them.  Instead, male relatives acted as their representatives before the jury.  Epstein schmoozed and paid off those in the largely male judiciary of south Florida, judges and lawyers who should have sent him to prison long ago.  Epstein insulated himself further by making friends with powerful, male political brokers like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

Many in the international Mennonite church are appalled by what happened in Bolivia.  Those of us that still believe in the rule of law are sickened and sad that a predator like Jeffrey Epstein could molest young girls for so many years protected by his money and influence.  Lord Acton, a British historian, observed in the 19th century that a person’s sense of morality lessens as his or her power increases.  His words still ring true today:  “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

 

Image credit:  Mennonite school girls ,     Image credit: Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump

 

Buying Fireworks at the Reservation

 

We drove through the Duck Valley Indian Reservation on the Idaho-Nevada border this past week, and I thought about the many times my husband and I took our sons to the rez to buy fireworks for the 4th of July.  As a couple of rowdy, growing boys, my sons loved going to the reservation to get “real” fireworks.

Going to Duck Valley, the home of the Shoshone-Paiute tribe, was like crossing the border into another country—and in a way, reservations are other countries.  As sovereign nations, tribes are answerable only to the federal (not state) government.

My family would watch out the car window searching the sagebrush plains, hoping to be the first one to spot a wickiup—a sure sign we’d entered reservation territory.  Someone in the car would soon say, “There’s one.”  Then we’d all look to see a conical-shaped structure made up of branches and sticks sitting in the backyard behind a house.  Wickiups look similar to the tipis of the Plains Indians, and like tipis, their original purpose was to be a temporary camp dwelling.

I remember one of our first 4th of July trips to the reservation.  Down the main drag of the little town of Owyhee, Nevada, the only town on the reservation, we saw a hand-painted fireworks sign that signaled with an arrow to make a turn.  The fireworks stand sat in front of a run-down cinderblock apartment building.  I saw a blanket used as a curtain over one window and a screen bent and hanging from another one.  My sons jumped from the car as soon as we stopped, racing to the stand to see what kind of fireworks were for sale.  The door to the apartment opened and a young man stepped out wearing a baggy pair of jeans and a T-shirt.

“How-gh!  Yá’át’ééh!” he smiled toothily and held up his hand in greeting, Indian chief-style.

“Hello!  We want to buy some fireworks,” my husband told him.

George (he introduced himself) asked us if there was any particular kind we were looking for.  Before we could say a word, both my sons offered, “M-80’s.  Bottle rockets.  The good stuff.”

George was very genial and seemed more than happy to accommodate us.  I asked him if he got a lot of firework customers way out here on the reservation.

“Oh sure.  Quite a few.  You’d be surprised.  They’re like you, looking for the kind of fireworks they can’t buy where they live.”

Everyone wants more bang for their bucks on the 4th, but I had some hesitancy about buying “real” fireworks, something I’d vocally expressed many times to the rest of my family with little success.  I’d heard enough stories about people losing fingers lighting M-80’s.  Call me sentimental, but I had this wistful hope that my sons might grow up with all their digits intact.

“Anything special happening on the reservation?” I asked George conversationally.

“Yes!  It’s time to make some money,” he grinned, taking my husband’s twenty dollar bill to make change.

“I meant to celebrate the um . . .  well, Independence Day?”

Suddenly it hit me.  I’d just realized the obvious and sad irony in celebrating America’s independence from Britain—by buying fireworks from people who’d sought their own independence from America.

But George didn’t seemed fazed by my question.  “We got a big pow wow going on, food and dancing—probably do some handgames, some sticks and bones, you know?”

I didn’t know.  But George patiently explained that handgames were an old Native American tradition.  He said the games were like small-time gambling.  Any age and any number of people could play.  We talked a little more and when we finally left the rez, our backseat was full of fireworks contraband.

Our sons are grown now, and with the West increasingly a tinder box just waiting for the match, my husband and I have little interest buying anything with the word “fire” in it.  As I write this blog though, I’m remembering George.  I wonder if he went on to bigger and better things.  He was so bright and charismatic.  I hope he’s no longer selling “real” fireworks, but instead, has found a real job—or at least something that’s enabled him to move out of his shabby cinderblock apartment and into his own home, a home of course, with a wickiup in the back yard.

 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley,  Image credit:  Diana Hooley, Image credit: wickiup