Sunday, April 15, 2018

Scattered Thoughts (On Power, Religion & Purpose in an Age of Trump)

Perspective
After returning from the Tellus Science Museum with my parents and children, I head to the bookstore and begin eavesdropping on some kids talking rather loudly at the table beside me. One is doing Christian Cool—all James Dean swagger but without the whiff of drugs, sex or secular rock n' roll & without any awareness of the irony. It has to be a difficult act to maintain, grounded in repression. I'm heartened that the other two at the table don't exactly seem to be picking up what he's putting down—especially the young woman. She commands the conversation with real grace, holding space for friendship with both an open mind and reality checks. I see the same abilities in my daughter, and I am grateful these women seem more skilled than my peers at holding their own without burning bridges to the ground.

On religion, I have a few observations:

  1. Those with the most prominently stated faith in God often have the least faith in themselves. Personally, I have compassion for this feeling but anger for those who propagate it. There is no sin in being human. Demanding people believe in their inherent “evilness” or “failure” for the purpose of giving all over to a more “perfect” God may seem kind but ultimately is an act of cruelty which robs us the gift of forgiving, understanding and embracing our authentic selves with gratitude for life, in all its wonder and pain.
  2. When it comes to pious leaders, however, many define God in terms far broader than their parishioners. Talk to them long enough, and they seem to be spiritually agnostic people who choose to experience life through a religious mythos, while recognizing that this is genuinely one of many viable paths. I have compassion for them too, but I do question why so few share this truth with those they guide.
  3. Finally, there are people who consciously use religion for the purpose of manipulating others—to gain wealth, territory or psychological control. I wish I could say these few give a bad name to religion. However, they are not a handful who taint what could otherwise be sacred. They are instead parents of the movement to remove individuals from their personal relationship with divinity by mandating organizational control of a holy union.

As someone who came of age within religion and then rather nonchalantly outgrew it, a pillar of my approach to piety is to trust that wise people will ultimately find their own way through it. However, that approach felt safer when my country's leadership felt more secure. There is supposed to be separation between church and state in the USA. However, now, just past the turn of the 21st century, moderate church leaders helped pave the way to the election of Donald Trump—a controversial real estate and entertainment mogul known for objectifying women; promoting racist agenda; and removing or blocking industrial regulations intended to protect people and the planet. As president, he is an unqualified disgrace.

Critical thinking and a deeper respect for our inherent humanity may have saved us from him. Unfortunately, neither critical thinking nor respect for our inherent humanity jive well with religion. As a result, not only did many religious leaders make the major mistake of directly endorsing Donald Trump, they also made the mistake of thwarting the type of intellectual development which would encourage citizens to critically evaluate his platform.

I support an individual's freedom to know and experience divinity through religion. I recognize that it brings many daily comfort and a sincere sense of long-term security which sometimes is actually what inspires them to be their best selves. I want people to experience comfort, security and motivation to do their sincere best. I also recognize that, historically, religion strips people of their autonomy and their agency. Like drugs, it can be used responsibly as a tool for exploring life and one's individual role within it; however, mandating that it be the tool by which all people understand life and themselves is a dangerous act of oppression. In the aftermath of the Donald's election, especially here in America's Deep South, I am on high alert for signs that religion may be further overstepping its bounds.

I am also looking to everyone for common ground now. At the table beside me today, the young people were discussing tattoos, books, Kung Fu Panda, travel, nature hikes and their parents' stories. These are windows through which we can connect with each other—the art we enjoy, the spaces where we feel whole, the histories we share. I take heart in this. As long as we ultimately desire a world to grow up in together, we will evolve—moving slowly toward a more sustainable existence.

Will we actually make it there—to that point where our destructive tendencies no longer outpace our ability to live in harmony with nature and each other, as proactive members of a web of life rather than as a dominating force? Perhaps not. But trying will mean peeling back so many layers of repression that, even if our species ceases to exist, perhaps our souls will finally be free. Maybe that's the point.

The young woman from the bookstore today did not introduce herself to me directly, but she returned her chair to my table, looked directly at me and wished me a good night as she left the book store. I thanked her and wished her the same. Then I reflected on all I had heard, and I wrote this with hope that it will bring something positive to those who find it.

Some Reminders:

Humanity is young.

We are destroying our Earth and each other.

We are still capable of changing this.

Money is a tool which can be used responsibly, or abused maliciously, to influence the evolution of individuals and society, until capitalism ends, as one day it will.

Art matters.

Nature matters.

Science matters.

Our personal stories, rituals, mythologies and moralities matter. But what defines us as individuals is not the same as what defines us as a whole.

Race, gender and nationality matter to the degree that they shape the stories, rituals, myths and laws which define, confine and direct us.

We must pay attention to what we create, as well as to what we protect—when it comes to personal and cultural legacies, both new and old.

For more information about what I create and protect, please click HERE and HERE.

#MarchForOurLives Atlanta & The Myth of False Flags


Me & my children  #MFOL ATL
After Parkland, I marched with my family in Atlanta. As I've previously written, I support Americans' right to gun ownership. I also support the students who are demanding gun control. I am disgusted by the people who choose to publicly shame them. It is a tactless move which uses intimidation and mockery to attempt to invalidate the massacre in Parkland, the students' response to it, the viability of American government and the mountain of data which clearly indicates that 1) Gun control measures do lead to fewer gun-related deaths and 2) Gun control measures previously up for vote were squashed by GOP members who have received significant pay-offs from the NRA.

The people who denounce the students seem to subscribe to the general narrative that the students are being used as pawns by the far left to deny law-abiding adults access to guns so that the government can wield more power over the citizens in anticipation of a major, doomsday style take over. According to those who subscribe to this ideology, Parkland, and other mass shootings, did not actually happen at all but were rather “false flags” staged by the government to promote its own agenda.

The idea of “false flags” became particularly prevalent following the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Following what are officially documented to be terrorist attacks by way of militant, Islamic extremists aboard hijacked airplanes, many American citizens used the internet to generate and spread reports that the US government was itself responsible for the destruction and had deliberately staged it in order to justify military engagement in the Middle East and a war on citizens' privacy in America.

Father & Son #MFOL ATL
As a journalism student beginning my first year of university level study less than one month prior to September 11, understanding these attacks became central to my experience of adulthood. In the years spent exploring information posted across the web by multiple sources, I never found evidence to satisfy me that these attacks were set up 100 percent by our government. I do not, however, see our government as a benevolent force. I see it as a neutral force, with abusive tendencies, which will leverage imminent, or existing, tragedy to forward its own agenda when possible, as well as commoditize its citizens and capitalize off their backs. Government is not something to be trusted explicitly. However, it is malleable and can be held accountable for improving the well being of both people and the planet if citizens actively claim their right to participate within it—as the Parkland students, and a handful of other groups, are doing right now. No. I do not fully support everything they say. Yes. I do believe that some of the parents are claiming their children's battle as an attempt to re-engage with their own politically-oriented careers. However, I do not think that those factors devalue the movement as a whole or justify mocking its current leaders.

#MarchForOurLives is about more than gun control. It is about youth having a voice in government policy and about limiting the degree to which the lobbying arm of the NRA can purchase the loyalty of politicians.

Meanwhile, to the very strong extent that it IS about gun control, I feel #MarchForOurLives is an authentic effort not to remove peoples' rights, but to the call them to exercise these rights with responsibility—for example: requiring gun owners to purchase liability insurance, receive an education, and pass a screen for recorded violent tendencies. For those still screaming “false flag,” I also must pose a few reality checks:

  1. People engage in smaller issues hitting closer to home prior to engaging in larger issues having a more widespread impact. I realize some people are concerned that gun control is a distraction from other policies. I feel gun control is an entry point for engagement with the government and inspires citizens to pay more attention to all policies over time.
  2. Should our government ever decide to attack us, the notion that it will be brought down by a small militia armed with AR15s feels ridiculous to me. That would be a time of fight, flight and large scale revolution during which all current policy would be tossed out the proverbial door and we would all find a new way to survive.
  3. Regarding point #2, governments historically turn in mass on their foreign inhabitants prior to turning on full-fledged citizens. Thus, standing up to America's rampant xenophobia and contemporary immigration restrictions now is probably a better way to guard against a totalitarian take over than fighting for the already limited right to bear arms.
  4. Evidence shows that Russia has employed people to pose as Americans on social media and to circulate memes designed to promote both apathy and chaos, in effect destabilizing our nation and opening the door to foreign leadership which I feel no Americans desire.
  5. Beyond all concerns about our government, we remain humans who will one day die. Many 9/11 “truthers” currently calling “false flag” feel that 9/11 did claim lives but that school shootings are completely fabricated events in which the alleged victims are paid and placed in witness protection. The fact that it is easier for some people to believe in detailed government and/or corporate conspiracies than in personal tragedy and death bears serious contemplation. Sometimes members of society really do become so overcome by their individual sense of pain and loss that they kill people, leaving more pain and loss in their wake. As I have stated in a previous meditation on gun violence, it is important that we grieve. For some, the current fight for gun control is a step in the grieving process, and it is important we honor it as such.

We have much to heal within the USA. #MarchForOurLives can be a step toward doing that, and I am proud to participate.

On a somewhat lighter note, this video by comedian Betty Bowers also speaks to the heart of America's gun control debate. Enjoy.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Being Human in America: Thoughts on Guns, Grief, Rights & Responsibility

My daughter. July 4th, 2017.
A few days after the latest school shooting, social media overflows with debates about gun control, as well as monologues sending “prayers and condolences” to Florida. As a thoughtful American human right activist, I feel inspired to share what I'm noticing within the fray.

First.

The biggest beneficiary of the gun lobby in 2016 was Donald Trump, who received over 31 million US dollars. A series of other Republicans who have received anywhere from 130 thousand USD to 7 million USD are named by the Huffington Post in the video linked here.

These leaders have been paid, more by a single special interest group than what some Americans earn within a lifetime, to make it easier for more people to own more guns. This is not an example of NRA lobbyists championing the average American's constitutional right to gun ownership. This is a reflection of the degree to which political allegiances are bought so that specific industries can grow their market and profits—at the potential expense of innocent human lives.

Second.

More guns = more shootings. This conclusion comes from both common sense and consistent science detailed here and here . Since the amount of guns within the USA is record-setting, so is the number of gun-related deaths. The USA also stands out in that it is one of only three countries, alongside Guatemala and Mexico, which views gun ownership as a citizen's right rather than a privilege to be earned. These things are not opinions or personal truths. They are quantifiable facts about gun ownership, shootings and the US Constitution.

Third.

There are many people whom I count as friends, and even respect as human rights activists, who proudly take the position that gun ownership is an important expression of American freedom. They argue that guns provide many with a sense of personal security—against potential invaders, against government officials turned into totalitarians, against dangerous wildlife and (at times) against starvation. They also argue that guns can be used responsibly for sportsmanship. Some of them support ownership with greater regulation. Others take talk of gun control as a personal slight and are quick to make statements about how criminals will just seek out weapons on the black market and about how it is humans, rather than the guns themselves, which commit crimes. On one end of the spectrum, avid supporters of gun ownership will advocate for stricter security in schools and more discipline from parents and teachers. On the other, they will advocate for a culture filled with more love and less violence in the media—mirroring their liberal peers on pretty much every point except for the one which views guns as inherently symbolic of destruction.


Fourth.

In The Guardian's statistics about gun-related violence in America, a few things are clear:

  1. As stated already, more guns = more shootings.

  2. The USA holds a majority of the world's guns. 

  3. While there are enough guns within the USA to supply 88 people out of every 100 American citizens with a firearm, only 3 percent of American citizens actually hold the majority of guns in America. 

  4. While mass shootings are increasing and becoming more deadly, the vast majority of gun-related deaths have always been, and seem on track to continue to be, suicides. 

  5. All gun-related civilian deaths are massively out-numbered by those resulting from auto-accidents, plane crashes, illness or natural disasters.

One may reasonably conclude from this data that Americans aren't, by and large, a bunch of trigger-happy rogues, nor has the risk of venturing into a school building suddenly become more dangerous than the risk of riding on the bus to get there. Nonetheless, I feel it is easy to understand that gun-related deaths are less anticipated by victims and families and often have a uniquely gut-wrenching impact. After all, being shot to death is often the result of an individual or group's highly personalized aggression, fear, or hatred—whereas dying from a crash, sickness or natural disaster is a known, accepted and impersonal hazard which comes with being human.


My Conclusions.

  1. Being shot to death—like dying from a crash, sickness or natural disaster—is also a hazard which comes with being human. 

  2. Nonetheless, being shot to death is genuinely unique in that it is often the result of an individual or group's highly personalized aggression, fear or hatred. 

  3. Our society can take major steps toward shifting our culture to foster less unchecked aggression, fear and hate. However, this is a complex and nuanced process. Neither “all love” nor “tough love” will get us there. I once heard of “radical love.” That may be a start, but even it most likely isn't enough on its own. 

  4. Metal detectors and security officers can help make environments safer. These measures can also breed paranoia, increase despair and fail due to technical error and genuine human fallibility. 

  5. Evidence based data shows that increased gun control will lessen gun purchases and decrease shooting related deaths, even though guns are still available illegally. 

  6. Meanwhile, gun ownership is a Constitutionally protected right. In and of itself, the right to choose is unique and worth fighting to maintain—whether that choice relates to one's religion, gender identity, marital status, decision to abort, decision to homeschool, decision to vaccinate, decision to use drugs, or decision to own a gun. 

  7. When taking a stand for gun ownership, it is important as a politician to do more than take money from the NRA and offer your condolences to the victims of mass shootings. 

  8. When taking a stand for gun ownership, it is important as a civilian to understand that your right comes with inherent responsibilities—one of which is to respect gun safety and the many discussions on that topic without jumping immediately to the conclusion that logical concern over wrongful death is being purposefully leveraged against you. 

  9. Mass shootings are national tragedies which require mourning. Generally speaking, humans are ill-prepared to mourn, even though death is perhaps the one aspect of life we are all guaranteed to share.

Personally, I mourn the loss of life in Florida this Valentine's Day. I advocate for the right to responsible, better regulated gun ownership. I advocate for stronger school security coupled with dedicated counselors who are able to focus more on students' mental health than on test scores, detention and study hall. I advocate for gun safety education classes and mass shooting survival classes. I advocate for literature, art and media which illustrates the pervasive destructiveness of hatred, aggression and fear—while also showing a way to transmute this via social justice and radical love, for the benefit of both those who might suffer from, as well as those who might perpetuate, destruction. 

Finally, I advocate for better victim care. In Florida today, recovering people need blood transfusions, and the families of the fallen need a space to tell their children's stories and to receive unconditional compassion during a time of grief. For more on how you can step outside the gun-control debate and offer direct help to those in need, go here: http://www.cnn.com/2018/02/15/world/iyw-florida-school-shooting-how-to-help/index.html

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A NORML Mom Returns to the Capitol

Me w/ activists Kim Smith & James Meissner
Following my attendance of the town hall for the #Cartersville70, I headed to the Georgia Capitol to lobby for marijuana law reform. I had been there once before two years ago. Back then, I'd stood outside chamber doors holding a booklet about the medical benefits of cannabis. Georgia had recently passed a measure to legalize the limited use of CBD oil for treating a narrow list of approved conditions. Our hope as lobbyists that day had been to expand the qualifying conditions, as well as to add a provision allowing in-state cultivation.

When I returned to the Capitol earlier this February, the Georgia cities of Clarkston and Atlanta had decriminalized possession within city limits, and a few conditions had been added to the list of approved medical conditions.  While we still have a significant journey ahead, we were armed not just with the request that our representatives read a handbook and do something, but rather with the names of 10 EXISTING MEASURES for them to support:

HB 465 and HR 340 for Industrial Hemp

HB 645 and HB 764 to facilitate the cultivation and possession of low THC oil

HB 505 to halt the civil forfeiture practices detrimental to many people facing marijuana charges

SB105 for reducing penalties currently associated with marijuana possession

SB 295 for regulating the retail sale of marijuana

SB 296 and HR 36 to expand Georgia's existing medical marijuana program

SR 317 to authorize the study of medical marijuana in Georgia

Whether it takes days or years, some form of these bills and resolutions WILL be up for vote by Georgia citizens, and the majority of people reading this WILL EXPERIENCE an end to marijuana/cannabis prohibition in Georgia.

Peachtree NORML had planned a rally to follow the lobbying, but the permit was pulled one day prior to the event due to an increase in the prospective attendees. Georgia State Senator Michael Williams spoke out in favor of Peachtree NORML before the General Assembly and asked that we still be allowed to gather. While the number of attendees diminished significantly after hearing the announcement that the original permit had been pulled, a few of us heeded Senator Williams' call to come out anyway. Among those present were the typical mix of patients, parents, veterans and civil rights activists, as well as creative and corporate community leaders. Spanning a spectrum of political and spiritual beliefs, our highly personal experiences with cannabis have consistently inspired each of us to stand in compassionate solidarity. With Senator Williams among us, Atlanta musician and activist Aviva guided us in forming a circle, from which many stepped forward as individuals to share our stories and call for support. 

With real change on the horizon, this is a crucial time to step up and use your voice. Please be confident in telling your representatives and senators to end prohibition. You can get started doing this by going online HERE and discovering who your personal congress people are.

While NORML operates at both the national and state level, it is also important to become active within your city and county. For those who live in my area, I am presently working with fellow activist Melissa Leachman-Taylor to form an Etowah chapter of Peachtree NORML. For updates, please follow us on Facebook here. Also, please follow Peachtree NORML here for information about a re-scheduled rally in Atlanta.

Finally, let this post be like a seed. Share it, and watch the movement grow.



Tuesday, January 30, 2018

A NORML Mom Supports the #Cartersville70

Dee Dawkins-Haigler & I supporting #Cartersville70
On New Year's Eve 2017, I heard fireworks popping off in every direction around Kingston, Georgia, the small rural rail town where I live within Bartow County. A few miles down the road in Bartow's county seat, Cartersville, Georgia, fireworks were also being fired, and a 21-year-old was celebrating her birthday.

While investigating a call from someone who thought they heard gunshots, local policemen found nothing in the area other than the birthday celebration, which they proceeded to raid. Allegedly some attendees were simply asked to go home. Meanwhile, in what seems to be an extreme act of racial profiling, 70 others were arrested and held within the Cartersville jail for three days or more pending charges.

Rumors about a drug and artillery ring flew across the local and national news, but the only contraband actually discovered among all 70 apprehended young people was less than one ounce of marijuana. The case quickly drew the attention of Racquel McGee, a leader of the Atlanta-based Georgia Alliance for Social Justice. Racquel grew up in Cartersville, Georgia, and quickly set about bringing justice to those within her hometown. With the aid of civil-rights minded defense attorney Gerald Griggs, charges against 69 of the #Cartersville70 were dropped, and he is optimistic about the future outcome of the one person still facing charges.

Clearly, the type of marijuana law reform championed by Peachtree NORML, OnePlant United and Georgia Care Project is central to the case of the #Cartersville70. If marijuana were no longer stigmatized, it could be utilized as a versatile medicine and mind-opening form of adult stress relief. Law enforcement would no longer have grounds to disrupt and damage the lives of nonviolent offenders.

The #Cartersville70 also reminds us that marijuana initially received its status as a federally controlled substance—not because of being a hazardous gateway drug—but rather because of its potential as a gateway through which illegal immigrants and marginalized American citizens can enter the prison industrial complex.

While incarcerated, several members of the #Cartersville70 experienced abuse and denial of their basic rights. The arrests themselves also present multiple civil rights violations which have drawn the attention of the NAACP—along with additional social justice organizations, activists, community leaders and politicians. Many of these gathered, alongside members of the #Cartersville70, to speak last night at the Cartersville Civic Center. While all shared their uniquely engaging takes on marijuana and civil rights, the simple through line can be summarized as follows:

Keep learning, being active and speaking your mind—regardless of your color or creed. Remember that it is the American people's right to change laws which feel inherently unjust. Use your right to vote to elect leaders who authentically represent you. 

One such leader, Dee Dawkins-Haigler, pictured with me above, has been active within the Georgia General Assembly since May 2008 and is currently running for Secretary of State. While researching the possibility of introducing marijuana reform to Georgia alongside representative Allen Peake, she has visited Colorado and witnessed the state modeling how to return the profits from the cannabis industry back to the people. “We cannot legislate morality forever,” Dee says. Based on her experience, she says it's time “to let the grown folks decide what they're going to do.” 
 
For those of you who agree, there are a few things you can do right now. While these apply directly to Georgia residents, they can be modified to work anywhere.

  1. Come to Atlanta's Gold Dome this Thursday to lobby for state-wide marijuana decriminalization and de-classification. Click here for details.
  2. Reach out to local officials to let them know that the #Cartersville70 matters to you. This can happen over the phone, over email or in person at local city council meetings.
  3. Write editorials to local papers and post in social media with the hashtag #Cartersville70.
  4. Join Peachtree NORML, and keep in touch with me about a new Bartow/Floyd chapter.
Finally, I want to emphasize again the importance of recognizing that marijuana reform is about more than the right to use a plant for medicinal or responsible recreational purposes. It is fundamentally a civil rights issue. As such, it does not exist in a vacuum. It is directly connected to the work of organizations like NAACP, ACLU, Amnesty and more. Personally, I am dedicated to cultivating these connections and bringing them to light with fierce compassion.

As always, if you were moved by my words, please share them. Let this post plant a seed we can grow together.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

For Nini, With Love

Nini  & I, Dec. 2009
I wish I had reached out more to my grandmother Nini, given her more hugs and let her know more often that I'm grateful for the care she showed me in childhood.

Then again, life has an odd way of distilling emotional truths from complicated circumstances.

Perhaps, the taboos of my adult life would have proven too much had I shared more of my mature self with my grandmother. If my stories of infidelity, agnosticism, protest and shamanic quests had stood in the way of her receiving my core truths, I'm confident she'd agree that would have been a greater travesty than my relative silence—especially since I did share carefully selected reflections on making music, running a business and caring for my unique children. As I age, my experience with Nini has inspired the following goals:

  1. Never place the burden on the children to keep in touch. Instead, continue reaching out to them, sharing tidbits of life as an old crone, reflecting on memories of their youth, encouraging them to discover new things and to keep taking action always.
  2. Keep taking action always within a community large and loving enough to offer support to my immediate family when I die.
  3. Continue exercising the ability to hold space for loved ones without casting moral judgment.

Maybe it's odd, but I am very thankful for these goals. I am also especially thankful for my last three visits with Nini.

The first happened last winter. My cousin Will, a fellow only child and thus substitute sibling, had come to visit Nini as well. He'd made the trip by plane from Virginia, and I drove down from Northwest Georgia, where Nini had spent my childhood across town from me and my parents.

Scene from Nini's Memorial
On last winter's trip, Will and I had a lot of time alone together. We delighted in the ways our paths have paralleled and diverged. We addressed deep family stories about the way love and fear have created limitations in our ancestry, and about the ways we are re-writing some of these patterns in our lives. Near the end of my visit, when Will and his father were settling into their own rhythm at my uncle's apartment, I took one-on-one time with Nini. We sat at the kitchen table laughing and talking. Were it up to me, I could have stayed through the night, but there was (as there often was) something pressing against our time together. It has always felt a little as though my grandparents open a portal to communicate with me—their world on the other side marked by more complexity than they ever wanted to show. I remember standing in the driveway hugging Nini. I showed her my new car, and she was concerned that my children could crawl out the back seat. I assured her they traveled safely there.

Playing TerraPan @ Nini's Memorial
The second visit happened in a Columbus, Georgia, ICU following Nini's first stroke. My mother (Nini's daughter) and I were allowed back together with no other guests. I had brought a TerraPan with me, but my mother insisted I leave it in my car because she feared it would create a stir with the staff and upset her father and brother. I obliged and focused instead on a drawing my daughter made of herself and Nini standing on opposite sides of a rainbow bridge. I also brought a stack of photographs. Most of the time my mother and I were present at Nini's bedside, Nini slept and snored just the same as she had on long trips back from Florida. Fortunately, she woke before my departure. She couldn't speak or focus well, but it was clear she knew I was present. I put my hand on her shoulder and tried to say only what felt most important to me:

I love you. I see the parts of your story which you could not fulfill. I thank you for giving me the chance to nurture those in my own way. I live with immense gratitude for you, for my parents, for my friends and for my children. You have influenced how I treat all of them, and everything is exactly as it needs to be. I will always remember you and will greet you with joy should our souls meet beyond death.

My mother and I formed a circle with her then and meditated on the colors of the rainbow, washing through each of us, affirming our bond, giving us courage despite our fear. Leaving that day, I felt I would see Nini one more time.

Will & I @ Nini's Hospice
After my son's 7th birthday and the solar eclipse this past August, Nini had a second stroke and moved to hospice. My mother and I drove to see her there, and my cousin had again come down from Virginia. This time, Nini was deeply asleep and could not speak. I touched her and attempted to connect with her thoughts. All I saw was hummingbirds. It reminded me of an experience I had once during an indigenous ceremony when I felt myself die and then be reborn. In that meditation, I was carried back from the depths of myself to my waking life on the wind of hummingbird wings, which beat around me and whispered deep truths about my choices, triumphs and fears. This August, I felt Nini readying herself for the hummingbirds to take her far beyond the proverbial veil. I felt her tell me only to go get my instrument and play.

Again, my mother feared this would create a disturbance. However, I walked calmly past her and sat down outside my grandmother's room in the sun. My grandfather and uncle sat in rocking chairs guarding her door, and I said I was going to play for them. When I finished, they made the request that I play for Nini. So, I did. Her breathing seemed to calm, and the music set a peaceful tone for the gathering of me, my mother, my cousin, his father and our grandfather as we embraced and connected with the few other guests who came in that day—my great aunt Meg, always regarded as being particularly smart and strange, and my grandmother's baby sister Patsy, the organizer of big holiday gatherings from years past. When I left that day, I felt it would be the last time I saw Nini. I touched her tenderly and said goodbye. My mother drove me back to my town, and we waited in the park for my children to greet us there. They came running toward us drenched in the special sunbeams which fall at dusk from the north Georgia sky.

Nini & Grandaddy's Visit After My Son's Birth
Nini's body is ashes now. My grandfather eschewed the burial ceremonies he'd long championed and instead made a small altar for quiet reflection within his home. Meanwhile, my mother and I planned a memorial within her home for me, my parents, my children, my husband and one dear friend to attend. With my father's help, we cleared a garden area near the sun room and placed a bird bath there. We dedicated it to Nini and hung a print of a hummingbird on the wall inside. I shared a eulogy and played my TerraPan. Afterward, we scattered seeds and seashells around the bird bath in the drizzling summer rain—a group of soulmates mourning and moving on.

I still struggle to tell all my family how much I love them. Nini's death also helps remind me this might not matter that much. As much as I love words, they have always created as many barriers as bridges.

A month after her death, my mom and I traveled to Nini's house to help my grandfather sort through her things. He told us then her last moments there had been in the kitchen, sitting as she had with me last winter. She had been looking out the window, watching hummingbirds.

In Nini's honor, I would like to share the eulogy I composed here:

Painting a Birdhouse @ Nini's Memorial
Laura Alice Allen Yarbrough, affectionately known as Nini, spent 81 years alive on this earth. The time I remember her best was here in Rome, Georgia, taking me on after school adventures, falling asleep (against my orders) during movies, giving tours of the plants in her yard and making sure that everyone had enough to eat. She had a bold sense of humor and a level of social and academic intelligence which surpassed the norms of her time, especially for women.

Her final years of life centered on the challenge to take ownership of her own healthcare. In may ways, she succeeded in this. Nonetheless, her body still had its final say, and she gracefully released her soul to become part of whatever exists outside our human perception on August 24, 2017. While this process always comes with some level of sadness and regret, it also comes with joy and gratitude. All life is a fleeting part of a much greater whole, and death the natural culmination of life.

In addition to whatever cosmic form her energy now takes, Nini's spirit will continue to live through everyone she has ever touched. Together now, we carry forward her story with a focus on gentleness, transition, change, hope and love.

We light a candle for these things now and draw their energy into this garden grove to be dedicated in her honor September 5, 2017.


Thank you for acknowledging these stories.

Me, my mother & my children--returning from our final visit with Nini.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A NORML Mom Celebrates! #DecrimATL, #FeeltheBern, #MaytheFortBeWithYou, #KillerMike

A Mighty Step Forward
Killer Mike likes my shirt! Read to the end for details.

In the midst of a culture riddled with violence, natural disasters, economic uncertainty and threats to our civil rights, small steps continue to move us forward. Tonight, I'm celebrating the good news: Atlanta, Georgia, just passed a city ordinance to decriminalize cannabis! It is official: Possessing up to one ounce of marijuana in the city of Atlanta no longer guarantees a criminal record. Rather, it can be resolved with a simple citation and $75 USD fine.

While law enforcement officers will have leeway in choosing whether to honor the new ordinance or the harsher penalties called for by Georgia state law, today's vote shows major progress. It at least allows people a chance of escaping the dead-end downward spiral which an arrest record can cause. It also sends the message that, while cannabis use isn't for everyone, it isn't a crime either.

Legalization is the next step. I have total admiration for all my friends within Peachtree NORML who have worked relentlessly to insure that people keep talking--among themselves, with their local government officials, at their places of work, at their places of worship, in the media, and via their personal art and activism--about the benefits of cannabis and the need to reform the laws surrounding its use. Georgia Care Project also deserves tremendous credit for bringing change to Atlanta.

The same is true for the government officials who support our work as activists. This past Saturday  I witnessed Senator Vincent Fort give voice to his promise to legalize cannabis in Atlanta should he win his current campaign to become mayor. Fort, backed by none other than Senator Bernie Sanders and Atlanta's own hip-hop activist Killer Mike, explained that legalization is a significant human rights issue. I learned Saturday that Atlanta tops national charts for limited class mobility. I also learned a leading reason for this is the crippling series of events which often follow an arrest for possession of marijuana.

Unintentional Complacency

Unfortunately, one thing I've encountered in my activism is a stunning lack of enthusiasm for legalization as a social justice issue. If policies do not impact people directly, in ways they immediately feel, many become dismissive. For them, the systemic racism inherent to the drug war does not matter if they are not a person of color themselves. Likewise, the threat of arrest for marijuana doesn't hit home if they either abstain or have lived successfully under the radar for many years.

The same principles apply to other issues facing Atlanta right now as well--specifically the loss of homes to imminent domain, the fight for a living wage and public education reform at both the K-12 and university level. The urgent need for solutions is lost on those who have never lived in a threatened zone, never struggled to meet their basic needs, never sought learning alternatives for their children, or never graduated with advanced degrees and no employment in sight.

In my opinion, the passage of today's decriminalization ordinance can galvanize people to wake from  unintentional complacency. This is thanks to its potential to eliminate some deeply held stigmas. For example, unconscious racism, passed down through generations, will abate when fewer people of color are arrested over time. Likewise, I feel derogatory attitudes toward drug use will abate when adults openly demonstrate responsible use of marijuana.

Most importantly, people who have intentionally placed themselves within boxes because they wish to be "law-abiding" will feel more empowered to take ownership of their health and to fulfill their desires for the peace of mind and physical pleasure which cannabis use can bring. Signaling that use isn't inherently criminal affords people greater safety stepping outside their self-imposed comfort zones and literally experiencing new ways of perceiving reality.

My Grandmother's Boots

Thanks to my maternal grandmother, Laura "Nini" Yarbrough, I've had a unique opportunity for experiencing life in another person's shoes. This is because Nini died August 24 and left me the legacy of her wardrobe. My favorite item is a pair of high-heeled burgundy boots.

Nini always showed tremendous intelligence and a level of social awareness which transcended the norms of her time, especially in rural Alabama where she came of age. She always "got" my poetry and was proud I attended the Women's March on Washington. Nonetheless, she made peace with a homemaker's life and dedicated much of her personal energy to challenging healthcare providers whom she ultimately discovered had done her as much harm as good.

One of the last times I saw Nini, I thanked her for the story she passed on to me, and I pledged to continue carrying her energy out into the world. I take great pleasure in knowing that I am bringing her spirit into spaces where I feel she would never have stepped, yet nonetheless inspired me to go.

So far, my favorite of these places has been a photo opp with Killer Mike after the rally I attended Saturday. While Bernie Sanders and Vincent Fort made a respectful but swift exit, Killer Mike remained longer to take pictures with fans and to chat with the media. I find it fitting that, of the three, he is the artist, the one who shares his cause not so much by speaking about it as by allowing us to feel it--through his music mostly, as well as through the experience of knowing him, albeit fleetingly. Very patiently, he took time to calmly connect with each person gathered around him. He looked at, not past, each of us and found something positive and unique to say. Based on our energy, he gave hugs and high fives, extended invitations to come see him in his barber shop and to keep in touch. When people asked him to back their causes, he kindly asked to see some information first, establishing a boundary with grace.

 When it came to me, he said he liked my shirt. I was in "NORML Mom mode," showing up in support of the decriminalization measure which passed today.

From a Moment to a Movement

After the rally
It strikes me that Killer Mike's celebrity both protects him and leaves him vulnerably exposed. Thus, there is courage in his kindness. As I've described, he also handles himself with a striking amount of humor, humility and honor--for his own positions and for the humanity we share.

Speaking to the public, Killer Mike directed us to transform moments of inspiration into a movement supporting a greater cause, and I feel this greater cause centers on the ability to recognize and embrace our inherent and shared humanity. Doing this will allow us to begin re-shaping some of our driving cultural stories so that we can better address major challenges of our time--from climate change, to police brutality, to affordable housing, to minimum wage, to healthcare, to education reform, to nuclear war, to religious oppression, to freedom of expression, to a transition from capitalism to whatever comes next.

By encouraging freedom of expression and action, decriminalizing marijuana allows us to be just a little bit more in touch with our inherent humanity, and this is one of the reasons why it excites me so much.

To help Atlanta take their latest victory forward into a greater movement, please consider joining Peachtree NORML or the Georgia Care Project in their efforts to move from decriminalization to legalization. Also, if you have the opportunity to vote for Vincent Fort, please do! I know campaign volunteers will remain welcome from now until the election as well. To explore Fort's platform and access details about election day and volunteering, please visit VincentFort.com.

Finally, I thank you for reading this column and ask always that you allow this post to be a seed. Share it, and watch it grow!