All posts by donna burke esgro

Notes From A Social Justice Warrior

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©Richard L. Copley            Memphis 1968

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

Alice Walker

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Somewhere between Dr. King’s “luminous brotherhood” and Trump’s “glorious wall” the term social justice warrior has became a sneering pejorative, a mean meme that stereotypes those who fight for human rights.

Social justice is not self righteous, it has nothing to do with the desire not to be offended, it is not communism as many conservatives fear, and it is not fueled by emotion over intellect. It is a cause that deeply respects the dignity of all life. Social justice advocates believe passionately in the fundamental rights and moral freedoms that our Declaration of Independence and Constitution provide, including civil disobedience.

Social justice begins with the right for all to have food, shelter, healthcare, a clean and safe environment, education, and honest employment that offers fair and equal wages. Why has the endeavor to attain this level of decency become either an object of cruel tweets or thought of as an idealistic dream of naive innocents?

Social justice is an ideology that cannot be brought about by laws alone. If this were so, the Civil Rights Act would have ended racism. The cause of social justice is in the very fabric of who we are as individuals, what we believe in and how strongly we believe in it. Activists for this movement may be ridiculed but be careful of defamation and dismissal for they are the arch weapons of bullies and despots.

As we work for equality it is important to be careful of what we want to be equal to…a glossy society fascinated by power, wealth, sexuality and violence…a culture in which the bloodied, dismembered bodies of men, women, and children, are “collateral damage” and practices of torture “enhanced interrogation techniques”? Anodyne Orwellian phrases shield us from the truth, pacify, and lull us into thinking that all is normal and acceptable. Beware, they are designed to limit your thinking. The rise of Trumpism and the tyranny in its wake is a warning against this kind of complacency and carelessness.

As an educator, Trump’s campaign quote, “I love the uneducated!” reverberates.

Knowledge is power, and no one knows this more keenly than those who would seize it. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist and social justice hero, “I question America”.

To question, one must be educated and aware. This is why the campaign to smear journalists who don’t fall in line with the GOP status quo as liars and pervaders of “fake news” is critical to resist. We have a moral duty to be educated citizens, but without freedom of the press this becomes a difficult task. Journalists speak truth to power, without this safeguard we are exposed to the toxins of lies, fear mongering, distrust, and the spread of hatred and intolerance, all precursors of a fascist regime.

Social justice is not an isolated condition. It is a complex aspiration with roots in empathy. Empathy is not possible without believing in the humanity of all peoples, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or status. It cannot be achieved in a vacuum but is deeply entwined in all aspects of our life, from the collapse of eco-systems caused by pollutants, the myriad effects of poverty, to gun laws and their direct impact on the safety of our children.

To embrace a true and global integration we must value the sacredness of life. We must acknowledge that whatever pain society suffers affects us all. When we fail, it is a collective failure. Social justice is not a partisan matter, nor a liberal fantasy, but an aspiration that may be our only hope in preserving, not just our democracy, but the future of our planet as well.

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“I can not, will not, permit myself to envision a world in which humanity is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright day break of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”        Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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©donnaesgro        March For Our Lives      Los Angeles, 2018

 

 

 

https://Twitter.com/@stoneinthepond

 

 

 

 

 

Walls

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©donnaesgro

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Long before the pink cinder block wall went up, and the balconies of the apartment house next door looked down into the squalor of our backyard, there was what had once been a bright blue picket fence, so weather beaten that when brushed against, its paint burst into plumes of powder. The fence did its best to separate our back yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Crawford, a pearly headed old woman who tended an abundant rhubarb garden that grew against the fence on her side. Every year, at Christmas, she brought us six jars of rhubarb preserves… magenta and green chunks aglow in a row of Mason jars on the window sill.

How quietly she tended her purple veined garden, never greeting us except with a silent nod, and never complaining about the wanton children that we were. Just as silently she died, and her still little house was sold. We never thought about her when we’d sneak over the fence to the sawdust scented construction site to steal the golden oak planed planks to make see-saws. My brothers collected the long heavy nails just for the joy of having such a forbidden thing in the pockets of their corduroy school uniform pants.

Then, one day, the picket fence was gone, replaced by the spindly, metal, Giacometti like girders of what would soon become a massive concrete wall between our two properties. As the workmen mixed the thick cement paste, I remembered the long roots of the rhubarb plants when Mrs. Crawford used to pull them up in the sunlight. My father seemed to like the wall, seeming almost proud of it…it was new and sturdy, like nothing else on our property, but, to me, it was an affront; an effort to keep us out – a high high wall, without any foot holds to climb.

Mrs. Brown, our neighbor on the other side, and owner of the neatly groomed courtyard apartments with the pansies all in a row, often complained about us, once even warning my mother that if she didn’t stop letting her children run wild, she would report her to the police for child neglect. And so we played, squabbled, accumulated scars, celebrated birthdays, ran through sprinklers, stepped on the occasional bee, sprained our wrists, made forts, and did the dirty job of growing up in our back yard, squeezed between two impenetrable forces: the thick cold wall and the glare of Mrs. Brown from behind the pretty lace curtains of her upstairs apartment.

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“I will build a great wall-and nobody builds walls better than me-and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”  Donald Trump

“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”  Socrates

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One of the best children’s stories about tolerance and coexistence is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In a way that only Dr. Seuss can, this book points out the absurdity of intolerance in an allegorical style that children can easily understand, “Ronald, remember, when you are out walking, you walk past a Sneetch of that kind without talking.” (Dr. Seuss – The Sneetches)

 

Walls, whether they be brick and mortar or metaphorical are designed to keep out the other. It’s time to break down these walls that degrade, deride, and segregate us. It is time to build inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. It begins with the children.

Namaste

Happy New Year

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Courtesy of: “The Snow Tree”

(and Avelena, age four)

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This year, as always, and like thousands of other educators, I dust off my winter holiday books –   “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Polar Express”, “The  Penguin Who Wanted To Sparkle”. I speak to children of the magic of sleigh rides or the science of snow crystals. Many of the illustrations in my books are glittery and shimmery, snow drifts in the moonlight and candles aglow.

But last week, as I read “The Snow Tree”, a story of a cub’s astonishment at experiencing his first snowfall, my mind was not on the beautifully illustrated pages but on the graphic images captured by Paul Nicklen, Marine Biologist and National Geographic Photographer, of a  Polar Bear in the Baffin Islands:

https://tinyurl.com/yc5pz2w9

Is this horrifying and shameful spectacle of the neglect and abuse of our power as humans what we stand for? How do those whose hearts are shattered by this legacy protect, cradle, and nurture our sacred earth? As the current leaders of our country not only actively deny climate change, but champion the corporate interests that have caused it, we must resist in every way we can.

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Being an activist is a noble cause. But it doesn’t just mean marching, signing petitions and voting – vital endeavors as we have seen –  but also the thousand small choices that we make throughout our days. Mindfulness has become a common concept. But, in the tossing about of the word, has the meaning escaped us? To be mindful is to be alert and aware. “Life is not a problem to be resolved but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard

It has become so easy in the modern world to be careless. Releasing balloons into the air is celebratory and metaphorically beautiful. But what happens to those balloons? Most end up in our waterways and are often ingested by sea creatures who, fatally, mistake them for food. Juice boxes are cute and convenient, but each one takes about 300 years to degrade. The largest accumulation of garbage (twice the size of Texas and growing) floats in our very own ocean off the coast of California. Plastic is one of our planet’s most crucial enemies…And it is an enemy that we can all fight.

Take your children outside and express your love of the trees, the birds, the ocean-each mottled leaf and speckled shell.  Let them know that, just as we protect our family from danger, it is our sacred duty to protect nature. Get them away from the addictive call of their devices and get their hands in the dirt. Teach compassion for all who are hungry, homeless and hopeless, whether they be men, polar bears, or coral reefs…let your children know that all of these are one. One heart that beats. One soul that suffers.

Remember, your carbon footprint has little feet behind it, so when you choose to refill your water bottles, say no to a plastic straw, or bring your own bags to the grocery store, let your children know why you are doing so. We can all be guardians of the earth in our own way. Together our matchstick flares can bring light to the darkness and inspire hope…. hope, the ephemeral, invisible and intangible “thing with feathers” that our future depends on.

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Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

One million sea birds are killed annually from plastics in our oceans.

 

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/senate-just-opened-door-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

https://Twitter.com/@stoneinthepond

Reclaiming Halloween for the Children

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Sign seen in local shop this Halloween

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I remember windy nights, leaves swirling, black cats silhouetted in windows and warmly lit porches. There was a time when Halloween had an edgy innocence that tilted on the fear of fruit bats, before severed limbs, decapitations, and hatchets dripping with blood were considered plausible decorations for front lawns. What, in our culture, drives this macabre fascination with violence to ever deeper and darker places, changing what used to be a fun night for children, when BOO! was the scariest word around and candy was the main objective, into a vampiric holiday that lusts on fear?

It’s hard now, amid the ever increasing grotesquery, to believe that the origin of the word Halloween is holy evening. Festivals were held in ancient times to honor the sacredness and mystery of death. Flickering jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from doorsteps to scare away any evil spirits that may drop by. But, today, even a very young child knows that a pumpkin is no match against Freddy Krueger or Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Parents make an effort to shield their children from violence, whether it be spurious or on the nightly news. But around Halloween, the depictions of ax murderers and deranged clowns abound. Once a child is exposed to an image that he or she finds terrifying all the reassurances that “It’s only pretend” are to no avail. It is not uncommon that these children will suffer a level of PTSD that leaves them with nightmares and vague anxieties that can last for several months. How do we protect our littlest ones from such emotional and spiritual trauma? Sadly, it is not 100% possible. Even the local Walmart’s Halloween section can be too much for a child. But there is much we can do to keep Halloween fun scary and not overly shocking. Your teenager may want to visit the seasonal big box costume shops, but leave the young ones at home. There are many wonderful Halloween themed books available that allow a child to experience the spooky mystique of Halloween while safe in a parent’s arms. In many neighborhoods, anatomic and screeching Halloween displays have become increasingly malevolent. A good way to avoid the experience of trick-or-treating becoming a bad memory is to have your child go to a few select houses, then to a party with a few of their friends. In this way parents are in control of just how age appropriately scary they want the party to be. It is healthy to confront our fears. Fake spider webs and skeletons can make a child jump, and then laugh. This is the level of scariness you want. It gives Halloween the off kilter experience that children need in order to achieve those heights of self esteem that come from conquering the unknown.

While we are protecting our children, it is important to be aware of what they actually need distance from. There is a great difference between the natural death of a loved one and violent death used  to sell products, or reported endlessly on the news. Avoiding talking about the sad parts of being human only makes children confused and likely to be misinformed. We can’t protect our children from pain. Knowing death is an important part of knowing life and children need the truth from us. That does not mean that they need to know about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and other random acts of evil. This adult knowledge will come in time. But, for now, respect your child enough to let him grieve in a natural way for a death that touches him personally.  It is important to honor these fleeting years of sensitive physic vulnerability even though our system generally either ignores or tries to capitalize on them.

Perhaps it is our culture’s fear of death that makes us both fascinated and repelled by it. We idolize youth, spend billions on anti-aging products, and hesitate to come to terms even when the family fish dies. While it is important to protect our children from violence, we should not shield them from death, but instead help them to viscerally understand that the end of life is as reverential and hallowed as the beginning of life – a natural part of the the wondrous cycle of being.

The Symbiosis of Writer & Illustrator

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One of the earliest books ever read to me was Honey Bear by Dixie Wilson (1923), illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney. As a very young child I was mesmerized, both with the rhyming story and the exquisite illustrations-the dusky velvet sky, the deep lavender shadows, Honey Bear in his rumpled rose colored jacket…

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Once upon a summer in the hills by the river

Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew

There were caves as dark as midnight

There were tangled trees and thickets

And a thousand little places where the sky looked through

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Later, as an adult, I read Algonquin Publishing’s introduction to their series of books for children:

“The makers of Sunny Books believe that books for children should be not only entertaining, but conform to the highest ideals of beauty in book-making, so that the fortunate child who owns them will develop good taste in reading and in art.”

Fortunate, indeed, I was, to fall so completely and sweetly in star dusted love with literature long before I could read.

When choosing first books for your child, be aware of the quality of both writer and illustrator. There is deeper enchantment in the reading of a story when both artists work in harmony with respect and passion for their material.

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The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by many artists over the years. But, the original black and white John Tenniel drawings reflect best the oddness and dreaminess of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a visual artist as well as a writer and knew the importance of the illustrator’s contribution to the integrity of the story. He could have chosen among dozens of children’s book illustrators adept at depicting whimsical fairylands. Instead he chose the acerbic Tenniel, known for his wicked sense of humor and grotesque political cartooning. The choice is intriguing and telling.

My mother often told me the story about how, when she was a little girl, she would sneak down into her grandfather’s library after everyone was asleep and read. Late at night, in the shadows of the dark room, she was both spellbound by Alice’s adventures and terrified by Tenniel’s drawings. A fact that, I’m sure, both gentlemen would have appreciated.

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

In a similar close relationship, A.A.Milne worked with Ernest H. Shepherd to create the charming Winnie the Pooh books. Together they capture the elusive innocence of a young child’s long golden days at play…the simple drawings a metaphor for the zen like simplicity of the characters. Disney’s much commercialized renditions, with their artificial cuteness that have turned Pooh from a humble sage to a bumbling clown, are loud, garish, and awkward when compared to the delicate and sensitive drawings of the original illustrator.

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Charlotte’s Web would still be a classic without E.B.White’s collaborator Garth Williams’ illustrations, but has anyone else ever drawn Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, or the well meaning Mr. & Mrs. Arable with greater humor, compassion, gentleness, and love? This is a difficult book emotionally as its principal theme is suffering and death. Yet Charlotte’s story shimmers with hope. Williams’ tender black and white illustrations attend to the sacredness with which the author sees life and death.

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But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?”

In cases in which a wonderful writer is also an accomplished illustrator, such as the works of Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, or William Blake, the reader is twice blessed with this deeper plunge into the original story creator’s mind. The fantastical fracas of Sendak, the exotica of Kipling, and the metaphysicality of Blake are omnipresent; as much in each brushstroke as in each word.

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“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupery never considered himself a visual artist, who can help but fall in love with the earnest Little Prince? The spareness of Exupery’s watercolors perfectly express the underlying message of his simple yet profoundly wise moral tale. And although I agree with The Little Prince that “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, it is often through, not only our reading and uses of imagination, but through our contemplative gaze that the invisible is revealed to us, clear, in all its squalor and glory.

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“Let The wild rumpus start!”

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

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The Way of the Reader

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©donnaesgro

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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https://twitter.com/@stoneinthepond

 

The Last Photograph

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©donnaesgro

…thinking of my father on Father’s Day -see my post “Consider the Source” for more on who he was

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The Last Photograph

He lies in the fading sun

in his beloved backyard

my father lies dying

In a tarnished frame

on the mantle

my father lies

in a frozen November

perennially dying

How hard the shadows fall

in my father’s garden

Where once I played

under blooming bushes

petals wet with dew

and bright as blood

How still he lies

his silvery hair tousled

his keen eyes closed

against the last glare

So distant, so cold

behind the glass

beyond complaint

in his little corner of borrowed light

 

donna burke esgro

6/18/17