Letter from San Francisco #19

Life on the bayLiving on a small wooden boat feels like a metaphor for life writ large.

I go from bunkering down during a storm, feeling like I’m in a dodgem car bumping up on all sides, to the dreamy calm and eggshell blue of a new day.

During a recent night’s storm I listened to an interview with poet Mary Oliver who was talking to Krista Tippett (On Being) about her ‘insufficient childhood’ and that walking the woods had saved her life, as had poetry.

“I got saved by poetry and I got saved by the beauty of the (wild, silky) world,” Oliver said.
“Poetry is a life cherishing force…the way it’s written is communal – it has enticements of sound.  It’s easier for people to remember, own it, speak it, as you might a prayer, it belongs to you.  And it is the theater of the spiritual…utterly obedient to the mystery…”

TheOnesWhoWalkAwayFromOmelasOliver also talks of our need to focus on creating a moral planet.   Her invocation here reminds me of the article that David Brooks wrote in The New York Times last month called ‘The Child in the Basement,which draws on Ursula Le Guin’s story, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.’

As David Brooks wrote, ‘it’s about a sweet and peaceful city with lovely parks and delightful music. The people in the city are genuinely happy. They enjoy their handsome buildings and a “magnificent” farmers’ market.’ Le Guin describes a festival day with delicious beer and horse races: “An old woman, small, fat, and laughing, is passing out flowers from a basket, and tall young men wear her flowers in their shining hair. A child of nine or ten sits at the edge of the crowd, alone, playing on a wooden flute.”

‘It is an idyllic, magical place’.

‘But then Le Guin describes one more feature of Omelas. In the basement of one of the buildings, there is a small broom-closet-sized room with a locked door and no windows. A small child is locked inside the room. This child looks to be about six years old, but, actually, the child is nearly ten. “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.”’

‘Occasionally, the door opens and people look in. The child used to cry out, “Please let me out. I will be good!” But the people never answered and now the child just whimpers. It is terribly thin, lives on a half-bowl of cornmeal a day and must sit in its own excrement.

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas,” Le Guin writes. “Some of them have come to see it; others are content merely to know it is there. They all know it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children … depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

‘The deal in Omelas is that one child suffers horribly so that the rest can be happy. If this child were set free or comforted then Omelas would be destroyed.  Many people feel bad for the child, some hold their children tighter, and then they return to their happy lives.

‘But some go to see the child in the room and afterwards they keep walking away from Omelas. They choose not to be part of that social contract. “They leave Omelas; they walk ahead into the darkness and they do not come back.”

Reflecting on this story, David Brooks writes:

‘In one reading this is a parable about exploitation. According to this reading, many of us live in societies whose prosperity depends on some faraway child in the basement. When we buy a cellphone or a piece of cheap clothing, there is some exploited worker — a child in the basement.

‘We tolerate exploitation, telling each other that their misery is necessary for overall affluence, though maybe it’s not.

‘In another reading, the story is a challenge to the utilitarian mind-set so prevalent today. In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.

‘And yet we don’t actually live according to that moral imperative. Life is filled with tragic trade-offs. In many different venues, the suffering of the few is justified by those trying to deliver the greatest good for the greatest number. Companies succeed because they fire people, even if a whole family depends on them. Schools become prestigious because they reject people — even if they put a lifetime of work into their application. Leaders fighting a war on terror accidentally kill innocents. These are children in the basement of our survival and happiness.’

David Brooks ends his article by saying

‘The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity. The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all. In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.’

Ursula Le Guin coined the name Omelas as Salem, O spelt backwards, with Salem’s history of witchhunts and scapegoats. However we interpret the child in the basement, it gives cause for pause. Whether it’s the undocumented worker, political asylum seeker, farmer done over by GMO companies, woman raped, bound, disappeared, silenced, girl denied an education, a voice, or the freedom to dream, or the land itself as basement child, pillaged and plundered in the service of corporate profit.

Hence Mary Oliver’s invocation to work toward a moral world, with a poetic sensibility.

Ursula Le Guin seemed to embrace this idea in her remarkable acceptance speech for a Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Book Awards in the US last November.  In her speech, Le Guin said:

“We need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality. Writers who know the difference between a market commodity and the practice of art.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable…Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of word…

We who live by writing and publishing want and should demand our fair share of the proceeds; but the name of our beautiful reward isn’t profit. Its name is freedom.”

What Le Guin urges here for writers is also true for those of us working for social movements, including for women’s human rights.  Our focus is freedom, justice and equality.  In these times of increased advocacy for corporate partnerships, it helps to remember that the profit motive is also often in conflict with the aims of those seeking systemic change to realize human rights.

In thinking about this, I’m reminded of this clip that one of my colleagues, Laura, shared, which turns the tables on corporations and consumerism in this brilliant video satire:

Those of us working in, and with, a global grassroots women’s movement rely on sustained support from funders who believe in the vision and work of women’s human rights groups. As Cindy Weisner from Grassroots Global Justice Alliance said recently when she spoke at Global Fund for Women’s offices, “Interconnectedness between a diversity of global feminisms is critical to reshaping the world and responding to colliding crises. ‘Building muscle’ at every level of collective organizing is critical to creating a just world where everyone can freely, fully and safely work, live, play and learn.”

Solidarity between groups is a key part of sustaining these movements for change such as linking the minimum wage fight of domestic workers in a city to a global movement for a fair wage.

The great feminist, Amina Mama, a former Global Fund For Women Board Member, provides a compelling analysis of the difference between women mobilizing and a women’s human rights movement.  For instance, there are many women’s mobilizations happening across the planet, however, there are many that don’t have a feminist agenda as their vision – such as those controlled by state-directed organizations and conservative forces.

As Amina Mama says ‘Feminist perspectives include demanding sexual and reproductive rights, and full and equal political citizenship, and transforming gender relations at personal and household levels and in public arenas and on the global stage, and claiming full autonomy… (intellectual as well as physical) that is grounded in respect and solidarity.’

In their Op Ed article in the New York Times on February 3rdTo Stop Violence, Start at Home, Pamela Schifman and Salamishah Tillet point to a landmark/seminal study published in the American Political Science Review in 2012, where Mala Hutun and S Laurel Weldon looked at 70 countries over four decades to examine the most effective way to reduce violence against women.  The researchers found that the mobilization of strong, independent feminist movements was a more important force in reducing violence against women than the economic wealth of a nation, the representation of women in government, or the presence of progressive political parties. Strong, thriving feminist movements help to shape public and government agendas and create the political will to address violence against women.

women-in-egypt-fight-back-against-sexual-harassmentWhat does this mean in practice?

It means that women’s movements have stopped wars, sparked democratic movements, secured laws and legislation for sexual and reproductive rights and other issues that have provided new protection to millions of people and brokered peace between warring factions and nations.

Women are on the frontlines and women’s groups serve as an early warning system.  Critically, they are often first responders, organizing underground movements and safe spaces for women escaping violence, rape as a weapon of war, sexual jihads and witch-hunts invoked by fundamentalists (remember Salem).  Women’s groups in Nigeria were alert to the kidnappings by Boko Haram long before they captured global attention and women are the first to be forced to cover up, on threat of death, when Isis militants capture territory.

Women are also the peace-brokers, conflict transformers and negotiators for a just peace when they are given the chance to do so (coda – UN Resolution 1325)

In spite of the impact on women and the critical role that women’s groups play during times of extreme crisis, so little money is getting into the hands of women’s groups to sustain their efforts and operation.  Women’s groups and movements remain chronically underfunded, as evidenced by AWID’s report on Watering the Leaves, Starving the Roots: Where is the Money for Women’s Human Rights Organizing, which showed that in 2010 the median yearly income of more than 140 women’s organizations worldwide was only $20,000.

Investing in women’s movements organizing is one of the best and boldest means to re-channel the focus on increased militarism, conflict and war to one of conflict transformation, radical justice and sustained peace.

Involving women as peacemakers, peacekeepers and conflict transformers is going to be essential in addressing what Thomas Friedman calls the forces of disorder – whether it be Boko Haram or the Islamic State – or other fundamentalist groups and gangs that play by their own rules with no regard for reason and rationalism. Addressing the forces that fuel displacement, despair, drift and barbarism is vital.  This includes people having ties to place, local economies, environments and communities where relationships and accountability build trust, loyalty and love.

Involving women’s movements in challenging, and working with men to overcome, the form of hyper-masculinity that ignites violence, murder, dehumanization, militarization and war. This is part of the long game required to transform systems, structures and society.

earth birthFunding women’s movements also means funding those most attuned to grassroots innovation that can spread like a brushfire for social change.  For instance, one of the groups that Global Fund for Women supports is called ‘Earth Birth Women’s Health Collective.’  This group created a beaded bracelet they call Heart Strings.  The bracelet has beads of different colors representing fetal heart beat patterns. Kits include a listening horn and Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) are trained learn to count heart beats against the Heart String to tell if the baby is in distress. The group has circumvented the constraints of lack of advanced technology including electricity, lack of infrastructure, and lack of access to lengthy education to ensure women have a safe pregnancy.

In effect, this group is helping to sustain a movement of Traditional Birth Attendants across parts of Sub Saharan Africa to support women to give birth safely and thus reduce maternal mortality. With the grant that Global Fund for Women provided, the group purchased 30 mountain bicycles to equip traditional birth assistants (TBAs) for mobile prenatal care and undertook a ‘train the trainer’ program of the Heart Strings bracelet and Midwives Manual with 36 TBAs who then conducted 23 workshops in Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Tanzania.

Mobile TBAs were able to fashion makeshift ambulances out of stretchers attached to their bicycles, creating the first effective way to transport women in distress from their rural homes to the road to be transferred to vehicles for transport to the birth center.

During the grant period, 3,136 women gave birth at Earth Birth. Of these women, 2,187 were provided with prenatal care in their homes by a mobile midwife. The majority of women trained were not able to read, write or count before the training. Now they are able to count using the Heart Strings and are respected as teachers and caregivers.

Additionally, the birth attendants provided with bicycles have experienced an increase in their status in the community and their ability to provide for their families.

Back here on the boat, a second storm has subsided.  Pelicans arrive, their immense wings overhead in a darkening sky…massive shrieks and splashes as they dive and glide as flowing and circular as a Ferris Wheel in motion.  An early moon appears and my mood moves poetic. At night here, the universe is laid out to infinity with stars – the infinitesimal power of creation.  A whole sky lit.

And soon again Dawn is at hand as the colors of the sky breaks over me and I’m lifted into the morning, feeling the currents of wind. The golden luminescence of sky greeting sun greeting me, and my illuminated self gives praise for the day.

The Wild Geese
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver


I’m at peace on this rocking boat. It seems more a rock than land itself.  We come from water, we are of water, we return to water and so these feelings are so natural. Elements of water, and elements of play affirm the radical creativity and artistic expression that comes with staying put, going deeper, embracing rest and the sweet ever-afterness of community.


Jane Sloane
San Francisco

2 Replies to “Letter from San Francisco #19”

  1. I saw the first wild geese coming back today, carrying spring under their wings.. I so cherish our connection, Jane.

  2. Thank you for more inspiring words about how living life fully is about building and strengthening the lives of others and the natural world. A conversation with you many years ago at a Friends’ gathering in Australia continues to influence my decisions and directions. A belated, but very sincere, thank you. Margaret Clark

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