Reblogging: Rory Fanning: Veterans Against the War: Eleven Perspectives on Ending US Imperialism  Nov. 11, 2016

I’m always grateful to hear from Vets on issues of their service and US war policy. They have much to tell us. I hope you enjoy the article.


Rory Fanning walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. He is a housing and antiwar activist living in Chicago, Illinois. He is also the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America(Haymarket Books, 2014). Follow him on Twitter @RTFanning.

Rory’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Salon, Common Dreams, TomDispatch, Socialist Worker and many other outlets.

Maggie Martin. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

Maggie Martin. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Today is the 11th Armistice Day I will observe as a veteran. I only recently found the courage to speak up against the US-led wars being fought around the world. It took me so long to speak up because I was scared. I was scared of losing the respect of my family, and of losing the handful of social benefits that accompany being a compliant, “heroic” veteran worthy of uncritical cheers and applause at sporting events and airports. But I was tired of hiding and pretending that being honest about my military experience was less important than social approval, so I learned to speak out. It began with a few articles, which led to a book. The book led to speaking engagements at high schools, prisons and universities. Now it almost feels like second nature to challenge the notion that the United States military is a force for good, or that it fights for freedom and democracy around the world.

The support from like-minded veterans and activists who also speak out against US imperialism — the lives it takes, the racism it fuels, the economic inequality it creates and the damage it does to the environment — was the most important part of my evolution. These antiwar veterans helped me do battle with the fear of isolation that kept me silent. They are the ones who gave me courage. The idea that I was in it alone was a false one. Losing this feeling, I think, was the first step to speaking out.

Fifteen years ago, the US invaded Afghanistan, allegedly to capture the handful of people responsible for 9/11. A decade and a half later, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, other wars have been fought and a vast national security state has been built up around us. Trillions of dollars have been diverted from things like health care, education, infrastructure, fighting climate change and more. And now, a rightwing demagogue has been elected president of the US.

How do we prevent a repeat of the last 15 years? How do we fight the creeping cynicism so many of us feel regarding our ability to stop the damage the US military does around the world? What are some of the obstacles faced by veterans since returning home? What are the challenges that prevent veterans from speaking against the vicious and brutal cycle of war in this country? Now, more than ever, these questions need answers.

In my talks with students I am always encouraging them and their teachers to come together and organize space for veterans to share their stories. No, it isn’t easy for veterans who want to communicate the realities of war to the soon-to-be military-aged kids who need to hear them the most. Ask any number of the millions of young people signed up for the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program a few questions about our country’s recent history. You’ll soon realize how little information is being shared with those who will be tasked with fighting the next decade and a half of wars — if those wars are not stopped.

The problem is that there is plenty of time for parades, backslapping, yellow ribbons and other propaganda, but very little time to hear the horrors of war. So, I thought I would heed my own advice. This Veterans Day, I reached out to a few of my favorite vets, and asked them about the challenges they’ve faced since leaving the military, what needs to happen to end the wars, and their greatest fear about speaking out. Hopefully, these voices will reach others who are considering speaking out, the young people who are being denied the information they need to make an informed decision about joining the military, and the active duty soldiers who are contemplating laying their weapons down and coming home. Maybe they will see that they are not alone, and that there are wonderful and courageous people out there who will support them.

Sabrina Weller in front of Pat Tillman’s statue outside of Phoenix University Stadium. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

 Sabrina Weller in front of Pat Tillman’s statue outside of Phoenix University Stadium. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Sabrina Bosques, Navy Veteran, Kosovo Conflict ’99

The biggest challenge after coming home is believing I was the only one having these feelings of disgust with my time in the military. I was in an F-14 fighter squadron in the Navy. They showed us pictures and videos of the damage the 500 pounds [of explosives] dropped from the F-14 had on the Balkan Area. They wanted us to be proud. I was sickened. I knew there were women and children who died because of missions I supported. I kept asking myself, what does this have to do with Chicago (where I’m from), or the United States? How am I upholding the Constitution by bombing a country I know nothing about in a war that clearly is not about self-defense?

I was one of 500 females aboard an aircraft carrier of 5,000 sailors during the Kosovo conflict; I think that says all you need to know about what an average day during a deployment felt like. Another sailor sexually assaulted me. Statistics state one in three women are sexually assaulted in the military. Even though I was far from alone in my experiences, I couldn’t publicly admit I was a MST (military sexual trauma) survivor until after I was re-traumatized during an inpatient psych visit at my local VA [Veterans Affairs clinic].

I challenge the idea that war is inevitable, or that abuse is inevitable.

I did humanitarian work with the real Patch Adams — without a weapon — in Guatemala and Costa Rica, after leaving the military. This brought me immense peace and really started my path toward working on wellness. Not only did I feel like I was giving back, I saw how the teachers in Costa Rica, much like the teachers in Chicago Public Schools, learned to withhold their labor [i.e., go on strike] for improved standards of living. This is how we change the world. If we don’t like what our government is doing to us, or the wars it’s creating, then we should refuse to go to work until things change.

Also, on that note, when I was in the military I saw three sailors refuse to get an anthrax vaccine [a vaccine that the FDA recommends for at-risk adults before exposure to anthrax and that the CDC says is safe]. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was seeing GI resistance… They ultimately refused their order. They should have that right. These young sailors were kicked out of the military. They stood up against the chain of command. We need to see more of this. The wars stop when service members refuse to obey orders.

Having inadequate mental health care after returning home was my biggest obstacle, and the VA is still a trigger. You would go into the women’s clinic for treatment and you walk into a room full of men. For Veterans receiving treatment for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), this ain’t healing.

Will Griffin, US Army Paratrooper, deployed to Iraq/Afghanistan

Will Griffin at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Will Griffin at Standing Rock protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

The last 15 years of war haven’t worked. Global terrorism has since increased, the world is a more dangerous place and Americans are more fearful than ever before.

A complete reversal is in order. Sending our troops overseas hasn’t worked. Dropping bombs on entire countries hasn’t worked. Feeding weapons to rebel groups hasn’t worked. Let’s stop endangering the world. Fifteen years is enough!

One of the greatest obstacles/fears about speaking out against the wars, before I chose to do so, was being ridiculed, alienated and losing friends. All of this did in fact happen. But all the friends I met since then quickly filled much of that void — people who had the courage to speak out against America’s unending wars are the ones I spend a lot of my time with now. It hasn’t been easy, but my life is so much more fulfilled since coming forward.

Ross Caputi, Veteran of the second battle of Fallujah, 1/8 alpha co USMC, grad student in comparative lit at University of Massachusetts

Ross Caputi, Boston, MA. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Ross Caputi, Boston, MA. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

I think we need to have a moral revolution in this country that totally restructures the way we think about the use of military force. Imperialism is deeply entrenched in our culture. Our perceived right to use violence in other people’s countries is never questioned, and it should be. But even within the progressive community, opposition to our foreign policies is too often framed in terms of domestic costs. I think we need to change our moral culture from one of self-righteousness and self-interest to one of solidarity with our victims.

One of the biggest obstacles/fears to speaking out against US-led wars was that I felt inadequate because of my level of education. I slacked off in high school and didn’t feel like I could put my thoughts into words in a way that others would respect. I worried that I would just end up alienating myself and doing a disservice to Iraqis.

Ramon Mejia. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

Ramon Mejia. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Ramon Mejia, founding Organizer of #VetsVsHate, Latino Muslim USMC Veteran.

“Instead of galvanizing the public for continued conflict, discuss innovative alternatives to investing our taxpayer dollars rather than continuing to build and maintain military installations overseas. Nearly $600 billion is still spent on supporting the war effort each year! Imagine how reallocating even a fraction of this could help rebuild our country’s crumbling infrastructure! I hope more people speak sincerely and truthfully about the issues we need to confront as a nation. Don’t speak about military threats to our national security while ignoring the ways our foreign policy has created these crises.

To live with the burden that I, by participating in the Iraq War, contributed to the continued oppression and further exploitation of a people — the burden, at times, is more than I can bear. And now by speaking out against the war, against US militarism, I’m called a “traitor” … What the fuck?!? I was lied to by the U.S. government. They lied to me! They took my youth, my humanity, and I’m the traitor?!?


Maggie Martin. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Maggie Martin. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Maggie Martin IVAW Co-Director

I think if we don’t want to repeat the last 15 years, we need a real change in how people in the US experience war from such a distance. That could mean increasing people’s understanding about the human and economic costs of war, prioritizing and promoting diplomatic solutions and fully funding the VA to treat those injured in war. We need to have a government that will be accountable to the people about the choice to go to war. We would also need a major shift in mainstream media if we hope to change our militaristic culture.

I didn’t really have too much fear about speaking out against the wars, but I think an obstacle was figuring out how I would be able to make a living while still giving the time and effort I wanted [to] work against the war. I’ve been on staff with IVAW [Iraq Veterans Against the War] for five and a half years, so it’s been great for me, but our members and volunteers still struggle to make time for political work with the challenges of working, going to school and having families. At this point for me, with a one-year-old son, I am finding the right balance of family and movement life.


Michael T. McPherson. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Michael T. McPherson. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Michael T. McPhearson, Veterans For Peace, Executive Director

What should happen to stop what has been happening for the past 25 years, since the US shrugged off Vietnam Syndrome, and what has been happening since the founding of this nation — i.e., a constant and consistent march to global hegemony?

Activists here at home must understand that all of our issues are intertwined and that we cannot make real change without addressing root causes — what MLK called a revolution of values. We need a transformation of what we value. We must put people before things. Greed must become an anathema. Central to this transformation must be a confrontation of patriarchy that puts the needs of children and sustaining the planet at the center. Together we can have a full-spectrum peoples’ movement that will help everyone see how all of our destinies are connected. And Veterans For Peace must continue to work to build a global movement of veterans who are speaking out against war and violent conflict and for peace. I think if we do these things or even fall short, succeeding only in part, we would see the kind of change we seek.

Departure from war was not my starting place to talk about peace. I once thought war was a necessary evil to help bring about peace. I began to talk about peace as it relates to issues here at home and specifically to my community as a Black man. My mother always taught us to stand up against injustice and for what is right; so when I got out of the military, it was natural for me to begin to speak out against racism and other forms of hate. Then in the summer of 2001, before the World Trade Center tragedy, I saw an activist holding a sign that [said] 500,000 children died as a result of US sanctions in Iraq. I was hit by a thunderbolt. It dawned on me that I am in part responsible for those deaths because I was a tool in the wars that helped put those sanctions in place. From then on I had no choice but to speak out to change US foreign policy as it relates to war and peace. I had some anxiety as to how to do that as a former soldier, but I found Veterans For Peace and many role models like David Cline to emulate.

Matthew Hoh, 2010 Ridenhour Prize winner for Truth-Telling, a former Marine, member of Veterans for Peace

Matthew Hoh. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Matthew Hoh. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

How do we prevent a repeat of the last 15 years? I find that to be a very difficult question to answer. The United States and its people, at least the white ruling classes, have always been an expansionist and imperialist. This notion that the United States was an isolationist nation up until the 20th century is nonsense. We didn’t have to have an empire overseas because we were building one through genocide and slavery across the North American land mass. So, I don’t see anything in our history that allows me to say: “This needs to happen as it did then…”

The only thing we can do is to fight on against the forces that will drive us toward such totalitarianism and suffering if we were not to make any resistance. To measure and savor each small victory we achieve, and to believe that we can achieve a better state of humanity and a peaceful world.

Since returning home from the military, my greatest frustration has to be the hero worship that we as veterans are feted with. It is unthinking, reflexive and Orwellian. It is grounded in ignorance, and the enthusiasm with which I find it so often expressed seems to come from a place of mistaken guilt for not having served, or from a place of slavish obedience to cultural and societal dictates that help sustain our military and industrial profligacy and our immoral wars overseas (and at home).

My biggest fear coming forward was that those I have served with would reject me. The reality has been the opposite. I don’t believe I have lost any friendships, and I have been accepted and respected by my former peers.

Those who have been hostile have usually brought their hostility forward from a place of immaturity or ignorance about the reality of the wars. I’ve met few combat vets [who] have disputed my assessment of the wars, while those [who] never went and actually saw the wars are the ones who disagree with me. I think many Americans would be surprised at the high number of members of our Armed Forces who disagree with the wars, but still participate in them.

Adrienne Kinne Cascade Mountain, Adirondacks, NY on October 11, 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Adrienne Kinne Cascade Mountain, Adirondacks, NY on October 11, 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Adrienne Kinne, US Army 1994-1998, US Army Reserves 1998-2004, stateside, mobilization 2001-2003, Arabic Linguist, Sergeant, E-5

The last 15 years of endless war, increasing wealth disparity, environmental assault and rise in hate and prejudice did not happen overnight, and they are not isolated incidents. They are all outcomes of a power structure that was put in place when our country was founded, and that has favored the rich and powerful few at the expense of the masses. I believe that for real change to happen, we need to abandon the idea that, if we can only get the right person into office, that he or she will make things better for us. Real change in this country has only ever happened through committed and persistent grassroots organizing, rooted in the belief that change is possible.

I joined the military right out of high school. In the beginning I thought that the military would be my career. When I realized I could no longer in good conscience follow that path, I had to figure out anew who I was going to be in life. That was a challenge, practically and emotionally. The bigger challenge, however, was riding the emotional wave that hit as I came to the deeper realization that so much of what I believed to be good about America and serving in the military was a lie. I had to relearn almost everything I thought I knew. Fortunately in doing so, I discovered that there is so much to be proud of as an American — there’re just not the things we’re typically taught in history class.

When I finally decided that signing petitions and making “get out the vote calls” was not enough to alter the path that our country was going down and made the decision to step forward physically and say “enough,” it seemed like an almost natural progression in my activism against the war. It felt like it had to be done and that it was the right thing to do. It was only after I made that first step and connected with other veterans organizing against the wars that I feared being demonized, losing my job, going to jail, and ostracizing my friends and family. I have not gone to jail yet, but the idea of it no longer scares me. I have been called a liar, and my job has been threatened, but there are worse things in life. And my activism has strained my relationships with some friends and family. So be it. My real friends and family have stood by me, and I have found new friends and family the world over who are committed to the same ideals as I am. My greatest fear now is that in trying to find balance in life I have stepped too far back from activism.

Geoff Millard. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Geoff Millard. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) Geoff Millard Iraq war veteran and former member of IVAW        

“One of the biggest problems is that people claim to ‘support the troops,’ but those who speak out are largely unheard… If we are going to break the status quo, and avoid a repeat of the last 15 years, we have to learn to communicate with each other better. Yelling at people about how their politics are wrong, if you don’t agree with them, isn’t going to win enough people to reverse the current tide. We have to start having honest and real conversations with those who may not be on the same page but have an open mind.

One of the biggest challenges I have faced since returning from Iraq is losing touch with long-time family and friends. Not a single family or friend from my past attended my wedding. There is a distance in my heart that makes it difficult to maintain or feel connected with people…. The thing that has helped me the most is working with homeless veterans. Besides, so many of my friends who also served are dead from suicide. I am in a constant state of physical and emotional pain…

Garett Reppenhagen, US Army, Operation Enduring Freedom 

Garrett Reppenhagen, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Garrett Reppenhagen, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

To avoid another 15 years of US forces in armed conflicts, America will have to find the courage to not engage every would-be terrorist organization that threatens the western world. We would have to take immediate massive action to support clean renewable energy sources to end our fossil fuel dependence that takes immense military resources to secure. We would need to lower the impact of our military industry in political elections by repealing Citizen United. We must end the post 9/11 war powers act that allows the president to use aggressive action indiscriminately around the world.

The most trying time in my life was returning from Iraq and learning to forgive myself for my role as a sniper in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a sense I did not experience being a victim of trauma, but I was a perpetrator of violence on others. My mental health is directly tied to the legitimacy of the conflict I was in. For my part in it, I will be challenged by moral injury for the rest of my life.

Mike Haines, Marine Force Recon, Member of Veteran for Peace  

Mike Hanes, at Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training, in San Diego, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)Mike Hanes, at Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training, in San Diego, California. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning)

After combat in Iraq, I got out of the Marines within six months of getting back to the US. One of the greatest challenges that I have faced upon getting back was finding my place in society. After combat, I looked at the world differently. I couldn’t fit into any niche, and I still have that problem in many ways. I began to isolate, get into confrontations and self-medicate with alcohol. A huge problem for me was finding work. There seemed to always be something that would throw me off psychologically or physically which would always lead to bad results. Another thing I can’t wrap my head around anymore is slaving away for a company or corporation for eight hours a day, day in and day out, in perpetual, repetitive, monotonous tasks for enhancing corporate profits. I would rather walk out into the woods and live the remainder of my days off the land, away from this predatory society that does not care for you or me and motivates us through patriotism to send our kids to war. The war system and the connection to corporate profits, imperialism, acquiring resources, and maintaining strategic advantage over others has motivated me to do what ever peaceful actions I can to make this world one of empathy, caring, sanity and global peace.

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Clarinda Harriss: Gladly Would (she) Teach and Gladly Learn

Dr. Sara deFord, my longtime teacher and mentor—with whom I eventually collaborated on two books—was a medievalist as well as a poet. While we Goucher undergrads were happily toiling our way through Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in their original Middle English, she pointed out that the description of the Clerk would fit perfectly a contemporary T(eaching) A(ssistant) working toward a PhD. Teaching at Forest Park High School while I worked toward my grad degree, I understood the aptness of the quotation. From spending my first 14 years of my total of 40 at Towson U., I was struck by how similar the Teach Assistant and the Adjunct are, and how both are fit to a T by the Clerk.

Clarinda Harriss
Clarinda Harriss

The funny thing about being a TA or an adjunct is that how many of these homeless, rights-less fledgling profs love their work; their exhilaration, if they are lucky enough to feel it at all, can transfer powerfully to their students. Both Lynda and Frannie, now among my oldest friends, were my students at Forest Park High School (FPHS) over 50 years ago. I am firming up plans for my annual get-together with Lynda, and my offspring and I consider Frannie a member of the family. I believe they graduated from FPHS in 1964.   From FPHS students I learned, among many other things, that teaching was my true calling. (More so, even, than writing.) And I think what I learned to love best about teaching was how much it taught me. I had much to learn.

Fast backward to a January day in 1961, a teacher’s meeting day just prior to the start of the Spring semester. I had tacked up various cheerful pictures above the blackboards (they really were black and made of slate!) and written a quiz on the board (my mother, perhaps the wisest teacher I’ve ever known, said a daily quiz would give me a chance to “get myself together” before starting a lesson). I had put Mateus wine bottle empties with ivy in them on the wide, wide windowsills (we’re talking about the gorgeous old FPHS here, complete with marble halls and 20-foot high art deco goddesses holding urns on either side of the antique elevators). And I stared down at the rows and rows of antique desks, wood and wrought iron combos nailed securely to the floor. Empty desks. They seemed Escher-like. Nightmarish. I panicked.

But the next day, when the desks were all occupied by students, I realized (to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh’s Roo sipping from a medicine bottle), “This is what Clarinda likes!” Panic evaporated. Elation took over, though sometimes it kind of scared me to realize that, at 21, and THE TEACHER, I was the only so-called adult in the crowded room.   As soon as the desks were peopled with, well, people, the back-and-forth, the teaching and learning in both directions, started.

My sense of “I can do this!” was greatly enhanced by Stanley Berdoff. I think that’s his real name; he won’t be mad at me if he reads this, I suspect.   Stanley was not present on the first day. “Wait till Stanley gets here,” students told me, snickering. Stanley was the resident bad-ass. He wasn’t there the next day, either.   On the third day, just as I was climbing via a desktop up onto the window sill to see if I could open a window (even with one of those long hooked poles I couldn’t do it), Stanley, late of course, swaggered in.   The class held its collective breath.“You must be Stanley,” I blurted. “Do you think you could give me a hand here?”

In an instant Stanley leapt onto the windowsill as onto a charger and took the pole, the lance, from my hand. He jousted with the window and won. “Hey, when you need me to do anything for you, I’m right here,” said Stanlely Bad-Ass Berdoff, my shining knight. I like to recall that the class applauded, but I’m not sure that part really happened.

Then there was the enormous Vo-Tech class. Every semester I was assigned at least one of those: boys—no, young men—who were either deemed not smart enough for the Academic track or who actually chose to be in the Vocational track, taking wood shop and machine shop so they could go into the workforce right way. For obvious reasons, the guys in that track differed radically from one another in intelligence, motivation, you name it.   That difference swiftly became apparent to me when I met ferociously intelligent Jimmy McCulloch (not quite his real name, for reasons which will become apparent).

Thirty copies of MACBETH had recently been delivered by dolly to my classroom, and forty-some eleventh grade vo-tech guys were struggling through it, many forced to share their copies. Mostly we read the play aloud and acted out the bloodiest or funniest scenes (vo-tech guys made brilliant witches). Fact is, Macbeth is perfectly attuned to almost-adult males, who understand masculine rivalry and also tend to be a bit sentimental; it wasn’t unusual for a couple of the guys to get teary eyed when Macduff cries “All my pretty ones? All?”

One day Jimmy lingered at my desk after class.

“Miz Lott, how much longer are we going to be doing Macbeth?”

“Oh, Jimmy, I’m sorry we’re going so slowly—you’re probably getting bored– but we should be done by the end of the week.”

“No, Miz Lott, it’s just that my uncles need to know when I can get back to work, and I can’t cut school while we’re on Macbeth.”

Jimmy was the scion of a family famous from Baltimore to Appalachia for its skill at parting out stolen cars.

Jimmy played Macbeth the rest of the week. And, when he was not too busy working with his uncles, he kept my moribund 1950 Morris Minor alive till the semester ended. Guilty secret: I never really liked Macbeth till then. Jimmy and his vo-tech cohorts taught me to love it.

Then there were the Basics.   These were students deemed not smart enough to be in either the academic OR the vocational tracks. We were given guidelines for how to “cope” with them, and dumbed down rewrites of Macbeth (ditto Silas Marner, etc.) arrived unbidden to our classrooms for them to suffer through. A couple of other fledgling profs and I cruelly referred to the most challenged of these students as the Mopantew Kids.   That’s because on one quiz a “Basic” youth spelled “potato” “mopantew.” Years later, as a direct result of teaching poetry at the university level, I noted that this “Basic” boy was close to being literate: unlike some of the poetry students, he understand syllables and the alternation of consonants with vowels and, most of all, accentuation. All somebody would’ve had to do was get him and others like him Hooked on Phonics. That was a lesson I learned too late.

As much as I learned from my high school students, both at Forest Park and at Towson High (where it was a student who told me that I had to read Dalton Trumbo and another who turned me on to Confederacy of Dunces), nothing can quite compare with what I learned from my “Editing the Literary Magazine” course at Towson University(TU), a class comprising the large staff of GRUB STREET, TU’s prizewinning lit and arg mag.   On one blue-and-gold September morning, a beloved colleague, Peggy Benner, rushed into my classroom and plunked her “vintage” black and white portable TV on the front table. Not I, but the Grub Street editor, Hilary Szygiel, sat at that table, leading the discussion of the most recent batch of submissions.   And that is how Hilarie and I and the other 30-some staff members watched the second Twin Tower fall in real time. It freaks me out—in a marvelous say—to realize that all of us, when asked what we were doing on 9/11, would almost certainly say the same thing, and, unless I’m a total exception, recall feeling a sense of connection like to few we’d ever experienced.   To this day I feel grateful that I was part of what I consider the most important aspect of teaching/learning in a classroom: a sense of community unique in our experience. The community of scholars and vo-tech guys and writers and, yes, Mopantew Kids. It transcends time. The Clerk is part of the community.

From Canterbury Tales: The Clerk

For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede.Noght o word spak he moore than was neede, And that was seyd in forme and reverence, And short and quyk, and ful of hy sentence; Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,310And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche.

Clarinda Harriss is a professor emerita of English at Towson University.  For more than four decades she has done several things dear to her heart, and continues to do them:  publish BrickHouse Books, Inc., Maryland’s oldest literary press, and worked with prison writers.   Her most recent book, THE WHITE RAIL (Halfmoon Editions, Atlanta, GA) ,  is a collection of short fiction, not her “real” genre, poetry.  She delights in her two children and five grandchildren.

Ruby Sayles: “Where does it hurt?”

Today as many of us cast our vote in an historic election with much at stake, I offer the wisdom and heart of Ruby Sayles as she shares her experiences  in this beautiful interview with Krista Tippet on her show On Being.

Peace and blessings to all of my readers. Remember, no matter who wins the election, we all still live and work together in our neighborhoods. Let’s be kind to each other.

Setting Boundaries in Uncomfortable Places

“My brother went to the St. George’s,” I told Bill, the man running the weekend program, “and I went to Holy Grace Academy.”

He smiled knowingly. “I’m a St. George’s guy too.”

With that acknowledgment, we knew we were from the same tribe of Catholic kids.   “Did any of those St. George’s gentlemen ever feel you up?”

Several people were sitting around the table when Bill shot me that question. He grinned and waited.

I hesitated—“Well, I guess even gentlemen sometimes did things like that.”

And while I had acted like I took his comment as a joke, playing it cool, inside I was shocked. I don’t think I’ve ever had a man ask me that, and so publically, in front of  folks I’d just met.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the exchange, so the next day when I caught Bill alone I said, “You really are a lot like my brother. He’s the only man I can think of who’d ask me a question about some guy copping a feel.”

Bill seemed to shrink a bit as he offered an explanation. “Well, I only said that because I felt comfortable with you.”

He may have been comfortable, but I sure wasn’t. “But I guess I could really get into hot water if I said that out in the workplace,” he offered.

So why am I revisiting this story? He said something offensive, I answered and then called him on it. But not the way I wish I had.

This isn’t the first time a man has made suggestive comments to me—under the guise of humor—and I feel like I should be able to handle the situation better—as soon as it happens. A few days later as I replayed this incident over in my mind, a good response came to me. I could have said, “Excuse me?” and then paused. For several seconds. Long enough for him to be uncomfortable. I could have taken my power without getting into the tug and tussle of common male excuses like “I was just teasing” or “Can’t you take a joke?”

I realize now, almost a week later as I replay this incident, that I needed to rehearse. I was caught off guard by his remark and I played along, the way so many women do. Just the way I was taught.

I’m not a kid, and I know how to stand up for myself. But like many women that I know, I froze in the moment and reverted to the nice girl of my past. I love that “nice girl” who’s still inside of me, and from now on, I’m going to protect her.

Here is a primer from David Hosier, MSc, on how to handle humor that is hurtful or embarrassing.

It should be borne in mind, also, that if we complain about being the object of cruel and hurtful humor, we may find ourselves accused of ‘not being able to take a joke’, or of ‘being oversensitive’ , that it was ‘just teasing’ or, especially irritatingly, being told that we need to ‘lighten up.’

There are, however, various methods that can be used to discourage others from using destructive humor. These include:

  • don’t ‘play along’ by joining in the laughter just because you feel pressured to do so
  • bluntly state you do not find the ‘joke’ funny or that it’s not your kind of humor (people who laugh at everything, paradoxically, often have little sense of humor and certainly lack discernment)
  • start defining limits and boundaries if someone continually oversteps the mark by making so-called ‘funny’ comments are hurtful
  • ask the individual to explain precisely why s/he considers what s/he said to be amusing
  • respond with bored indifference, perhaps even feigning agreement.


“Humor: How Parents May Use It to Emotionally Wound Their Children,” by David Hosier, MSc.

Teaching as a Form of Contemplative Practice

Maybe you’re like me–the pairing of  the words teaching and contemplation is about as harmonious as fingernails on a piece of slate.  My response to that pairing is rooted in my early experiences with contemplative practice. My great-aunt was a Sister of the Good Shepherd and lived in a cloistered convent. When I questioned my mother about what the word cloister meant, she told me that the sisters could not leave the convent and that all of their visits were conducted from behind a screen.

“What do they do all day?”, I asked my mother.

“Pray,” was her simple response.

To a little girl who loved people, that  isolated life of prayer and seeing visitors from behind a screen made no sense.  Contemplation seemed to be reserved for nuns in a cloister–it had nothing to do with the outside world where I lived. My early experience may have clouded my understanding of the riches waiting in contemplative practice, but half-a-lifetime later, I am finally discovering contemplation’s gifts.

I began meditating in earnest about eight years ago when I was working in a challenging teaching situation. The angry woman I taught with  often used sarcasm with the students. Sometimes she was openly hostile and contemptuous of my ideas. I never knew what I would find when I worked with her, so I often found myself in a state of hyper-vigilance.

A friend suggested that I try meditation to help me calm my mind, especially at night when I began to dread the next day and replay all kinds of awful scenarios from our interactions. At first, the only effect I could see was that I slept well after I meditated. But as time passed, I found myself calmer in the face of my colleague’s tirades. I began to observe her behavior and to notice how I felt inside. I breathed more easily. And I was able to choose my words and actions rather than shutting down or fleeing.

Another gift of mediation was that I began to talk back to my initial judgments. If I saw my administrator, I sent her love instead of negative thoughts. When I had a challenging student in the class, I paused for a moment before I spoke. I was more tuned into my bodily sensations and how my inner state was affecting my actions.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

I began to realize that all of the skills I practiced during mediation were slowly showing up during my work hours. Just as I had learned to observe any  thoughts that arose during my sitting practice, I was now observing thoughts during the day, reigning in my wandering mind. In that brief space between observation and awareness, I found some clarity and calm. Teaching was actually becoming a form of contemplative practice.

Mirabi Bush, a mediation teacher, was recently a guest on Krista Tippett;s radio show, On Being. Bush discusses how she learned mediation in India doing the 1960s, and how she returned to the United States, “… when I came back two years later, I was pregnant and married and had a child then. So I couldn’t — when we first came back, meditation — we still had the model of it[meditation] being monastic. And so having a child and being a meditation teacher was just — no one could imagine that… ” (from On Being, 9-2016).

But Bush goes on to talk about her work in the world now and how she creates mindfulness programs in businesses such as Google, where she teaches a program called “Search Inside Yourself.”  The program blends a cultivation of mindfulness and emotional intelligence to help Google’s engineers bring a deeper awareness to the human dimensions of their work and their own role in the experiences and policies they create for people.

But back to the classroom—back to the place where kids daydream and  teachers count the minutes until the class ends. In that crowded space, mindfulness can be as powerful a tool as a smart board, benefitting both teachers and students.   I leave you with the words of William James, writing in The Principles of Psychology from 1890:

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”  

What Can You Learn From a Lake?

One of the greatest joys that we have as humans is our deep and profound connection to nature. For me, there is no better reminder than the season of fall to appreciate both the power and the beauty inherent in nature. The colors of the leaves are rich and intense. The flavors are aromatic and dense–pumpkins, apple cider, and pears. Fall also  offers us golden weather–crisp, cool days, still warm enough for a light jacket or sweater.  I never feel so much a part of life as I do in the fall.

Brunswick Bay in Maine
Brunswick Bay in Maine

Yet there is the reminder of our mortality tucked behind all of the lush beauty of the season. The leaves turn red, yellow and orange, then flutter and spin into brown blankets. The branches of the trees reach up, naked, embracing the sky. And the birds leave for warmer weather.

Poet Jane Hirshfield reminds us of the magic to be found in a lake—water capable of  both taking and returning things.  She invites us into her world to explore leaves and fish, hope and longing. Enjoy the magic of this lovely poem.

Lake and Maple by Jane Hirshfield

I want to give myself
as this maple
that burned and burned
for three days without stinting
and then in two more
dropped off every leaf;
as this lake that,
no matter what comes
to its green-blue depths,
both takes and returns it.
In the still heart that refuses nothing,
the world is twice-born —
two earths wheeling,
two heavens,
two egrets reaching
down into subtraction;
even the fish
for an instant doubled,
before it is gone.
I want the fish.
I want the losing it all
when it rains and I want
the returning transparanence.
I want the place
by the edge-flowers where
the shallow sand is deceptive,
where whatever
steps in must plunge,
and I want that plunging.
I want the ones
who come in secret to drink
only in early darknes,
and I want the ones
who are swallowed.
I want the way
the water sees without eyes,
hears without ears,
shivers without will or fear
at the gentlest touch.
I want the way it
accepts the cold moonlight
and lets it pass,
the way it lets
all of of it pass
without judgment or comment.
There is a lake.
Lalla Ded sang, no larger
than one seed of mustard,
that all things return to.
O heart, if you
will not, cannot, give me the lake,
then give me the song.

Reblogging: The Tryanny of Philanthrocapitalism

I am reblogging this post by Diane Ravitch because so many people are impressed when the very wealthy, like Bill and Melinda Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donate money to seemingly good causes. But nothing is ever really free, and donations always come with a price. Here is a cautionary tale as we head into the election season.

The Tyranny of Philanthrocapitalism

by dianeravitch

Antonio Olmedo writes here about the new undemocratic, unaccountable Philanthrocapitalism, as embodied by the Gates Foundation:

In 2008, in their Ode to philanthrocapitalism, Bishop and Green claimed that philanthrocapitalists are “hyperagents who have the capacity to do some essential things far better than anyone else”. Apparently, the fact that they “do not face elections every few years, like politicians, or suffer the tyranny of shareholder demands for ever-increasing quarterly profits, like CEOs of most private companies” or that they do not have to devote “vast amounts of time and resources to raising money, like most heads of NGOs”, situates them in a privileged position to “think long term”, to go “against conventional wisdom”, to take up ideas “too risky for government” and to deploy “substantial resources quickly when the situation demands it”. These new super agents can solve the problems of the world, and do it fast, cleanly, and absolutely.

Behind Bishop and Green’s philanthrocapitalim, Bill Gates’ creative capitalism, and David Cameron’s Big Society, which are closely related conceptions, is a new relation of ‘giving’ and enacting policy. This relation is based on a more direct involvement of givers in policy communities, that is a more ‘hands on’ approach to the use of donations. In previous writings we have referred to this new political landscape as philanthropic governance, that is the ways in which, through their philanthropic action, these actors are able to modify meanings, mobilise assets, generate new policy technologies and exert pressure on, or even decide, the direction of policy in specific contexts.

Democratic deficit

The problem here, or the problem for some of us, is that the claims and practices of new philanthropy are premised on the residualisation of established methods and traditions of democracy. They see no need to respond to or be accountable for their philanthropic investments to anyone else but themselves. This is what Horne indicates when he claimed that new philanthropists operate in a ‘para-political sphere’[1] within which they can develop their own policy agenda untrammelled by the vicissitudes of politics. What we are facing here is more than just givers who ‘vote with their dollars’[2]. As Parmar puts it: “the foundation-state relationship, therefore, is not a conspiracy – it may be quite secretive and operate behind the scenes, but it is not criminal enterprise. It is, however, strongly undemocratic, because it privileges the right people, usually those with the right social backgrounds and/or attitudes”. The direct involvement of new philanthropists in the para-political sphere enables “some individuals to act as their own private governments, whose power can be used to challenge that of the state and force it to re-examine its priorities and policies”

Gambling with children’s future

Essentially this is a simplification of policy, a cutting out of the messy compromises, dissensus and accommodations that attend ‘normal’ policymaking. But perhaps change is less simple than it seems initially from the perspective of great wealth! In a recent public letter from of Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, there is a frank recognition that single-mindedness and a deliberate circumvention of traditional policy actors may not actually be constructive or effective in getting change done.

“… we’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make system-wide change.

Mark Forrester: For Danny

Mark Forrester was my mentor during the first semester that I taught in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland in College Park. But he is so much more that a teacher—Mark is a father, a husband, a poet, and a true friend. I hope readers will enjoy his blog on what it means to be a witness to one’s students.

When I think of former students, as often as not my first impulse is to offer an apology.

Danny was a junior in college, a student in my professional writing class. He showed up for class every day, on time, and sat in the front row of the classroom. However, the work that he submitted often seemed careless and reflected an immaturity that also appeared when he spoke up in class. He would offer loud observations that were irrelevant to and threatened to derail our classroom discussions. He embarrassed another student by noting that her name was also that of a videogame character.

Not surprisingly, I quickly grew frustrated with Danny. I was not rude to him, but I’m sure I directed more of my time and attention to those students who seemed more engaged and willing to learn.

On the last day of the course, I overheard Danny discussing the treatment he was receiving for autism. Would I have treated him differently if I had known this from the beginning of the semester? I’m not sure what specifically I might have done differently, but I know that my attitude would have been changed—and in teaching, a change of attitude can mean everything.

MF: College Professor
Mark Forrester

Of course, Danny is not the only student I have had in my career who was struggling with difficult circumstances. I have had students who were suicidal, who were in abusive relationships, who were dealing with eating disorders, who were sick and overworked, who were facing criminal charges, who had been sexually abused by a parent, who had a parent who was dying, whose best friend died that semester, whose parents were going through a bitter divorce . . . along with many other challenging and emotionally overwhelming situations. You cannot teach long at any level without encountering enough genuine tragedy to make Dickens seem like Pollyanna in comparison.

Few of us still subscribe (at least consciously) to the old-fashioned notion that our students come to us as empty vessels, eagerly waiting to be filled with knowledge. However, it’s often easy to forget just how un-empty those students really are. For a student like Danny, a teacher may be able to make adjustments in their teaching style. But when a student is struggling with the imminent death of a beloved parent, how can a teacher hope to make the distinction between cumulative and coordinate adjectives seem important?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. In the moment, such matters are not important to the student, and they should not be important to the teacher. For that matter, the injustices imposed by prison privatization and the dangers posed by global warming will not seem important either. While it is a noble pursuit for a teacher to want to serve as a witness on behalf of their students, it is too easy to assume that you know best what needs to be witnessed.

A good witness must be an active witness. To be an effective witness, you must start by being an attentive listener. You must know where your students stand, what the content of their vessels really is, what they need and what they are ready to learn. Many problems, perhaps including Danny’s autism, carry the additional frustration of making it more difficult for the student to speak up about what they are facing, meaning that the teacher must do more than listen. We must observe carefully, we must empathize fully, and we must assume the best of our students—no matter how many times we have already been burned by that assumption.

We must first allow our students to witness to us.

So, Danny, I am sorry. I did not listen when I should have, but I hope that I am a better listener now.

Bio: Mark Forrester is a high school dropout, former chef, and haiku poet. He has taught literature and composition courses at the University of Maryland for 24 years. Mark is an Assistant Director of Maryland’s Professional Writing Program, and in 2014 was honored with a Philip Merrill Presidential Scholars award for mentorship.

Sharing Stories by B. Morrison

I first met B. Morrison at the Maryland Writers Conference several years ago when she published her memoir Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. She wrote her courageous account of being on welfare for a brief period in her life as a way of saying to the world, “Look, this awful situation can happen to anyone.  Even someone from a good home with an education.”  Last year we did a series of readings together where we both discussed the importance of looking back at our lives to move forward and to heal.

B. Morrison’s gentle approach to memoir writing is encapsulated in this quote from Othello:

“What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
William Shakespeare

Why Memoir

I’ve been teaching memoir classes for quite a few years now. What I’ve found is that people want to share their stories for all kinds of reasons. They may want to leave a record for their families. They may have experienced a particular era, such as World War II or the 1960s counterculture, that people may later want to learn about. Or they may have gone through some other trial and believe that what they have learned may help others. Some simply want to discover the shape of their lives, to see their life as a sustained narrative rather than a collection of random events.

B. Morrison
B. Morrison

Often, people turn to memoir as a way to come to terms with a past trauma. Programs such as the Walter Reed Arts Program ( have shown that making art and music is often more effective for healing than medications or surgery, particularly for patients with brain injury or PTSD. Linda Joy Meyers explores this healing aspect of memoir in The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story (

While writing therapy is an established field, when I teach memoir writing I am not there to be a therapist or counselor. I am there to help them find their stories and to tell them. But inevitably I am also there as a recipient of their personal stories. As I read or listen to a participant’s story, I share their experience. I am a witness, but one with certain responsibilities.

Finding the story

I often work with people who want to write a memoir or have been asked by their families to create one, but they don’t know where to start. “My life is ordinary,” they might say, or “I don’t remember anything much.”

No matter how ordinary your life may seem, you have stories that will interest others. You may have to excavate them. You may have to shape them to make them more effective. You may have to get out the power tools.

To find the stories participants in my classes want to tell, need to tell, we do writing sprints. I offer a prompt, a suggested topic such as “Write about a time you fell down.” I leave it open-ended, so that the prompt could be interpreted as a physical fall or a metaphorical fall. Then we freewrite for a set period of time, five or ten minutes, just writing anything, whatever comes, without worrying about grammar or structure; just writing.

It’s surprising what comes out of these sessions. And such memories are like a magician’s rope of scarves: you start to pull and more comes out and more and then even more.

To shape stories we talk about story elements, such as characterization, setting, story structure. We work on including dramatic scenes. As one student put it, sometimes you need to take an axe and chop holes in your narrative that you can then fill with scenes.

A safe place

Memoir classes are different from other creative writing classes because people are sharing true and often painful experiences. It’s important for me as the teacher to create a safe space for such sharing.

One aspect of that safety is privacy. In the first session of every class I remind everyone that what is said in class stays there. It is fine to share what you’ve learned about writing, but nothing about the lives or experiences of others.

Another aspect is respect for each participant’s voice. We take turns critiquing work, going around the table, each person having their say. It is part of my role as the teacher to ensure that any criticism is constructive.

Even more important is that I make certain we critique the work and not the experience, not the person. For example, if a person’s memoir piece is about a past conflict with their mother, we would not say, “You should have felt this way or done that.” Instead we look at the writing and offer suggestions for making the piece stronger, perhaps by adding more sensory details or varying sentence structure.

I and the others in the class bear witness to the writer’s experience, without criticising the experience itself. However, though I work with adults rather than children, if I thought one of the participants were in danger, I would act. That is part of my responsibility as the teacher.


In a story the protagonist (who in a memoir would be yourself) goes a journey that starts in one place and ends up in another. In the best stories, it is actually two related journeys: one external and one internal. For example, in her wonderful memoir The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls tells the external story of growing up with imaginative but irresponsible parents. Her internal journey is to learn to appreciate them for who they are and, as her mother says in the first chapter, to tell the truth about them.

Writing a memoir means digging into the emotions of a past event. Like the protagonist of any story, as we write about our experience we expose the inner wound that drives that particular story. It may or may not be healed, but at least it is heard.

Biography: B. Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara provides editing services and conducts writing workshops, including courses this fall through the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Program and the Baltimore County Arts Guild. More information:


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