Couple Makes Top Offer on Historic, Three-Story Tent In Great Location

The Cheadle's multi-story tent home overlooking Highway 101 in Menlo Park, CA

The Cheadle’s multi-story tent home overlooking Highway 101 in Menlo Park, CA

Menlo Park, CA — Executive power couple Brian and Sofia Cheadle, determined to find a property in the ultra-competitive Bay Area housing market, finally succeeded where many others have failed, placing the winning offer on a unique, multi-level tent home. The Cheadles’ bid, 40% over the 1.6 million dollar asking price, was characterized as “a steal” by a real-estate analysis web service that also features U-Print daily discount coupons good on future foreclosures. The professional analyst failed to mention the home’s sweeping, 180-degree view of Highway 101, a standard feature of this prime Eastside locale.

The Cheadles’ all-cash offer was accepted over a dozen others because they waived all contingencies, according to their agent, Vera Huffman-Bond, who spoke on the condition that only photos showing her best side be used.

Huffman-Bond suggested that tent living was ideal for buyers on a limited budget. She went on to describe various City-subsidized aesthetic enhancements, including bold exterior paint schemes matching those used by upscale fumigators.

The Cheadles recently discovered some surprising facts about their new residence. “Our son Jeremy is really jazzed about the back yard,” said Sofia, pointing out the generous crop of drought-tolerant native thistles in which Jeremy could both play hide and seek and practice first aid. The thistles also conceal a treasure-trove of antique ordnance from World War II, hastily abandoned by the Army in the 1950s. The site was later saved from toxic superfund designation by a quick-thinking city council.

“The listing agent, George, is a real sweetheart,” Sofia said. “Given the affordable housing designation, he swept for land mines at his own expense.”

Brian Cheadle demonstrated the hand-operated well, conveniently located near the tent’s ornate, zippered front door. “Check it out!” he said, sweating profusely. “This really encourages water conservation.” He then showed off a high-tech electrical outlet at one side of the driveway that was charging the couple’s Tesla Model S sedan.

The Cheadles’ agent, Huffman-Bond, explained that such amenities are only part of the value equation. “Honestly? It all comes down to the quality of local schools,” she said, observing that Jeremy, who would soon start Kindergarten, could enroll in the City’s nationally recognized, character-building K-12 harassment program. “And it doesn’t stop at high school,” she said. “Our community is dedicated to lifelong learning.” She cited a recent study showing that anyone living within a two-mile radius of nearby Stanford University could, with careful choice of luncheon venues, absorb through deep conversation alone the equivalent of a four-year education at a lesser State institution.

Sofia Cheadle offered some insights on how she and her husband had purchased the home despite competition from both frenzied local buyers and motivated international political refugees. “We expected a huge rush at the opening. Vera said the listing agent already had offers sight-unseen that included cash, gold, rare paintings, unwanted teenagers, you name it. So we had to get creative,” she said, smiling mischievously. “The night before the open house, Vera helped us block most of the street parking with orange cones. We were the only ones there on time.” Cheadle described other techniques as well, although Huffman-Bond asked that they not be reprinted here, as she was planning to reveal them in her forthcoming debut novel and accompanying music video.

At press time, Jeremy Cheadle was digging up intact, rusted grenades in the yard.

Theatre of the Oppressed as Liberation

Jiwon Chung

Theatre of the Oppressed workshop
with Jiwon Chung

Sunday, October 1, 2017, 1:00–5:00 PM
in Redwood City, CA

Register here

A diverse crowd of citizens and non-citizens fills the sanctuary at the UU Fellowship of Redwood City, California for a workshop on Theatre of the Oppressed. Fifty people are learning about this innovative approach to social change based on the pioneering work of Brazilians Augusto Boal and Paolo Freire.

Theatre of the Oppressed Workshop in Redwood City on December 4, 2016Some opening exercises designed to get us moving, break the ice, and bring out our stories have shown us that we were born to be in the theatre. Each of us has an inner actor or actress who plays roles every day.

The workshop turns to a method called Forum Theatre. A Latino high school student tells how an encounter with a Sheriff’s Deputy led to his being charged with obstructing an officer. He had offered translation assistance to the Latino driver of a pickup truck during a traffic stop. When the officer asked him to step away from the vehicle, the boy thought that he hadn’t done anything wrong and the two got into an argument. He naively thought that his innocence would keep him safe that night. Besides, his own father had lost his landscaping truck to impoundment in a similar police stop a couple of years ago, and he understood the plight of the driver. The boy’s family had struggled for months to recover what passes for stability in the immigrant community, as they tapped into their extended community of family and neighbors to subsist while they scraped together enough to replace the truck.

In Forum Theatre, the “Fourth Wall” between actors and audience doesn’t exist. Everyone participates. As the scene is acted and re-enacted, different people step into the roles of the young man, the driver of the pickup, and the Deputy. A white citizen with access to the privileges of society takes the young man’s role, confident in his ability to resolve the situation. This particular actor organizes the Dreamers Club at a local high school, and has a big heart for immigrant kids who dream about full participation in America. So when the Deputy orders him to step away from the vehicle, he steps away. Problem solved! Wanting to protect youth from their own bad judgment—and with the full confidence that white privilege is heir to—he proclaims to the gallery, “Why would I ever step back toward the truck after he ordered me not to?”

“Because you’re WHITE!” exclaims a Latina mother of seven, empowered by years of participation in Fools Mission and the liberating dynamics of Theatre of the Oppressed. “You have privileges!” cries out another. “You don’t know what’s at stake for us!” “You don’t know what we face every single day with the cops!” The wisdom of lived experience fills the room. The boy’s new sense of how to relate to police officers might actually save his life. A middle class white male not only accepts the reproof of the group graciously, but stays until the end and praises the skill of the workshop leader afterwards.

Jiwon Chung leads a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop

This is the power of Theatre of the Oppressed to raise consciousness, open hearts, and develop tools for encounters with authority. The powerful integration of justice making and art is a laboratory for tapping into the wisdom of the group. By taking turns sharing coping strategies with everyone in the room, we create a shared pool of understanding and meaning.

Fools Mission is sponsoring quarterly workshops that delve into issues of power and authority. We plumb the depths of the immigrant experience, exploring and practicing ways to protect vulnerable families from being torn apart by our dysfunctional and oppressive immigration system. Once you’ve had a direct, embodied experience of what others face, you’ll want to have more. Truth telling is liberating.

Register HERE for our next Theatre of the Oppressed workshop with Jiwon Chung
on Sunday, October 1, 2017 in Redwood City, California.

The audacity of uncertainty

Is Truth Dead?

Brandon Scott once wryly observed that most of what passes for Christianity is actually Neo-Platonism. And like Christianity, Platonic ideals of Truth, Beauty, Good and Evil are sure taking a beating these days. Ideals don’t readily translate into the real world, and when we do encounter a singular moment of beauty or truth, we savor it like a glimpse of the divine.

Rarer still in this world is the ability to separate fact from story. Scientists candidly admit that the conclusions reached by hypothesis, experiment, and control groups are provisional at best, pending discoveries made by future studies. Certainty doesn’t get much of a boost from neuroscience, either. Everything we “know” is mediated by our brains—leading anthropologists to conclude that the only “reality” available to us is the consensus of the community.

Fools are more comfortable than most with the power of story—culture—to shape our consensual realities. We have eyes to see that the foundational myths of our culture—separation, isolation, scarcity, competition with the rest of life in a world of “Other”—are unraveling in parallel with our assumptions, our institutions, and our laws. How to navigate this “space between stories?” A relational world snares us in its interdependent web, ever insistent that we’re never alone; that we belong to each other; that our fates are inseparably entangled.

Even postmodern sensibilities can drift into the demoniacally seductive notion that all stories are equally valid. All stories are not equally valid. While culture defines what is beautiful or true—good or factual—it still comes down to choice. We get to choose which story we want to live out of; which stream of consciousness to inhabit. As our stories of nostalgic greatness, walling ourselves in, and preserving our literal and metaphorical bloodlines collapse under their own weight, new stories stir the imagination. Can you hear your heart whispering to you?

Right now, Fools Mission is walking with a woman who, a little over a year ago, set out at 8:00 AM every day to clean houses, followed by a third shift cleaning industrial buildings. She found her way home by 6:00 AM the next morning. Rinse and repeat. For six months. That was how she raised the necessary deposits on an apartment for herself and her two kids, and escaped the shelter system.

Fools choose to live in a world where no one ever has to live this way again. While we continue to pelt Washington with postcards, we will get up from our computer desks, leave the illusory safety of our homes, and record ICE incursions on our phones. We will set out candles, sing, pray, and declare sacred space. We will season our non-theism with nonviolence and noncooperation. And love will prevail—one hopes, before the only choice we have left is to devour our young.

What’s in a title?

Fools Mission has always been a ministry of witness, accompaniment, and advocacy. And under the “new normal” of national politics that is anything but normal (and as local as ever), our mission is taking on new meaning for us.

Church history is a helpful guide to understanding what we are doing. The earliest communities of “Jesus followers” walked three distinct paths. Some sought to gain and wield power by becoming bureaucrats within the Roman Empire—hoping to compel others to treat each other more kindly and care for one another. Before three hundred years had passed, the Emperor Constantine had sealed the deal on the assimilation of the movement bearing the name of the common criminal that the Empire had executed for treason. Those following the second stream of the tradition withdrew from society into monastic communities based on meditation and prayer—hoping to pacify and perfect the individual by avoiding contact with those they could not convert face to face.

The precious few swimming in the third stream chose to emulate what Jesus did—to live, work, and play side-by-side with the most vulnerable, marginalized and targeted people of their time. You see, if Jesus had never lived, there still would have been a contemporary of his who held the titles ascribed to him in the Christian scriptures: God; God from God; Son of God; Lord; Redeemer; Savior of the World; Bringer of Peace. Who, you might ask? Caesar Augustus. Don’t take my word for it. These titles were inscribed in marble and on coins throughout the realm, and the cosmic irony of the joke is lost on many. The house churches that Paul founded in cosmopolitan centers surrounding the Mediterranean basin raised a glass to the executed criminal from “Nowheresville” instead of the Emperor, and gave him Caesar’s titles while they were doing it—a countercultural and seditious act.

Fools Mission is moving into an entirely new chapter in response to the climate of depression and fear we are living in. Cornell West famously said that “Justice is what love looks like in public,” and we seek to rise to the challenge. As Jiwon Chung said during our Theatre of the Oppressed workshop in December, “There is no solution that comes from fear.”

Fools Mission will stand in solidarity with children who draw pictures in school of scary people taking their parents away. We will walk with people who struggle with poverty, homelessness, misogyny, injustice, bigotry, and hatred in all its manifestations. We will reflect in community on our own tendencies to fall into these traps ourselves. And love will prevail.

The Fools Tale of Peter Rabbit

I was so pleased to be invited to deliver a sermon at the worship service of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale, California on August 7, 2016. In light of the results of the 2016 election, I felt motivated to post it here, as well. I hope that you find some comfort and hope, along with some measure of recognition of the necessity of discomfort in any spiritual practice worth its lightness of being.

It’s no secret to my closest friends that the writings of Charles Eisenstein have drastically changed my world view. Of all the great thinkers out there, the integral thinkers intrigue me the most. The ones who are unbound by dogma, whether superstitious or scientific, give me hope for the future. Their vocation of investigation is a work horse not to be envied. There are few streams of thought unworthy of their attention, and they strive to synthesize the best thinking they can find from multiple academic disciplines. The published work can often communicate to non-specialists in ways that isolated information silos cannot.

Eisenstein also finds time to tour, greet the public, and serve on conference panels—all in the gift economy. No one pays an explicit charge for his books or services, and everyone contributes according to their own sense of what is valuable to them. From my perspective, the most valuable commentary on the U.S. Election of 2016 came from Charles.

Photo of Macrina Mota addresses the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale on August 7, 2016.

Macrina Mota addresses the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Sunnyvale on August 7, 2016.

The highlight of the experience, for me, was Macrina Mota—whose heartfelt testimony to what our accompaniment has meant to her family delivered everything that my limited grasp of homiletics—or homiletics itself—could not. I wish I could share her words with you here. She simply appeared and spoke for a humbling and sobering five minutes, straight from the heart. My portion of the sermon became bookends, which really hit a sweet spot for me.

The Fools Tale of Peter Rabbit

First, let me thank you for inviting me back again. Last summer I shared some deeply personal things, and your positive feedback meant a lot to me. Last year I talked about how music, theatre, and supportive companionship gave me the strength to heal from childhood abuse and mental illness. The rest of the message focused on the power of accompaniment as a spiritual practice that can raise consciousness, and sometimes even affect outcomes in bureaucratic situations… in the real world, as it is.

This morning I’d like to develop the theme of spiritual practice and go deeper. As UUs, we engage in many spiritual practices, from yoga, meditation, and reflection, to contemplation and prayer. I do these things myself, and wouldn’t want to live without them. The premise of today’s message comes down to this: if a spiritual practice is for self improvement only, and doesn’t draw us out of our comfort zones or engage us with the world around us, we’re likely to miss out on a great many benefits, both to ourselves and the world around us.

I begin with trust—trust that Unitarian Universalism already contains within it the tools we need to cultivate a satisfying spiritual practice. Most of us falter and stumble on the path, not just because we’re human—but because principles by their very nature exist in tension with one another, and we have to make value judgments in context to figure out how to apply them. If we promote acceptance of one another, for example, to what extent does our tolerance embrace… intolerance? Would we accept someone we view as a fundamentalist? A white supremacist? A gun nut or xenophobe?

Charles Eisenstein said it this way:

“… to attribute Brexit to xenophobia is to disregard the deep economic and social stressors that fuel both anti-EU sentiment and resentment toward immigrants. If you buy into that narrative, you have to believe that Britain is home to 17 million bigots, ignoramuses, and nutjobs who foolishly sabotage their own economic wellbeing for the sake of exercising their bigoted opinions. (The same, of course, applies to the X million Trump supporters, about whom the same narrative is applied.) Please take note of the tone of this narrative: patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies. … When right-wing populists blame our problems on dark-skinned people or immigrants, the response they arouse draws its power from real and justifiable dissatisfaction. Racism is its symptom, not its cause.”

Most of us are probably aware of the conservative story about progressives as condescending, arrogant elitists who think they know everything, and that everyone else is stupid. To be honest, I grow weary with the way our own behavior validates that narrative.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that UUs do have a universal, world-transforming message—but sometimes we struggle with the cultural competence necessary to express it outside our own social class. For example, it took a long time for us privileged fools to realize how many of the people we meet at Fools Mission don’t even maintain a calendar. And trust me, it can be as hard for our Latino friends to understand our culture of anxiety, “busy-ness,” stress and overwhelm as it is for us to figure out why they don’t just step up the pace and do things our way.

As the President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Rosemary Bray McNatt, says,

“… if we cannot bring justice into the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. … Hard as diversity is, it is our most important task.”

All of this talk about diversity goes hand in hand with the power of story and myth—because the stories that our culture tells us about ourselves and our place in the world—however powerful—dwell in the arena of stories rather than facts. And the fool is a lot more comfortable in this arena than most. Charles Eisenstein’s books and essays deconstruct the foundational myths of our culture: separation; free markets; competition as the primary motivator of progress; objectivity. We spend so much time swimming in the water of these mythologies that few of us ever call them into question. Yet, calling our assumptions about the world into question is a highly beneficial spiritual practice.

I came today to talk about spiritual practices that can change the story. The example I chose is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter was born 150 years ago on July 28, and her trickster story is a classic. She could have begun the tale with a family gathering in Farmer McGregor’s kitchen, as he prepared to go out and work in the garden. The good farmer might have expressed some anxiety about the pests who are eating the family’s food supply, or enticed Mrs. McGregor with the prospect of another rabbit pie for dinner, just like last year. The scene would have been warm and familiar to readers, because in a gardener’s world, rabbits are pests who eat your food.

But Potter the artist has something else in mind for her tale set in a garden—she turns our default assumption on its head and introduces a family of five anthropomorphized rabbits instead. The rabbits have names, and they wear clothes. There is no adult male rabbit in the picture because of last year’s pie incident. Old Mrs. Rabbit has three daughters and a naughty little boy named Peter, who has a rebellious relationship with doing what he’s told. Already, I can identify with what it’s like to be the only Boy Rabbit in that family. While Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail gather blackberries like good little bunnies, Peter squeezes under Farmer McGregor’s gate and helps himself to someone else’s dinner. As Joseph Campbell said, “Everything we do is bad for somebody.”

Suddenly we find ourselves identifying with Peter and his struggle to escape McGregor’s hoe. In the end, he finds the gate and escapes—and we’re relieved when he does! Our empathy for Peter Rabbit emerges from the artful way Potter makes a family of rabbits look and sound like ourselves—a foray into the world of imagination in which even a child can learn to see the Story of Separation through different eyes. Cultural critic Lewis Hyde famously said that, “Our ideas about property and theft depend on a set of assumptions about how the world is divided up.” What I’m proposing here is that when spiritual practice shifts the story from separation and isolation to interconnectedness and interbeing, we are changing the world along with ourselves. We are tapping into the deepest wisdom that our world faith traditions have to offer.

Before I say more, I want you to meet a beloved member of our Fools Mission community, Macrina Mota. Last year, I shared part of the story of her struggles to keep her family together under threat of deportation. I asked her to say a few words about what our accompaniment has meant to her family over the years, because her testimony speaks directly to the value of accompaniment as a spiritual practice. Please welcome my dear sister fool, Macrina Mota-Pineda!

[Macrina testimony]

Thank you, hermana. Your words come straight from your heart, and your testimony is a great gift to Fools Mission. Our Latino friends have changed my life for the better in so many ways. Latino culture has taught me to slow down, to be more present in the moment, and devote more time to relationships. I’ve learned how to move my shoulders when I’m Salsa Dancing. And it’s given me a keener sense of perspective about the differences between my first world problems and genuine tribulation.

But the benefit that pleases me the most is that I’ve expanded my emotional range in every direction. I laugh when it’s funny and cry when it’s sad, and it makes me feel alive. Brené Brown has done a lot of research into shame, fear, and our struggle for worthiness. Vulnerability drives all of that, but it appears that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, and love. Our culture puts a premium on emotional restraint, and we learn from an early age to live out of a carefully cultivated reserve. We numb ourselves to our vulnerability, but we live in a vulnerable world. Trouble is, you can’t selectively numb emotion. We look at our shame, disappointment, fear and grief, and we don’t want to feel those things. We choose to pour ourselves a drink or have a hot fudge sundae instead. But when we numb these hard feelings, we also numb gratitude, happiness, and joy.

Where did we get the idea that spiritual practice will protect us from discomfort? For most of us, it isn’t easy at first to reflect on our habitual ways of thinking. A mirror can be a very harsh judge. And it can be harder still to create new stories to replace the old ones. But the good news of Unitarian Universalism is that we don’t have to do it alone.

If you accept the idea that we are isolated bags of skin in competition with the rest of life in a world of Other, then harsh attitudes toward immigrants—or homeless people, or racists, or xenophobes—make sense within the Story of Separation. Nevertheless, if Eisenstein is right that our civilization is in a space between stories right now, our job is to start writing new ones—and that’s likely to take us out of our comfort zones.

Surprisingly, the capacity to embark on this journey of discovery can be found in what Joseph Campbell called following your bliss. In a culture as focused on work as ours, even following your heart’s delight can be uncomfortable at first. After all, no one makes a living following their bliss, right? Well, some people do exactly that, as we know. But forcing ourselves to do what we know is right doesn’t work when, in our hearts, we just don’t want to do it. What’s needed in a situation like this is a change of heart—the original meaning of repentance in the Greek of the Christian scriptures.

Three years ago, I weighed 250 pounds. My blood sugars were pre-diabetic, and peripheral neuropathy was setting in as I confronted the onset of chronic illness. The Standard American Diet was about to saddle me with diabetes, and I knew I had to make a change now. Forcing myself to change my eating habits had never worked, so instead I focused on learning to love the taste of healthy food and the way it feels to weigh less. I also learned to love the feeling of movement when I go to the pool and swim my laps. Reflection and self-talk are essential elements of this process. I virtually eliminated carbohydrates, processed sugars, and dairy products from my diet, and three years later, I now weigh 195 and my blood sugars are stable.

So, don’t be afraid to pull the curtain away and reveal the humbug wizard of culture pulling the levers and writing your story for you. If following your bliss leads you to reflection and meditation, give it a try. Small is beautiful. You can get started by finding five or ten minutes to focus on your breath and clear your mind of all that chatter. If following your bliss leads you to embrace a life of service or offer supportive companionship to others, go for it! You don’t have to start with accompaniment at court hearings—you can start small by tutoring a grade school student for an hour, helping someone with their grocery shopping, or delivering meals to a community member who’s recovering from surgery.

If following your bliss leads you to a life of contemplation and prayer, that’s a healthy calling, too. Prayer takes many forms, including direct action. Sometimes the best pair of hands available to repair the world is at the end of your arms. There is no better medicine I can think of than following your bliss for the spiritual malaise of poverty, debt, obesity, addiction, depression, and over-medication in which we find ourselves today.

What happens when we start to challenge our assumptions about ourselves and the world? One good answer comes from cognitive therapy. We start to replace the neural networks we’ve built up over the years with new ones that cast us as people whose destinies are intertwined—as though the “interdependent web of existence” really mattered. At their best, spiritual practices cultivate a healthy detachment from our egos: our irritability; our impatience; our likes and dislikes; our strongly-held opinions. Spiritual practices help us get through it when we’re feeling stuck. You don’t have to study or meditate for years to discover the benefits. Before long, a faithful practitioner begins to inhabit a “lightness of being” in which the daily onslaught of invalidating judgments from our culture becomes a lot easier to bear—and service becomes its own reward. A mirror can also be a place where you learn to recognize your Essential Self and love what you see.

Yes, Wealth Inequality Threatens Democracy

Thomas Atwood and Sam Dennison at the Faithful Fools Court in San Francisco

Thomas Atwood and Sam Dennison at the Faithful Fools Court in San Francisco

Editor’s Note: Fools Mission is delighted to include this essay by Sam Dennison, Resident Fool with the Faithful Fools Street Ministry in San Francisco. Last month Sam won the Great American Thinkoff, a debate contest held annually in New York Mills, Minnesota. She defended the “Yes” position in response to the proposition that “Wealth Inequality Threatens Democracy,” and this is the essay that earned her the right to appear with the other finalists and make her case. Needless to say, we fools identify strongly with what she wrote—and we hope that you do, too!

Wealth Inequality Threatens Democracy

It begins with small things: Standing on the steps of city hall and being turned away, your district supervisor has decided to take a meeting with someone else; Speaking at a public hearing, having your comments heard with toleration but then dismissed as naïve; Going to your polling place, finding it closed—you were required to work overtime—you missed voting by a just a few minutes; Enrolling your child in a run down public school just a few blocks from a well-kept private academy. Yes, hopelessness begins small, but grows easily. It’s chief among the litany of ills that comes with income inequality because, simply put, there is no greater threat to democracy than hopelessness.

Hopelessness becomes apparent in the same way that slowly peeling paint reveals a home’s occupants to be an elderly couple on a fixed income. At first, it just seems that the task of repainting has been put off, but it becomes clear that the house is slowly rotting for want of care. Some neighbors pronounce harsh judgments on the laziness of the homeowners. But if you lived in that house, you noticed long ago the need for a fresh coat of paint, and your inability to do the work eats at you every day. It leaves you feeling listless and helpless.

You who live in another part of the country, perhaps in a big city, will find the erosion of hope takes all of your attention so you don’t notice what’s happening at city hall, much less in the legislature. You don’t notice the new city ordinances that add fees for court appearances so your son (who was ticketed for “tagging” a building) will now have to spend the night in jail because he couldn’t pay both the fees and the fine for the vandalism he’s accused of. That night in jail will now cost him his job at the convenience store and the family, depending on his check for rent, will be evicted. You were so worried about your youngest child’s asthma that you didn’t hear about the laws making it illegal to sleep in a car and that the penalty for doing so, even as a homeless family, now includes impounding both the vehicle and its contents.

Your daughter wanted to be a medical assistant, so she took out student loans. But she realized too late she couldn’t repay that $40,000 loan on entry-level pay. When she defaulted, her wages were garnished. The law says student loans cannot be bankrupted, so there is no way out. With no credit, she turns to a payday lender to pay her bills. She thought it would be a one-time thing, but the interest rates are so high that she can’t repay this loan either. Soon she’ll stop working because every paycheck is eaten up by the interest on one loan or the other.

This is how the rich and the poor become enemies. The poor see the rich as callous; the rich see the poor as inept. Worse yet, the poor are consumed with the fear of losing it all while the rich think the system is working well enough. It’s not possible to be both poor and a vigilant citizen. It’s too hard to stay housed and pay attention to what laws are being proposed. To be a thoughtful citizen, you must have enough to eat and a place to live. You must have faith in the goodwill of others and the conviction that your wellbeing is tied up with your neighbors. But those who see sleeping on the streets as disgusting want to clean up the streets by arresting panhandlers. After all, it’s very hard to see your wellbeing tied up with beggars who could just get a job and support themselves.

Caught between the two extremes, democracy becomes a shadow of its former self. Like that home needing a coat of paint, it seems sad at first but then the elements begin to eat away at the structure itself. It begins to fail, little by little. The windows don’t keep the cold out anymore, the roof begins to sag, the walls begin to buckle.

At the heart of it all is a simple truth: democracy cannot survive without equality. To see one another as equal requires a certain sense of fair play, a sense of mutual respect. Without the fundamental belief that each of us is created equal with certain unalienable rights—including the right to have hope—democracy will fail.

Trickster Disrupts Signing Ceremony

For years, Fools Mission has dragged its feet on incorporating as a nonprofit charity. Would our Spanish-speaking friends accept this? Would they help write our mission statement? Would rules against “self-dealing” prevent recipients of financial assistance from sitting on the board, thereby reinforcing power relationships that make us uncomfortable? Would corporate governance ruin the egalitarian nature of the consensus process we’ve worked so hard to create? Would we have to attend the same meetings as other County CBOs? How would that affect our capacity to speak truth to power when necessary? The experimental nature of our group and our own tendencies to drift back into power relationships that most people take for granted made these tough questions for us.

It took five years to develop deep relationships of trust and shared vision that convinced us the time was right. We took our time writing our mission statement together. Our Latino friends agreed to serve on our first board. We knew who we meant when we said “we.” Recognizing that expanding our programs required us to raise funds more deliberately, we decided to fly out on faith that we’d find a way to stay on mission and avoid putting ourselves in the thrall of money.

Fools gather to sign Articles of Incorporation

Fools gather to sign Articles of Incorporation. From left to right: Raul Velasquez, Eitan Fenson, Mirna Banegas Flores, Gene Thiers, David Vallerga, Kaye Bonney, Macrina Mota, Silvia Ramirez, and Thomas Atwood.

With new-found confidence, we gathered in the Social Hall for an informal signing ceremony—chalice, papers, and cake at the ready. But did you notice something amiss in that first picture? Trickster had arrived to have a final say in the proceedings.

Trickster capsizes the table.

Trickster capsizes the table, sending cake, candle wax, and papers to the floor.

Needless to say, Trickster arrives every day to disrupt our plans, our assumptions, and our attachments to our egos. Trickster arrives wherever there is a need to level the playing field, make room for chance, or have a good laugh at the absurdity of it all. Fools that we are, we seized the opportunity for a belly laugh as cake, candle wax, and papers tumbled to the floor.

Foolish is as foolish does!

The nose knows!

Fools that we are, we signed anyway.

From left to right, the founding Board of Fools Mission: Gene Thiers, Eitan Fenson, Kaye Bonney, Macrina Mota, Silvia Ramirez, David Vallerga, and Thomas Atwood (not in picture).

Having appeased Trickster, we went ahead and signed anyway. Foolish is as foolish does!

The Lawgiver’s Dilemma

Fools Mission is in the exploration stage of developing a new program. For now, we’re calling it a Healthy Relationships Seminar. The proposed seminar would be a hybrid between a covenanted support group and a lecture format, and would create space for participants to explore interactively all aspects of human relationship, including couples, families, and the workplace. The fools in our community have requested programs like this, and it’s not easy to deliver one that fulfills our mission. The challenge for Fools Mission is to recruit co-leaders who represent both native and immigrant cultures. Ideally, we’ll have established citizens in the room along with culturally competent Spanish speakers, so that representatives from each culture can hear one another’s stories in both languages. Prompt translation will be essential. So will maintaining an atmosphere of confidentiality and respect.

Multicultural experiences are a core mission for us.

To strike a balance between U. S. and Latin American culture, a co-leader called a Servidor—loosely translated from Spanish as “one who has embraced a life of service”—would play a role that is part facilitator and part presenter. After speaking about a topic for a few minutes, the Servidor turns over the discussion to each participant in turn, eliciting feedback about what was just said. The idea is to provide enough structure and leadership to create a space of listening and respect, and enough interactive participation to allow the wisdom and support of the group to emerge.

The opportunity for understanding and enrichment is as real as the risk of misunderstanding. We have to anticipate encountering “hot button” topics on which people don’t agree. We’re willing to take some risks, and they’re real enough to warrant our attention. All therapy is culturally conditioned, and has to be culturally appropriate. As psychiatrist and author E. Fuller Torrey said, “A psychiatrist who tells an illiterate African that his phobia is related to a fear of failure and a witchdoctor who tells an American tourist that his phobia is related to possession by an ancestral spirit will be met by equally blank stares.”

The potential rewards are also palpable—psychiatrists cite the Principle of Rumpelstiltskin, which states that the capacity to heal has a strong relationship with the capacity to find a name for our pain. At Fools Mission, we’re often confronted with naming what keeps us separate—only to experience firsthand civilization’s “normalcy” of violence, fear, prejudice, and racism. Our quest for multicultural experiences that build community across socioeconomic class is our antidote to the nation’s eroding capacity for empathy. We favor building friendship and community over relying on untested assumptions.

An anti-therapeutic conversation with a therapist

So I approached some therapist friends of mine in search of a co-leader, and came up with a story that demonstrates first hand why Fools Mission is necessary. The friend I approached taught me some important lessons about how helpful the Way of the Fool can be as a lens for reflection, understanding, and spiritual growth. My friend not only has a PhD, but 14 years of experience with marriage and family counseling. In an email earlier in the week, he had already made it clear that his time was “so very limited” because of his “work and volunteer time.” He said that his cause was “my passion and I have no interest in other community opportunities.”

I began the interview with what I hoped was an open-ended appeal to interpret my request for help any way he chose, whether that be participation, consulting, or advice. While he heard the first option, it became clear that he stopped listening before hearing the other two. The tone and body language of his response—“I thought I made myself clear when I said…”—felt unnecessarily defensive and patronizing to me. But the fool in me realized that to avoid transference, burnout, and other pitfalls that beset practitioners, counselors have to maintain strict professional boundaries. I felt that I should accept that we got off on the wrong foot and try to keep the conversation going.

15 minutes of foolishnessThings got worse from there. He lectured me for five minutes before I was able to say a word about our mission. In response, he expanded his passion for his cause to include reasons why his clients are worthy of his attention and undocumented immigrants are not. I feebly responded that we don’t spend much time separating the worthy from the unworthy, while he emphatically asserted that he did.

He began to instruct me about how his grandparents were Irish immigrants—but never asked questions about my own ancestors (Irish immigrants). He spoke about how his grandparents became citizens lawfully by getting in line, with no apparent knowledge of the Byzantine process and 20-year waiting line in store for most people under the system that we have today. He had no recognizable grasp of the role of race in the angry, polarized attitudes that we see today. And though he was able to acknowledge that undocumented immigrants were human beings, it was clear to him that the law should determine the fate of the eleven million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Immigration Mess

Interrupting the barrage of patronization and judgment, I was persistent enough to ask him whether he wanted to hear about our proposed program. When I described it, he went into lecture mode again—explaining that he “studied for 24 years for a reason,” and that the state strictly regulates any activity with pretensions to support or counseling. He referred to the history of EST (Erhard Seminars Training) in California, and how the state passed laws requiring that licensed professionals be present at all sessions. Not once was he able to acknowledge that I was trying to recruit volunteers with professional experience by asking him for help. He added that free counseling services are available in San Mateo County, and that you can locate them with a simple Google search.

Someday_New_YorkerIf I felt patronized before, I was also feeling condescended to by now. But the conversation was helping me to realize that my own commitment to the Way of the Fool was kicking in with newfound capacity for compassion. First, I recognized that my friend’s story of himself and the world is shared by many, and that harsh judgments from me about his anti-caregiver stance and selective compassion would serve no useful purpose. My emerging ability to detect the presence of warrior consciousness and traditional, rules-bound consciousness in his thought process reminded me that if I were born with his abilities and lived his life, I would probably say and do similar things. I was able to feel compassion for the role of oppressive systems in the formation of his worldview, and recognize how his lack of empathy and poor listening skills probably undermine his counseling practice every day. What a hard thing it would be to walk around in his stream of consciousness! Reminded of the inherent justice embedded in the universe, I began to feel sad for him.

Trust me, I struggle with the Way of the Fool all the time. I can revert to tribal, warrior, or rules-bound consciousness in a heartbeat. I wasn’t born without a brain stem. But I found myself taking encouragement from this difficult conversation instead of becoming demoralized, angry, or defensive. It felt like a new plateau in my own journey as a fool.

Because he had stopped listening before we began, I realized that any attempt to debate immigration or multiculturalism would miss the mark. George Lakoff’s lessons about how “facts bounce off frames of reference” helped me to restrain the urge to wrestle each point to the ground. I could have told him that “the law”—in the form of NAFTA—created millions of new undocumented Mexican immigrants by permitting heavily-subsidized US corn and other Agribusiness products to compete with small Mexican farmers. I could have explained in excruciating detail how laws written on our behalf by fleets of Agribusiness lobbyists drove millions of impoverished farmers off their ancestral lands and into destitution. I could have talked about how NAFTA’s service-sector rules allowed big firms like Wall-Mart to enter the Mexican market and eliminate 28,000 small and medium-sized Mexican businesses.

I didn’t say anything about how schizophrenic the American public can be about undocumented immigrants. (Before you chastize me for misusing a professional term, I mean schizophrenic in the metaphorical sense.) I was silent about the extent to which our way of life depends on access to their cheap labor. “We want to send you back to Mexico—but first, could you please bring me a beer and finish cleaning the house?”

Border Security American StyleI might have summoned up the patience to explain how—post-NAFTA—eight million desperate people crossed the border in search of a way to feed their children. I might have raised other obvious questions. Without the intervention of basic human decency, how can more legal double-binds and Faustian bargains resolve decades-old layers of conflicting immigration law? Would it have helped to ask him to think about what he would have done if his own children were starving? If his own deportation tore a beloved parent and breadwinner away from his kids? If his own family was being threatened by drug lords?

Instead of offering arguments, I thought it best to thank him for helping us reach an understanding that we wouldn’t be working together. The way he jumped at that notion with such enthusiasm, patronizingly reiterating how “he thought he’d been clear,” convinced me that he hadn’t heard much of what I had said. I think psychology professionals call it projection. I’m guessing that when our conversation was over, he still didn’t realize that when I said “working together,” I also meant consulting and advice.

I’m a happier person today for having approached my friend with our proposal, whether we eventually implement the new program or not. Now I can see more clearly how our eternal tendency to make distinctions and invoke boundaries makes it necessary for someone to minister to families who lack access to wealth and privilege. I’m more keenly motivated now to develop multicultural programs like Healthy Relationships Seminars.

It’s unfair to expect my friend to share the insights we earned at Fools Mission from hundreds of formative experiences accompanying undocumented immigrants through their valiant, failure-prone quests for County services. It’s nearly impossible to explain in words how the daily lived experience of institutional racism and blind prejudice leads our companions to tell us that the agencies aren’t helping them. I can’t plant their hidden transcripts into his brain, or string the right words in the perfect order to express why we take a different approach. Some things are best learned by direct, first-hand experience. We are free to continue building community instead of caseloads.


Maybe it’s enough to acknowledge that my friend’s ministry might be helpful to his clients in ways I don’t fully appreciate or understand. Perhaps he can suspend his harsh judgments long enough to provide a listening ear to clients that he isn’t ready to extend to me, or to our companions at Fools Mission. I can admit that his motivations probably include sincerity and good will without being drawn into his stories about himself and the world. Even a fool can be a boundary crosser and maintain healthy boundaries at the same time. As the sage once said: “Many are called—few chosen.”


May I see my passport, please?

No_Room_at_the_InnLast week, Fools Mission accompanied a mother of two young children on a shopping expedition to replace stolen clothes. She and the kids are living in their car by day and sleeping in the San Francisco shelter system by night, having lost their apartment to eviction because of the deportation of the family breadwinner. Both kids are US citizens, and already suffering with symptoms of trauma in the wake of the departure of their dad.

We were present in the San Francisco immigration court that granted him “voluntary departure”—a decision that opens the door for his children to sponsor him for citizenship in about 17 years. An unmotivated public defender didn’t even request access to his spouse, passport, or funds—asserting in open court that he “thought they had $500” to pay for his return trip to Mexico. (Not so.) Apparently, the system has an interest in shifting the cost of its administrative findings onto a family that’s already lying in ruins. Well aware of the risk of being placed in deportation proceedings herself, the mother was rightfully afraid to appear. The kids never got to say goodbye. As of this writing, the father’s last known location is Tijuana, where he walks the streets without money, change of clothes, phone, or photo ID.

Fortunately, Fools Mission has been able to stay connected to the mom, who was able to reach his sister in Mexico City (a 42-hour drive from Tijuana). Our emergency fund provided money to cover her transportation to pick him up. We can only pray that she reaches him in time. Meanwhile, we are walking with the mom through her application for permanent shelter. Because she is so isolated right now, we’re trying to make arrangements for her to spend Thanksgiving with another immigrant family in Redwood City and make some friends.

The consequences of indifference and cruelty like this are woven into the fabric of human nature. In the year 2042—when brown and black faces outnumber white ones in the U.S.—our children and grandchildren will be the ones to bear the brunt of the consequences of the animosities our immigration system is stirring up today. Personally, I’m sick to death of the suffering on all sides—including ICE officials. I weep for the parents, for the kids, and for the unhappy bureaucrats who oppress them. Because the mom spent her last gas money to get to our round table and tell us her story, she is one of us fools now. Que tenga bien Dia de Acción de Gracias.

Tricksters, Kings and Fools

Tricksters, Kings and Fools

In Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, author Lewis Hyde brings to life the playful and disruptive side of human imagination as it is embodied in trickster mythology. One of the characters, from Native American mythology, is Coyote. Over and over again, Coyote turns the tables on his predators and escapes becoming prey. Coyote also is part of the creation myth of Northern California tribes.

In fact the Coyote IS a trickster. When farmers in Western United States set out traps baited with animal carcasses that have been loaded with sufficient strychnine to kill in an attempt to control the population of wolves and coyotes, they find dead wolves but almost never a dead coyote. Instead they find traps that have been overturned or dug up by coyotes who have left their “calling cards.” The coyotes urinate and defecate on the traps so that there can be no mistake that they figured out the trap, and chose to demonstrate contempt for it rather than being destroyed by it.

In mythology, and in real life, Coyote eats bait that has not been poisoned and leaves the trap unable to kill anything at all.

This reversal of status and power dynamics is important for humans, too. The “weaker” can defeat the “stronger” when the weaker person is able to deceive or trick the stronger one.

This reversal, which features the oppressed winning and the oppressor losing, is the source of much fiction. There is a natural human tendency to root for the underdog, and sometimes the underdog wins.

The jester, or fool, of medieval times had a similar burden and opportunity. We hear that “only the fool can tell the King the truth and survive the story.”

My wife Leslie and I recently visited Wales. While part of the United Kingdom, Wales has never really been defeated by England, even though it has been under the military subjection of England from the start of the 13th century. Wales has more castles per square mile than any other place in the world. These castles were built so that the conqueror could survive his conquest. Oppressors are always afraid of the people they oppress, and often with very good reason.

One castle we visited was at Conwy in Northern Wales. It is a marvel of 13th century technology and survives today as a UNESCO “World Heritage Site.” Even now, absent bombardment from the air or the use of high explosives, I believe it would withstand a military assault. King Edward the First caused it to be built in the span of only four years, but he worried about the cost of maintaining it. The Royal Treasury was limited after the Crusades, conquest of Wales and subsequent conquest of Scotland, so the castle was designed to be run very efficiently. The defenders of the castle were protected by fortifications and it was almost impossible for an assaulting army to hurt them. It could be defended by a force of six soldiers. Never, in its entire and long history, did an army take over the castle.

But tricksters and fools can defeat armies. In March 1401, the only time the castle was lost, the military intelligence of the time (it was an oxymoron then just as it is now) said that the threat level was low. Four of the six defenders were outside the castle, although they remained in the walled city that adjoined it for church services. Two Welsh tricksters, disguised as carpenters, arrived at the castle with building plans to make improvements for an upcoming visit by the King. Once admitted to the castle, they used their carpentry tools as weapons and killed the two remaining soldiers. They held the castle for three months and then surrendered it after negotiating a full pardon from the King.

In fact the history of the castle is a bit more complex, but our tour guide was Welsh and I am relating the story as recounted by the guide; the Welsh side of the story.

As the song says, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” and sometimes they, like their role model Coyote, can destroy the trap.

Conwy Fools

Conwy Fools