On 60 Minutes last Sunday night, Bill Whitaker reported on the story of a man, Glenn Ford, who was in prison and on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit and the prosecutor who, eventually, admitted his mistakes in putting him there and apologized for them.  It was a powerful story on all sides. If you didn’t get a chance to see the segment and would like to, here it is:

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/30-years-on-death-row-exoneration-60-minutes/

Many things about this story are troubling and fodder for discussion, but I want to focus on just one right now.

The acting district attorney of Caddo Parrish, Louisiana, where Mr. Ford was tried, convicted, and incarcerated  was interviewed for this piece, with questions directed toward understanding why Ford was denied the $330,000 due him as compensation for false imprisonment. Dale Cox was stone-faced and cold during the interview. Ford got justice in this case, according to Cox, albeit a “delayed justice” because, after all, was released from prison and from death row.  So ill, incidentally, that he only has a few months to live.

“In the original trial, prosecutors said Ford knew a robbery of Rozeman’s jewelry shop was going to take place. But he didn’t report it. Ford was never charged with that crime, but the state says that’s reason enough to deny him.” (from the above article)

The only thing the state of Louisiana provided Ford upon release was a $20 gift card, which he used to purchase a meal. When DA Cox indicated he believed that was the end of the state’s obligation to Ford, Whitaker asked him if he had any compassion for Ford and what he had been through in the last 30 years. Cox’s reply was immediate and chilling, if not predictable.  “I’m not in the compassion business, none of us as prosecutors or defense lawyers are in the compassion business.”

For several years now, our country has witnessed a rise in – or, at least a rise in the reportage of – violence, both domestically and internationally.  School shootings, police officers shooting and killing unarmed and often innocent black and mentally ill citizens, civilians retaliating and killing police officers nationwide, terrorists threats and bombings, religious and racial hatred resulting in the deaths of innocents, the widespread targeted killing and slaughter of animals worldwide. There have been small pockets of people here and there who have responded in positive, peaceful ways to try to facilitate healing and create dialogue, but on the whole, we continue to allow our emotions to take hold and we react in truly ugly and uncaring ways to the pain and suffering of our fellow man and other sentient beings.

Every single one of us needs to be in The Compassion Business.  Not just for the innocent men like Glenn Ford, but for the guilty ones, too. We need to take a look at ourselves first and try to understand what drives our hate and prejudice, what makes us think that what we believe is the only right way and must be forced onto others.  We need to figure out why our first response is always to harm and why our definition of justice is revenge.  We need to understand from where our anger arises.

I have never before seen such angry, hateful people as I have seen in this country in the last couple of years.

I imagine a world in which people who are depressed and anxious are listened to and understood and are able to get the therapy they need and the medication to correct their chemical imbalances without putting them in debt for the rest of their lives.

I imagine a world where people who have more serious mental illnesses are identified and given an opportunity for intensive treatment so that they are heard and understood and their thoughts do not escalate to harmfulff actions toward others.

I imagine a world where our first response, as humans, to an injustice, is not anger but compassion. Where we are able to acknowledge the suffering others experience and the humanity in everyone.

I imagine a world – and, indeed, a United States – where the brutality of torture is recognized, publicly condemned, and its use legally punished.  Where the death penalty is abolished and even those serving long-term prison sentences are treated humanely and with compassion.

I imagine a world – again, a United States – where law enforcement is better trained and more sensitive to people of color and people who are neurodivergent. Where objective observation and skilled negotiation take the place of profiling and emotional reaction.  Where citizens can, once again, approach an officer without fear for help and officers, once again, are hired to maintain the peace.

I imagine a world – a United States – where the governement is completely secular and religion plays no part in how it functions, the laws it creates, or the people it elects.

I imagine a world where there are no reasons for “terrorists” to target others, or for “terrorists” to exist.

I imagine a world – a United States – where everyone didn’t fire first and ask questions later.

I imagine a world where wild animals are permitted to remain in the wild and are neither hunted for sport or food.  Where humans do not raise and breed domestic animals for food, nor do they raise or breed any animals for research.

For now, I’m just going to work on myself.  Deepen my own sense of compassion, remind myself to be kind to others, stay mindful in all that I do, be honest and truthful.  Check my anger at the door, and remember that every sentient being suffers.  If we all did that, well…we wouldn’t have to worry about any of the above, would we?

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in a fairly intense discussion with someone about the nature of existence, about why we are here and whether there is a point to all of this.  We talked about the passion people have for ideas and the beliefs they hold onto tightly, without any real evidence to support them.  We spoke of the heated debates folks have on social media over issues like gun violence and racism and whether one person’s politics is better than another’s.  Initially, we both had the same idea: that this was a kind of an empty, baseless existence, a road to nowhere, if you will.  He truly believes that; his world view allows him to live in a kind of survival mode most of the time, and find things occasionally which he enjoys to do to make his time here less of a drudgery.  I, on the other hand, think this is a new idea for me and believe it stems from a temporary dissatisfaction with my life and depression.

As we spoke, we were trying to come up with ways to resolve some of the conflict that arises between people who disagree. His solution was, he said, simple. People needed to mind their own business. They needed, in essence, to keep their opinions to themselves and stop sharing personal information and intimate details about their lives with others. Most people, according to him, don’t care except in a nosy, voyeuristic way.  If everyone just keeps his or her personal stuff within the confines of a very small group – like the family or an intimate group of friends who all shares the same beliefs and ideals – then conflict is greatly diminished and potentially eliminated and people are less stressed and happier.

Already I saw a problem.  A difference of opinion, if you will.  And that is, I think, at the crux of the matter. We are individuals with our own thoughts, ideas, and opinions but we are also intensely social creatures. Put two or more of us together, and conflict is likely to arise at some point. Is that necessarily a bad thing?  I don’t think so.  At least not if we learn to deal with conflict in constructive ways that don’t harm others.

I suspect we are a long, long way from living in a world where everyone is communicating in a mindful, non-violent way. For at least some of us that are learning how to temper our speech, thoughts, and actions, though, it is a life-long journey and welcome change to the anger, conflict, and constant barrage of judgment that exists in the world. It’s really tough, though, and as we were talking I asked myself what the best counter to his “minding your own business” would be if we wanted to keep conflict at a minimum.

I think that conflict and judgment arise, in part, because of a lack of understanding.  If my neighbor stays inside all day long and only comes out after dark fully dressed to work in her garden and water her grass, I’m going to think she’s a little whacky. If she makes a lot of noise or brings her dog out with her, who barks and disturbs me, I’m probably going to get annoyed.  But chances are, if she and I were introduced to each other and had a conversation and she explained to me ahead of time that she had an illness that prevented her from being out in the sunlight, so she could only work in her yard at night, I would likely be a lot more understanding.  I may even go join her some evenings.

One of the ways I think we can begin to decrease the amount of conflict is by increasing our own engagement with others and the world. By openly sharing our own stories – especially the difficult, ugly ones.  By courageously stepping out of our private spaces and exposing ourselves – even briefly – to show others that they are not alone.  Because conflict and difficulty arise when there is disagreement and misunderstanding.  They also arise when our emotions go unchecked, when we are so attached to our own beliefs and stories that we decide they are “better” than everybody else’s and we need to show others where they are wrong in their thinking.

We all don masks that belie the real “us” when we are around others, even when we are on social media. We want others to think things are perfect, the house is clean and uncluttered, the dinner is cooked, the toys are picked up, the bills are all paid, and everyone is healthy.  But in fact, rarely is any of that true. And pretending it’s true only creates more stress and distance in all of us.

So what’s the alternative?

Truth and radical honesty.  And let me tell you something you already know, it’s a scary thing to be truthful these days. It’s almost terrifying sometimes to say what you think or believe or know in a circle of others who have a different perspective. Because almost certainly, you will be belittled or verbally degraded or humiliated or even, in some cases, physically threatened, for what you express, because you dare challenge the status quo.

But I’m learning, after a great many years of suffering with the burden of dark secrets, that truth and honesty in everything – as long as you are able to keep yourself safe and maintain a deep measure of compassion – are the only ways to move forward and live peacefully in the world.

Anyone who keeps up with the daily news (or, arguably, who does not live under a rock) has likely read or seen some evidence of the systematic degradation of a large element of our society’s common decency toward others. It’s evident certainly in politics, with parties divided so cleanly right and left that it’s a wonder they have remained on the same continent. Religious groups are almost worse, professing truth and love and then denigrating fellow citizens and killing those who don’t share in the same beliefs. Is it really a surprise when egregious behavior – in the form of physical and emotional bullying and, sometimes, shooting first and never asking the questions – spills over into the general population when the ones who are meant to uphold the laws and morals of the country are clearly unable to do so?

I ran across this video the other day while I was perusing Facebook – which I’ve come to find is a receptacle for all things beautiful, thoughtful, funny, interesting, disgusting, and incredibly putrid – and I was angry, saddened, offended, and puzzled, not only by what I heard, but also by what I read in the comments section.  If you haven’t seen or listened to it, please do, if you can stand it.  It’s by Nicole somebodyorother.  She bills herself as a comedienne, but it’s really not very funny.

http://thinkprogress.org/health/2015/09/07/3699167/what-this-fat-shaming-comedienne-gets-wrong-about-obesity/

Wasn’t that fun?  *Deep breath*  I was going to write my gut reaction to the video, but that would be violating my practice of right speech, which I am working hard on these days.  Still need to work on right thought, I guess.  Anyway, Nicole somebodyorother has an issue with people who are overweight.  We got that. I’m thinking she probably could have expressed it in a less hurtful, more constructive way, but after listening to this 6 minute rant, I get the sense that she is not capable of an intelligent discussion on this topic (And maybe not on any).  She really only had one thing to say about it over and over again. Fat people are fat because 1. They eat too much, 2. They are lazy, and 3. She is disgusted by them.

Well, she may be disgusted by people who carry too much weight (I would be one of those and I can personally say that I am more than disgusted by people like this woman who rant and rave and talk about people without any kind of care or compassion), but on points 1 and 2 I can also say the girl needs to do some more homework.

Yes, people who are overweight often eat more than they should.  There is way more to it than that, though.  Not once did she or anyone in the comments mention the fact that sometimes medications cause weight and/or water gain or appetite increase and that once that weight has been gained it is often impossible to lose. I took Depakote for several years for my seizures and gained 60lbs while on it and was never able to lose that weight.  The medicine was a lifesaver for me; I had to take it. There are a number of medical conditions that cause an increase in weight and, if the condition is not cured or controlled, neither will be the weight.  Surgeries, finances, mental illness, genetics, all these plus other things, can play a role in a person’s weight.  Those who judge by appearance alone really only show their own shortcomings.

And one final word to those who call people out about their appearance.  Why don’t you take a breath and ask yourself why it matters to you so much.  What does it matter to you what I look like?

David L. Ulin, LA Times Book Critic, wrote an article in the June 23rd edition that, once again, has brought the debate about the various uses of creative expression in nonfiction back to the forefront.

http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-et-jc-re-defining-nonfiction-again-20150623-story.html

I graduated in 2010 from Antioch University Midwest with an MA, focusing on creative nonfiction.  Before I even applied for the program at Antioch, I did a lot of research on the genre, knowing that I wanted to concentrate on learning the art of writing about truth and reality, but not completely understanding how this genre was defined or whether what I wanted to write would work within its framework. I needn’t have worried. Even the staff at the school was confused and in disagreement about its definition and what I ended up writing was as much an experiment as it was a springboard to a greater understanding of this genre.

I’ve read and written a lot more in the interim five years, in both fiction and creative nonfiction, and I’m disappointed that we are still having the debate about whether or not it is proper to twist the truth and create deception when writing creative nonfiction.  I think that when we write nonfiction – purely informational or with a literary, creative slant – we have a responsibility to the reader.  In a way that is different from the fiction that we deliver, our nonfiction must be trustworthy. If we decide that we are going to equate the “creative” in creative nonfiction with “deceptive” or “not quite true,” then why should our readers believe anything we write?  Why, in fact, do we call it nonfiction at all? Why not just call it all fiction?

Someone argued with me at some point that it really doesn’t matter.  A paragraph here, a paragraph there that stretches the truth a little or some created dialogue can only enhance the story we are telling. I say that if you are unable to write the story without creating fake scenes and made up dialogue, then you shouldn’t be writing creative nonfiction.  Because you are lying.  And, for me, that’s just not ok in a work that is NOT FICTION.

Some writers write to tell a story – oftentimes their story – with the express purpose of sharing a difficult journey with readers so that those readers might finally discover someone like them. Someone who understands them. If we, as writers, allow even just a little bit of deception into our writing, we let those folks down.

So, what does the creative in creative nonfiction mean anyway?  I’ve been asking myself this for years and, though I still don’t write it very well, I think I do understand it a little better than I did. I’m taking the following from the journal that defines the genre, Creative Nonfiction. I figure if they don’t know, nobody does (bolding is mine):

https://www.creativenonfiction.org/what-is-creative-nonfiction

“The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!””

Ulin talks in his article about the facts and truth not always being the same and, while I think I understand what he’s getting at, I’m going to be a stickler on this one when it comes to writing nonfiction for an audience. Oxford defines “truth” as “the quality or state of being true,” and “true” as “in accordance with fact or reality.”  A “fact,” then, is “a thing that is indisputably the case.”  Reality, however, is a whole different ballgame, and my reality may look completely different from yours. Perception, though, doesn’t change words used in dialogue or alter or create (usually) complete events. Memory sometimes does that, and in memoir writing, there are techniques one can use to cue the reader for possible defects in memory.  But purposeful creation of new dialogue and events that did not happen in order to make the writing more interesting is deliberately deceptive and doesn’t belong in creative nonfiction.  It does an incredible disservice to both the reader and any writer of this genre.

Ever since the book came out, there have been countless articles, blog posts, editorials, and reviews written about 50 Shades of Grey and its author, E.L. James.  When news of the movie’s pending release (not actual release, but pending release) hit social media, those conversations and comments on them doubled, tripled, and quadrupled.  Everyone was talking about 50 Shades, everyone had an opinion and, oddly (or maybe not) nobody had seen the movie yet and a great many had not even read the book.

A bit of a disclaimer and small reveal here.  I have read the first book, but not the second or third (yet).  I just saw the movie, for the sole purpose of being able to make an intelligent and informed set of comments on it.  I also have an academic background in the subject matter – my Master’s thesis was, to the deep chagrin of some at my very liberal and progressive alma mater, on Consensual Slavery – and a personal interest in D/s and BDSM.  Any literature, film, or other publicly accessible work on the topic is up for scrutiny, because I do want this lifestyle to be presented in a truthful light.

This may be where I differ from some of those others who have had some experience with D/s or BDSM.  I hold that there are different truths to many things. The basic foundations for this lifestyle are solid – that of consent, safety, sanity – although even within those (the first two, specifically), there may be some give and take among partners who have been together for a long time.  But a D/s relationship is not unlike a vanilla one; partners bring their own issues, their own strengths, and insecurities.  Publicly, it’s hard to admit that relationships – especially the kind that aren’t socially acceptable in the first place – aren’t perfect and don’t always follow the rules to a T.  But, seriously.  Is any relationship perfect?  And does any relationship follow all of the rules without at least a couple of hiccups along the way, especially in the beginning?

I waited to see this movie until all the fervor had died down, so that I wasn’t influenced by audience reaction and I’d had some time to think about articles and comments I had read.  I attended a Saturday showing, at 4 o’clock.  There were not many people in the audience, a few couples and a couple of pairs of older women.

First of all, I have to remind everybody that this was a work of fiction, NOT a documentary or how-to on D/s or BDSM. Further, it was written as a work of erotic fiction (and maybe erotic romance, although I’m not really even so sure about that). It seems that any author writing to please a reader of that genre would do her very best to focus on the raw, primal aspects of the relationship rather than get all caught up in the details and specifics of story.  There have been lots of go-to-see-on-Saturday-afternoon movies about traditional relationships that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend as ideal models

I’ve seen basically two camps expressed in the 50 Shades debate.  In one, it is suggested that both book and movie tell a story of an abusive, nonconsensual, pseudo D/s- BDSM relationship between a vulnerable, gullible girl and a controlling, Dominant billionaire asshole.  That camp, incidentally, is populated by both folks in- and outside the lifestyle.

http://www.salon.com/2015/02/13/%E2%80%9C50_shades%E2%80%9D_of_coercive_sex_the_movie_is_even_worse_than_the_book/

In the second, are people that are primarily in the lifestyle (I gather) and who report that what we read and see in both book and movie are not uncommon for some D/s relationships and for BDSM.  Of course, those in the first camp not-so politely let those in the second camp know they are idiots for staying in abusive relationships and rather hostile debates ensue.

I actually stopped reading all the articles and comments about this book and movie and decided to sit back and decide for myself what I thought about it.  I discovered I was initially influenced by what a lot of people said and I questioned my own involvement in the lifestyle because, see, I identified a little with Ana, when I was first starting out, when I was new to D/s and BDSM.  I didn’t much care for the way 50 Shades was written because, aside from the poor technique, the D/s dynamic – the very foundation of the story – was off from the start.  The relationship comes across as manipulative in the book.  Coercively manipulative, as opposed to the sort of playful, give-and-take that you might see in D/s.  I watched carefully for that in the movie, and didn’t see it.

What I did see was a very intense, controlling Dominant eager for a relationship with a woman he saw as being a good fit for him and a young, inexperienced girl just as eager for and flattered by the attention she received from this man.  Although there were several interactions/comments that could have been construed as abusive or condescending under certain circumstances, in the context of even a new and developing D/s relationship, they are appropriate and expected.  In the movie I noticed, perhaps more readily than I did in the book, that usually the character of Ana would respond to these sorts of comments with a kind of “tease” which, as any submissive (or woman, for that matter) knows, only serves to provoke a partner into further play, not stop him.

An excellent set of comments to the above included link can be found here:

http://www.salon.com/profile/RolandLind 

What it all really boils down to is one’s own ability to recognize the difference between a healthy relationship and one that is, at its core, abusive.  Although it may seem to those on the outside an easy, cut-and-dry determination, especially when looking at a relationship that involves an alternative lifestyle like D/s, the intricate intertwining of control, care, desire, love, and power is complex and not one for casual judgment.

If nothing else, 50 Shades of Grey got a lot of people talking about something that has been almost taboo in society.  I’m not sure very many people actually learned anything, but I have a renewed belief that my own lifestyle choices are perfectly ok, just as I’ve chosen them, no matter what anybody else may think and no matter how others may judge.  As for Ana and Christian?  They are characters in a book, for chrissakes.

Recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the CIA’s use of torture since the attacks on September 11, 2001.  I’ve been reading various US news magazines and journals that are covering the stories online and, in particular, the comments following the articles, and am simply astounded by the reactions to the information uncovered by the Committee.

In short, the Committee determined that torture was used fairly extensively and in secret to obtain information from detainees and that the White House and Congress were mislead regarding a number of things, including the number of prisoners that were held, as well as the degree of the brutality of their interrogation and the usefulness of the techniques used in obtaining information from them.  This link provides a more thorough report of their findings:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/10/world/senate-intelligence-committee-cia-torture-report.html

Most of the people who responded to the articles I read expressed surprise and outrage by the news of the CIA’s involvement in systematic torture.  I’m trying to figure out what rock these people have been living under for the last 20 or 30 years.  Our government’s expertise in brutalizing body and soul began long before 9/11.  For example, anybody who has ever heard of the School of the Americas – (www.soaw.org)  now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) – knows that the US has been in the business of training Latin American military soldiers in torture techniques for years and that former students from that school, located at Fort Benning, GA have been guilty of some of the most brutal crimes against humanity.  They developed and taught from the now infamous “torture manuals” used at that school and in the field, which included techniques involving everything from intense beatings to rape to execution in order to obtain the information needed from prisoners.

Why, all-of-a-sudden are we so surprised that the US has been involved in torture these past 13 years?  Because we have such high ethical standards here and a high regard for human life?  Every day it becomes more and more evident that the US and a large percentage of its population are more interested in retaliation than justice.  And besides, it has been proven, over and over again, that torture simply does not produce the results for which it was intended.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26685-that-cia-torture-methods-were-pointless-is-no-shock.html#.VIjdknt1a68

Whether or not one believes that torture is effective, though, one thing is without question.  Torture is illegal.  Let me say that again.  In international law, torture is a crime.  Both the prior and current administrations should be investigated and held accountable for any violation of that law.

This is an excellent summary of Amnesty’s position on this situation by Steven W. Hawkins, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA:

http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/release-of-torture-report-underscores-need-for-accountability 

It kind of snuck up on me without much warning.  I was reading through my FB page one day a couple weeks ago and there it was.  A graphic taken from Pinterest, all greens and reds, announcing in a not-so-subtle way that Christmas is around the corner.

Ugh.

Every year since I was in college when December rolls around I have told myself that it doesn’t feel like Christmas anymore.  It’s taken me this long to realize that of course it doesn’t feel like Christmas.  For me, it shouldn’t feel like Christmas.  When I was younger, Christmas meant months of preparation in the choir for Christmas Eve at church and 2 or 3 (I can’t remember) long but beautiful services that night, which I shared with my grandmother.  It meant getting home after midnight and waking up early with my brother and sister to gifts in the morning and breakfast with my family.  The religious part of the holiday was important to me then.  Things are different now, and the fact that it doesn’t “feel like Christmas” is a reflection of how things have changed.

A lot of people I know who aren’t Christian try to subtly fit in with those who are during the holidays by claiming a kind of secular “Christmas spirit” and by celebrating the non-religious traditions of the day.  Still others have their own winter holidays or spiritually significant days which fall around or at least in the same month as Christmas – Hanukkah, Yalda or Yule (winter solstice), Ashura (Muslim), Bodhi Day (Buddhist), and the 26th of December, a day when Zoroastrians observe the death of their prophet. Those of us who no longer adhere to the religion of our upbringing may feel compelled (by our own guilt or by others) to try to stay connected in some way, but new traditions and fresh ideas can only serve to move us forward on our journey.

As I get older and more comfortable in a spiritual tradition and way of life that feels true to me, I begin to see this season with a more critical eye.  That question of “Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays” that I so often see debated is a no-brainer to me; I choose to say Happy Holidays because I recognize that there are all kinds of people in this world and not everybody believes the same thing. Christianity does not own the month of December (as much as Christians would like to believe it does) and while the wish for a “Merry Christmas” may not offend someone who is pagan or Jewish, it does exclude and completely disregard that person’s own beliefs.  I’m going to choose compassion over shoving my beliefs down someone else’s throat, and celebrate my own beliefs quietly, in private.

I wish peace to all.  I think we can agree that all of us could use a little of that.