Yes, we have work to do! Seizing the potential of the borderlands between what is and what is possible

“It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat…both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.

“The counter stance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and for this it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counter stance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life.

“At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.

“Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La frontera

 

gloria-anzalsuabWritten by a Chicana queer in 1987, Borderlands/La frontera was always ahead of its time. Or maybe it was just that as an inhabitant of the radically unsafe cultural and literal borderlands, Anzaldua was much more aware than most of her audience of what is at stake in making your home on a border—on, as she put it, “that thin edge of barbed-wire.”

I named this blog Transition Times back in 2011 because even then it felt like we were moving into the liminal, transitional space between the old cultural norms and an as-yet unclear new culture, a new way of relating with each other and our planet. Like Charles Eisenstein, I am searching for new ways of understanding what is happening in the world, and how I can be part of a movement for real, radical social change.

Yet like most everyone I know, I am still going through the motions of the old story, even while trying to get glimpses of something different.

I am still, as Anzaldua puts it, stuck in the counterstance, standing on the opposite side of the river from those I want to change, shouting futilely into the wind.

One of the peculiar challenges of our time is that “the enemy” is not easy to identify, and all too often it turns out that if we really follow the money, the “enemy” is us.

Who created the fossil fuel industry? I did, along with everyone I know, as we enjoyed the convenience of burning oil and gasoline, heedlessly using plastic, leaving the coal-fired-electric lights on.

Who created the so-called Rust Belt and killed the American workers’ unions? I did, preferring to buy my cars from Japan, and cheap goods from China.

Who created the corporate beast, now slouching insouciantly into the highest levels of American governmental power? I did, we all did, allowing corporate money to rule our politicians, allowing corporations to put short-term gain above longterm health and sustainability, rewarding those corporate leaders with ever-higher incomes and status.

Who created the military-industrial complex, along with its henchmen the pharmaceutical-petrochemical-agricultural complex? We all did, going along complacently with industrial agricultural built on chemicals, ignoring how unhealthy it made us, investing in the ever-climbing Big Pharma and Big Insurance industries that got richer in proportion to how unhealthy we became.

I could go on, but you get the drift. To really unpack Anzaldua’s image of enemies locked in a counterstance on opposite sides of the river, you have to admit that we are looking at a scenario we created.

When we look at the oh-so-real image of militarized police spraying unarmed, peaceful water protectors with huge canisters of mace, we are looking at what could be our future, as everywhere across America and the world, precious resources like water are being privatized and threatened by mining, fracking, drilling and all the dirty industries built on fossil fuels.

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What would it mean to follow Anzaldua’s advice of moving beyond a simple yes-no opposition, into a “new consciousness” that can see with both eagle and serpent eyes?

In our current situation, it would mean doing a lot of soul-searching as to why so many poor people in America voted against their own interests, for the aggressive, macho reality TV star that even the Republicans weren’t sure they could stand.

Our two political parties were revealed, in this election cycle, to be equally out of touch with conditions on the ground in America. Both parties are split between fat-cat corporate types and rabble-rousing throw-em-out types, and neither party, it seems, is strong enough to unite these two wings.

Neither presidential candidate this year would have had a real mandate, as in a nation united behind them. In truth, it’s the class divide that tripped up Hillary Clinton, and her inability to be convincing when she claimed she’d help the working class.

Trump was just a better liar, knowing that if he could stoke the voters’ anger against the status quo, they wouldn’t care about what specific policies he might or might not be able to enact once in office. Who cares about the fine print when you have a candidate who gives you permission to shout obscenities and have some fun?

Again, to ask where the Trump voters came from is to be led back to the mirror. I place a lot of the blame for voters’ lack of engagement and discernment at the feet of the American public education system, and beyond that, to parents who abandoned their kids to the tutelage of the internet, video games and TV—all of which are run by social elites, let us remember.

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Marx proclaimed in the 19th century. For the 20th century, and to this day, media has become the opiate of the masses. Media has moved into the place of leadership formerly held by education and individual teachers, religion and individual pastors, and even family and individual parents.

How often of late have you seen young people sitting at the table listening to the conversation of their elders? Unless they are forced to, they would much rather be off by themselves with their eyes glued to their screens. Even groups of young people will sit together each one on their own screen, occasionally commenting out loud to each other about what they are seeing on-screen.

We have begun to awaken to the power of media, especially social media, to influence reality, with Facebook now at last taking seriously the disruptive potential of “fake news.” Fake news probably won the election for Trump. And this is the mother’s milk our kids are being raised on, as they are let loose in an internet landscape they have to figure out for themselves.

The question is, now that we’re awake, what will we do about it?

Like everyone I know, I have been signing online petitions, joining online resistance groups, giving money, thinking about joining the street protests.

But this is counterstance politics. It absorbs our energy into fighting against, rather than using that precious resource, our time and energy, into developing an alternative, based on “new consciousness,” in new territory.

What would it mean to fight FOR the world we want to live in, rather than AGAINST the dying gasps of the old order? What would it mean to start telling new stories of what could be possible, rather than endlessly rehashing the fear and loathing of the past?

I’m not talking about sticking my head in the sand or pretending that the bigotry of the Trump people isn’t real and dangerous. It’s real, and it’s very dangerous. We are right to be afraid.

But we can’t afford to spend all our energy saying NO. We have to also work in our local communities to live into alternatives, and celebrating our successes loudly and happily at every opportunity.

Alliances and coalitions of all stripes—across the artificial boundaries of race, sex/gender, class, ethnicity, religion, region, nationality—these can and must get stronger, as we all agree to inhabit the borderland spaces together.

We must all be “queer” now, as is beginning when we see people promising to register themselves as Muslims, should such a national registry ever come to pass, or standing in solidarity with the Native American water protectors’ movement, in repudiation of the disgraceful settler-native relations of the past.

We can work on the local level to implement renewable energy alternatives, moving boldly into solar, wind and other democratically available resources and hitting the fossil fuel industries where it matters—their bottom line.

In so many ways, we can use our power as consumers to create the world we want to see. That means understanding the stakes involved in “cheap” Chinese goods or industrial food, and being willing to spend a bit more in the short term, to invest in the long term health of people and the planet.

Buying organic or food produced locally using permaculture agricultural practices may cost a few pennies more, but that small individual investment can have a big impact if many of us are willing to make the shift.

Same with eating less meat, or even no meat. These seemingly small personal choices really can have a big impact if enough of us are making them and talking about them and encouraging each other to see the big picture of why it’s important.

For me, as a parent and a teacher, one of the biggest areas in need of “new consciousness” has to do with rearing the next generations. We must fight the domination of the corporate media by insisting that kids remain connected to their innate creativity.

Seriously, I don’t think kids under the age of 10 should have free-range access to the internet or games. We want our kids to stay connected to the real world—the natural world, their communities, their families, their friends. We want them to develop their own creative voices and visions, to “play make-believe” and dream into the new stories their generation will need. Allowing them to stuff their minds on junk-food media is undermining their potential at the most basic level.

But we must provide exciting alternatives to those screens. School should not be boring. Communication is our greatest strength as a species, and we need to get much better about how we teach, how we parent, and what we offer our kids in the way of stimulation and opportunities for growth. Their needs are not the same as what we current adults needed in our pre-internet time. But abdicating our role to the internet is a dangerous cop-out.

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Young people need our guidance more than ever. It will be harder to reach those who have been weaned on internet-milk, but it is possible, and we must go at it with all the creativity and love we possess—and not just for our own kids, but for all kids. Especially those from the angry, disenfranchised families, the poor kids, the Trump kids.

I agree with everyone who is talking about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the wake of the election disaster. But what the work is…that is the question we must ponder deeply.

Going to Washington DC to protest the inauguration of Trump the day AFTER doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, in terms of use of our precious energy and time. Why isn’t a big protest being called for December 18, the day BEFORE the Electoral College is to finalize their vote?

We need to be strategic in the coming weeks, months and years. We don’t have the luxury of time to fritter away our energy in non-effective counterstances.

As we move into this uncharted borderland between the familiar old culture and the unknown future hurtling towards us, let’s keep our faces bravely looking ahead—not like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, turned backward to the destruction and disappointment of the past.

What family, what community, what world, do you want to live in? Get clear on it and then—go make it so.

After Charlie Hebdo: Tuning Out, Tuning In to the Violence that Beseiges Us

When the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack flashed into the headlines last week, with all its chaotic blood, gore and terror, I had a surreal feeling of detachment and déjà vu. Similar scenarios have been hitting us so often in recent months and years—the Boston Marathon bombing…the Times Square attempted bombing….Sandy Hook Elementary School…. Virginia Tech…Ferguson….the list could go on and on, and that’s just the incidents on American soil.

How do we cope with the constant background noise of violence against which our lives play out in the 21st century? How do we avoid either extreme: numbing out/tuning out, or becoming overwhelmed with fear and grief?

If you thought I might have the answer, I’m sorry to disappoint. I don’t know. It seems to me that I go back and forth from one reaction to another, depending on my mental resilience when the latest instance of violence surges into my awareness.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo, 87, came out of retirement to draw this tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack, published in Le Figaro newspaper. Uderzo was where Uderzo is quoted in Le Figaro as saying: “I am not changing my work, I simply want to express my affection for the cartoonists that paid for their work with their lives.”

If I’m feeling strong and stable, I can hit a balance, which seems like the healthiest response; I can honor the victims with appropriate grief and anger at the perpetrators, while maintaining the psychic distance I need to go about my daily business without being blown away by fear and sorrow.

Is this really “the healthiest response,” though? Or am I kidding myself here? How can it be healthy and sane to be so compartmentalized that I am able to acknowledge the pain and suffering on one hand, while at the same time going on with my life in an ordinary way?

Digging a little further into this, I have to ask: who does it benefit for me to be able to carry on with a stiff upper lip, remaining calm, cool and collected in the face on ongoing tragedy? Does it benefit me, or the status quo of the society I live in, which has generated this endless loop of repetitive tragedy?

What would happen if one day we all suddenly started to feel fully empathetic with the victims of violence—and not just gun violence, or military violence, but also rape, domestic violence, violence against animals, violence against the forests and the waters of our planet?

In the #BlackLivesMatter and #WeAreSenecaLake protests, and now in the #JeSuisCharlie meme and rallies in Paris, we are seeing a hint of the powerful force that can be unleashed by human compassion.

What if I, and other Americans like me, started to actively fight the conditioning that has made us believe that the healthiest, sanest response to ubiquitous violence is to turn our gaze away and keep moving?

What if we began to lean in to the deep wellsprings of compassion and empathy that are our birthright as human beings, and act out of the power we find there?

What if instead of accepting the constant static of violence as a given of modern existence, we began to actively tune in to it, in order to serve—each one of us—as antennae capable of picking up the signal and disrupting it, transforming it from cacophony to an entirely different, new form of activist harmony?

In their own satirical way, the Charlie Hebdo team was engaged in doing just this. They were holding a mirror up to our sick society, and forcing us to gaze at ourselves and recognize the extent of our own complicity in the violence that besieges us.

I believe, with Arundhati Roy, that another world is possible. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. But on a typical, violent day, all I can hear is the labored thumping of my own heavy heart.

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Photo c. J. Browdy, 2015

Letter to Sandra Steingraber: Civil Disobedience and the Fossil Fuel Monster

Dear Sandra,

I have been thinking about you for days now, ever since I heard the news that you were leading the peaceful protests defending Seneca Lake. Now you’re sitting in jail, taking your turn along with several others who also chose to serve jail time as an extension of the protest, rather than taking the “get out easy” card of paying a fine.

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Sandra Steingraber going to jail

Thoreau would be proud of you! You are a living example of his famous injunction on civil disobedience, written from the jail cell that served as his bastion of protest against slavery and a war he knew was wrong: “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

The machine of our time is the fossil fuel industry. It is an industrial monster, with mining claw arms, a drill bit mouth and a huge bloated body belching stinking carbon smoke. It has no eyes to see the destruction it causes, nor ears to hear the screams and wails of the innocent creatures—including human beings—mown down in its path or sickened beyond recovery.

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

Over four hundred members of We Are Seneca Lake blockade the gates of Crestwood Midstream and stand up to the expansion of dangerous gas storage in the crumbling salt caverns next to Seneca Lake and under the beautiful wine country of the Finger Lakes. Lead by renown biologist, author, Sandra Steingraber. Pictured; Yvonne Taylor, Gas Free Seneca, Doug Couchon, People for a Healthy Environment, Members of Finger Lakes CleanWaters Initiative, Seneca Lake Pure Waters, ShaleShock, DJ Astro Hawk. (PRNewsFoto/We Are Seneca Lake)

You and a handful of courageous resisters have gathered on the shores of the mighty Seneca Lake, to put your bodies on the line to stop this monster at all costs, before it can carry out its federally sanctioned intention of making the fragile salt caverns beneath the water into a volatile gas depot.

Did we learn nothing from the tragedy of the BP gas spill in the Gulf of Mexico? Haven’t we learned that fossil fuels and pristine waters do not mix?

Drinking water is a finite and precious resource on this planet. We can find other ways to create energy—solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydrogen—but if we pollute the precious aquifers and freshwater reservoirs upon which our very life depends, there will be no return.

I know you of all people know this well, Sandra. Your first book, Living Downstream, tells the story of how you uncovered a serious cancer cluster in your own hometown, caused by the toxic runoff of chemicals into the groundwater.

‘Look upstream,’ you admonished us then. ‘What we need more than a cure for cancer,’ you said (still recovering from cancer yourself) ‘is strong action to prevent cancer, which means strong regulation against environmental pollution.’

Now one of the magnificent Finger Lakes is under direct threat of contamination. A gas rupture there would ruin the drinking water for tens of thousands of people; destroy the aquatic environment for millions of fish and other lake creatures; and severely impact the recreational use of the lake.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Is it really worth the risk? Can’t a safer place be found to store gas, away from the fragile ecosystem of the lake?

It’s beyond disappointing that our government caved to the fossil fuel monster in granting a permit to put a gas storage chamber beneath the floor of Seneca Lake. The people can do for ourselves what our craven politicians could not. We can make our lives “a counter friction to stop the machine.”

You are showing us the way, and I am with you in spirit, helping to spread the word and extend the protest into the potent realm of cyberspace.  It’s time to banish the fossil fuel monster once and for all.

In solidarity,

Jennifer

NOTE TO READERS:  Please read the comment below which gives more ideas for taking action in solidarity with Sandra and the other Seneca Lake defenders.  For starters, visit this site and voice your support: http://www.wearesenecalake.com/pledge-protect-seneca-lake/

Joining Humanity’s Immune System: In the Body, in the Classroom, in the World

I had a tough day today in the classroom. I guess I brought it on myself by daring to raise unmentionable issues like violence against women and cancer….daring to follow Eve Ensler’s lead by assigning my students to read her remarkable cancer/incest survivor memoir, In the Body of the World. Unknown I assigned it for my class on “Media Strategies for Social and Environmental Justice.” The first book we read was Bill McKibben’s activist memoir Oil and Honey, about how he founded 350.org in a college classroom and how it grew to be a hugely successful global movement aimed at raising awareness about climate change and pressing for swift transition to renewable energy models.

This week we’ve been looking at Eve Ensler’s trajectory from a theater artist interviewing women about their vaginas and creating the series of monologues that would become “The Vagina Monologues,” to founding the V-Day movement to end violence against women, and now the One Billion Rising for Justice global phenomenon. Eve Ensler TED

But along the way, Eve Ensler got cancer. It arrived, she says in her viral TED Talk “Suddenly My Body,” with the force of a bird smashing into a plate glass window.

Her cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, is remarkable in its fearless interweaving of the personal and the political, the individual and the global, the violent rape of a daughter (Eve herself) with the violent rape of our Mother Earth by Western capitalist culture.

 ***

My plan for the class was to focus mostly on the cancer issue…to look at the horrifying statistics of cancer in the U.S., to name it as the runaway pandemic it is, and to think with the students about how we might most effectively employ media tactics and tools to raise awareness and push for social change. But I didn’t realize how deeply Eve Ensler’s description of violence against women, as related the violence of our chemical assault on Mother Earth, would resonate with these young people. Some of them were deeply troubled, even to the point of having to leave the class.

With the students who stayed, I had a good discussion about cancer itself. We looked at the most recent statistics of cancer in the U.S. (1.6 million NEW cases projected for 2014 by the American Cancer Society) and discussed the most common media strategies for dealing with the issue of cancer in the U.S.: walks, runs and galas “for the cure.” LivingDownstream_Portrait1

It took some pushing, but eventually I got the students to begin to discuss how activism that only focuses on “the cure” is missing the huge point: we need to focus on preventing cancer, not just curing it once it’s appeared. In Sandra Steingraber’s famous formulation in her cancer memoir Living Downstream, we need to start looking upstream.

What would looking upstream really mean? Buried deep in the American Cancer Society report is a short section on the environmental causes of cancer. This is what it says: “Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.”

Let me say that again.

“Environmental factors (as opposed to hereditary factors) account for an estimated 75%-80% of cancer cases and deaths in the U.S.” Environmental factors in the context of this report mean manmade chemicals and toxins present in our environment, from water to air to soils to our bloodstreams and mothers’ milk.

So what would it mean, I asked the students, to really probe this issue with the intent of stopping cancer before it begins—going to the source of the problem? It would mean, of course, we agreed after some discussion, pursuing the mining, chemical, pharmaceutical, atomic energy, fossil fuel and industrial agriculture companies. Oh yes, those—the ones that rule the world. It’s a tall order. Just like stopping violence against women, or reining in the carbon polluters and shifting to renewable energy. These are the major issues of our time, though. If we’re not stepping up to work on these issues, what are we doing with our brief, precious lifetimes?

***

In my next class, “Islamic Women Writing Resistance,” we were talking about violence against women, this time in the geographical context of Afghanistan.

Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya

Since we were reading the autobiography of Malalai Joya, the young woman who was elected a member of the Afghan Loya Jirga and famously called out the mullahs on their oppression of women, I steered the conversation into a discussion of leadership. How was it that despite the horrifically violent Afghan society under the Taliban and the warlords, where 90% of women are subjectd to physical, mental and sexual abuse, Malalai had managed to retain her confidence and bravado, her sense of herself as a leader?

And more importantly, what are the costs to a society that not only doesn’t respect and include the talents of 50% of the population, but actively works to suppress these gifts?

The answer to the first question has everything to do with Malalai’s father, who encouraged her to go to school, to become a teacher, and eventually to become an activist politician. Without his support, she could never have succeeded as she did. Chalk one up to the power of allies.

The second question is the one that really interests me. It seems to me that it takes tremendous energy to oppress half the population. Eventually so much is going into terrorizing the women and their potential male allies that there is nothing left over, in terms of psychic energy, to build a healthy, vibrant society.

It’s a true zombie society, with the powerful preying on the weak and the whole social fabric fraying into oblivion.

Is it an accident that the societies where women are being most savagely oppressed are also the societies that are poorest, most chaotic and most violent? Think Somalia, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia….

There are some countries where wealth has made it possible for strict patriarchal control of women to proceed without terrible violence and disorder: Saudi Arabia and the other Emirates, Iran, Iraq, Egypt. Even, maybe, the U.S., Russia and the E.U., where women tend to self-regulate their own subservience to the patriarchy, conditioned by high doses of media and peer education.

In every case, though, what we’re talking about is the same. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted people to cancer every year. We’re losing millions of bright, talented, gifted women to violence and self-sabotage every year. And at the same time, this is happening against the backdrop that Eve Ensler describes so movingly in her book: the interweaving of the violence against women, the violence against individual bodies, and the violence human civilization is perpetuating against the Earth.

“Cancer is essentially built into our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically,” she says. “We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in. Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line close to the water. Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe. Think smoking, drugging. Think abusing our children who are meant to care for us in old age, think mass raping women who carry the future in their bodies, think overeating or starving ourselves to look a certain way, think unprotected sex in the age of AIDS. We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

??????????????????????It doesn’t have to be this way. I am so glad to be reading the new edition of Joanna Macy’s classic work Coming Back to Life, as an antidote to the darkness described by Ensler and Joya. Macy quotes Paul Hawken, who refers to activists and activist organizations as “humanity’s immune system to toxins like political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.”

This immune system, Hawken continues, “can best be understood as intelligence, a living, learning, self-regulating system—almost another mind. Its function does not depend on its firepower but on the quality of its connectedness….The immune system depends on its diversity to maintain resiliency, with which it can maintain homeostasis, respond to surprises, learn from pathogens and adapt to sudden changes” (qtd in Macy, 55).

A current example of such an immune system in action is Sandra Steingraber’s anti-fracking movement in upstate New York. She and her Seneca Lake defenders have come to the rescue of the fragile environment of the Finger Lake region and its jewel, Seneca Lake, putting their own bodies on the line just like Eve Ensler did when she allied herself with the women of the Congo, vowing to stop the violence. 10470955_854714074549076_2405675760464249402_n Any one of us has the power to become a defender of life. All we have to do is to pay attention to what’s happening, start asking the hard questions, stop going along with the flow. We need to do this is in a proactive way. We’re not looking for a cure to violence against women/against the Earth—we want to address the underlying causes of the violence, to look upstream and stop it at the source.

This necessitates a willingness to spend some time outside of our own comfort zones of denial and voluntary blindness. It involves looking at painful, messy, upsetting aspects of human existence, and taking responsibility for the ways in which each of us contribute to the status quo, if only by looking away. It will be personal as well as political in ways that will often hit entirely too close to home.

We need to open our eyes and really look at what our Industrial Growth Economy and the society it has created is doing to our bodies and the body of the world. We need to look at the way women’s bodies, in particular, are forced to bear the brunt of the pain, even though women account for just a fraction of inflicted violence in the world.

Don’t look away. Take it in. And then think about what you can do to join “humanity’s immune system.” Look for me on the front lines—I’ll meet you there. Dandelion_seeds_Computer_backgrounds

Ebola & Islamic Extremism: An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

airport Ebola screening

Airport Ebola screening

Although American officials are making lots of reassuring noises about screening passengers coming from West Africa for signs of the dreaded Ebola virus, the truth is that the only way to totally safeguard against the spread of the disease is to close our borders entirely. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Talk about an unexpected side effect of globalization. Goods and services spread around the globe at the stroke of a keyboard or the roar of a jet engine, but the same mechanisms we celebrate as having pumped up the global economy also, potentially, have a darker side.

What was it Marx said about the bourgeoisie digging its own grave?

I keep hearing the undertone, in the media reporting on Ebola, of the “blame-the-victim” complaint, “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they living in such poverty? Why don’t they have doctors, nurses, hospitals? Look how their squalor is putting us all at risk?!”

There is truth to this. The poor folks in Liberia, Guinea and Sierre Leone, former colonies of the U.S., France and Great Britain, respectively, have not managed to modernize their societies. This is due to a number of factors, including corrupt leadership (strongmen often propped up by the Western powers), violent civil wars (armed by Western weapons manufacturers and distributors), and banana republic-style economies where Western corporations rule by extraction, extortion and exploitation, without giving anything back in taxes, infrastructure or education for the local people.

This is where the West has made its big mistake. How could we in the so-called developed world be so naïve as to think that we could ignore the poverty and suffering of other parts of the globe without that poverty and suffering coming back to haunt us?

Liberian child soldier

Liberian child soldier

If we had invested in schools, medical facilities and housing in Liberia, instead of sending endless supplies of assault rifles and ammunition, we would not be worrying about Ebola now.

Likewise, if we had invested in education and economic development in the Middle East, instead of relying corrupt warlords to keep the population in line, we would not be dealing with a seemingly endless morphing insurgency of Taliban-Al Quaeda-Islamic State terrorists.

It really is true that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In a globalized society, pretending that vast disparities of wealth don’t matter is just plain stupid. Imagining that a vicious virus can be contained by airport thermometer checks is as ridiculous as imagining that an international terrorist network can be stopped by a few fly-by bombings.

The world’s leaders need to take a lesson from Malala Yousefzai, the 17-year-old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her steadfast insistence, even after nearly having her head blown off by the Taliban, that girls should be educated.

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Malala Yousefzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace prize

Study after study has shown that when a society educates and empowers women, it becomes more economically successful and more politically stable.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

This week, in my African Women Writing Resistance class, I’ve been reading and discussing the autobiography of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and first woman head of state in modern Africa.

Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, has been in the news a lot lately, begging for help in containing the spread of Ebola and warning grimly of the consequences of international inaction.

She came to office vowing to take her country back from the warlords and reintegrate child soldiers, to educate girls and boys and build a sustainable economy. She’s made great strides, but the stark pictures of the pathetic state of the nation’s health care infrastructure make it clear how far Liberia, like other poor African nations, still has to go.

The bottom line is this: if we want safety, we have to build towards it, step by step, from the ground up. We can’t ignore poverty and then get mad when impoverished sick people dare to infect us, or when desperate people turn to radical Islam as a way out of their misery.

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

Child worker on Firestone rubber plantation in Liberia

There is no excuse, in our globalized world, for the dramatic disparities of wealth and poverty that exist today. Those of us lucky enough to live comfortably in the U.S. or Europe should be using our privilege to advocate for those less fortunate.

Not just out of altruism. Out of self-preservation, too.

If we had been helping Liberia and other West African nations build good social infrastructure, instead of extracting profits from diamonds, rubber and gun sales, we would not be worrying about the spread of Ebola today.

If we had been educating children in Syria, Yemen and Iraq instead of supporting corrupt dictators and ignoring the plight of ordinary people, we would not be facing the spread of Islamic extremism today.

How many innocent humans will have to die before we begin to understand that simple adage? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Unplugged

I’m now in the middle of my annual summer retreat to the LaHave Islands in Nova Scotia, Canada, and it’s no exaggeration to say I feel like a different person than the harried, exhausted woman who packed up and headed north on the highway three weeks ago.

I am sleeping better—my dreams are lucid and intriguing, with elaborate narrative plots that I enjoy following even if I lose the thread when I wake up.

moonrise

I am writing again—going back to the manuscript of my memoir with fresh eyes and tightening, tweaking, reworking the introduction over and over until (I think) I get it right.

I am reading for pleasure—yes, you heard right! After a long school year in which, as a professor of literature and media studies, I could read only to prep classes, I am indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading mystery novels—Donna Leon’s Brunetti series, with their wonderful descriptions of Venice and Italian food.

I am spending long hours walking the empty beaches and cliffside trails, drinking in the natural beauty and letting the soothing sound of the waves banish all my worries and cares.

Gaff Point

I am enjoying adapting to the rhythm of my parents’ life, which takes me right back to my peaceful childhood, where each day was spent in a judicious measure of work, conversation, meal preparation and relaxed eating. My parents sit together at their lovely dining room table—here in Nova Scotia, with the dramatic view of the bay outside their windows, and the constant sound of the waves on the rocks in their ears—and eat three beautifully prepared and served meals a day, a routine few Americans still maintain.

frittataWhen I first arrived here three weeks ago, I thought this focus on meals took an awful lot of time and effort. But once I slowed down enough, I remembered something that my own grab-and-go existence had made me forget—just how worthwhile it is to take the time to prepare delicious meals, set a lovely table and eat in leisurely fashion, talking quietly over the day’s events. My entire body, aching and stressed when I arrived in Nova Scotia three weeks ago, is grateful.

Here on the island, where the most important questions are whether the tide is up or down and whether the fog is expected to blow out by lunchtime, life returns to its elemental rhythm, and it’s possible to feel how much is lost by the speed of our technology-dominated 21st century existence.

It’s possible to take a deep breath and remember that only 20 years ago, there was no Internet. There was no email. There were no cell phones, no smart phones, no texting. There were no digital music or video files, no VCRs or ipods, let alone streaming capabilities.

Remember what that was like? Everything moved a heck of a lot slower, that much is for sure. We wrote letters on paper and mailed them. We read books and big print newspapers that we had to schlep around with us in knapsacks. When we needed to look up a fact, we had to go to the library and look in the—get ready for it—card catalogue.

This was only twenty years ago, a mere flicker of time in the scale of human history. Imagine what a strain it is on our poor homo sapiens brains and bodies to keep up with the breakneck pace of modern digitized life, especially for those of us born and bred before the Great Digital Coming of the 1990s.

gorgeous NS copy

The brains of children born into this brave new technologized world are being wired differently. For many it is pure torture to slow down to ordinary time. Life without a screen and a wifi connection is unthinkable.

As we advance into the 21st century, I can see in my students the signs of smartphone addiction—the same nervousness and agitation, halfway through a 90-minute class, that smokers used to display in a previous generation. They have to get up and wander off to the bathroom as a pretext for checking in with the virtual world they crave.

I too get addicted during the course of the school year. I check email constantly and Facebook several times a day; I spend more time on the screen than I do out in the garden or walking in the woods or preparing meals and eating them with friends and family.
Only now, when I’m on a media holiday with my email vacation message set, can I appreciate the toll this society-wide digital addiction takes on each of us as individuals, and on human society writ large.

Yes, I love the power and reach of the Internet as much as the next person. I love being able to write my blog, send it out over wifi and have people all across the world reading it in a moment’s time. When my blog readership surpassed 100,000 visitors from more than 200 countries last month, I was thrilled.

But for deep thinking and sustained writing, I need to get away from that kaleidoscopic virtual reality and get in tune with the more primal rhythms of sunset and moonrise, tides flowing in and out again, seagulls soaring over the mermaid dive of a seal fishing quietly by the rocks.

eye of the hurricane 2014

Even if the closest thing to nature you can get is a city park, try spending a couple of hours there without your smart phone, and see what you notice. Watch how your breathing slows down and your tired, overworked brain relaxes when all it has to focus on is trees and bushes, maybe a sparrow or pigeon or two.

We don’t need expensive meditation retreats, yoga classes or far-flung vacations. We just need to give ourselves permission to unplug for a while.

In the Body of the World: Cancer as Catalyst for Revolution

Eve Ensler

Eve Ensler

I have been reading Eve Ensler’s incredibly powerful cancer memoir, In the Body of the World, with my students this week.  We watched Ensler’s 2010 TED Talk, “Suddenly My Body,” given while she was still practically bald from the chemo treatments; and you could have heard a pin drop in the room, everyone was so swept away by Ensler’s passionately delivered paean to the intricate interconnections between the individual body and what she later came to call “the body of the world.”

This is a concept I have most often heard expressed in Buddhist circles.  Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama talk about “inter-being,” and how it is egotistical, arrogant, androcentric and just plain wrong for human beings to imagine that we are somehow separate, over and above other livings beings on the planet.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy, extending Arne Naess’ concept of the “ecological self,” uses the body as a metaphor to describe the futility of imagining ourselves as immune from the destruction we are wreaking on our planet.

The concept of the “ecological self,” Macy says, is important now because “moral exhortation does not work.  Sermons seldom hinder us from following our self-interest as we conceive it.

“The obvious choice, then, is to extend our notions of self-interest.  For example, it would not occur to me to plead with you, ‘Don’t saw off your leg.  That would be an act of violence.’ It wouldn’t occur to me (or to you) because your leg is part of your body.  Well, so are the trees in the Amazon rain basin.  They are our external lungs.  We are beginning to realize that the world is our body” (World as Lover, World as Self, 157).

Eve Ensler has spent much of her life recovering from violence (she was a sexually assaulted and battered by her father as a child), bearing witness to violence against other women and girls, and creating powerful creative works, organizations and movements to end violence against women and girls.

And yet, she says, it was not until the jolt of realizing that her body had been invaded by cancer that she was able to overcome her ingrained alienation from her own body, born of the dissociation that was a survival tactic in her childhood.

Once she allowed herself to become fully connected with her body, it was but a short step to see the cancer in her uterus as symbolic of the much greater cancers of over-consumption and unsustainable growth afflicting the body of the world.

“Cancer is essentially built in our DNA, our self-destruction programmed into our original design—biologically, psychologically.  We spend our days, most of us consciously or unconsciously doing ourselves in.  Think building a nuclear power plant on a fault line, close to the water.  Think poisoning the Earth that feeds us, the air that lets us breathe….We are a suicidal lot, propelled toward self-eradication” (194).

But as Ensler discovers how fiercely she wants to live, to survive the cancer, she realizes that human beings are propelled as much toward life as toward death.  In a further twist of Freud’s insight into the immortal battle between Eros and Thanatos, she realizes that love is the answer—a fierce, unstoppable love for the battered, assaulted but still beautiful Earth, our mother, our home, our self.

Like Eve Ensler, I have spent much of my life focusing on the stories of women, and working to empower women to speak our truths and change the world for the better.

As I ponder the way forward now, in these end times of environmental tragedy, I am wondering whether women have a special role to play in bringing about the kind of radical social change that we need to survive into the future.

City of Joy openingEnsler uses the City of Joy, which she worked so hard to build in Bukavu, DRC (with the help of women all over the world contributing through the V-Day infrastructure), as a model for the kind of new life-giving, life-enhancing community that the world needs now.

It’s a City of Women, founded on the following ten principles:

1. TELL THE TRUTH

2. STOP WAITING TO BE RESCUED; TAKE INITIATIVE

3. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

4. RAISE YOUR VOICE

5. SHARE WHAT YOU’VE LEARNED

6. GIVE WHAT YOU WANT THE MOST

7.  FEEL AND TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH

8. USE IT TO FUEL A REVOLUTION

9. PRACTICE KINDNESS

10. TREAT YOUR SISTER’S LIFE AS IF IT WERE YOUR OWN

These seem like sound principles on which to base any human community, and particularly one founded on ashes, corpses and pain, as is the case in the Congo (but isn’t almost every human society founded, as Marx said, on blood?).

Women stay for six months at the City of Joy, during which they recover their physical and mental health with all kinds of therapies, participate in skills training, and get ready to return to their homes as leaders who can become change agents for peace and sanity in one of the most brutal and brutalized regions of the planet.

I know that there can be no lasting change that doesn’t also include men.  There can be no “City of Women” that survives past a single generation.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy.  Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas due to violent rape.

Eve Ensler, Dr. Denis Mukwege and Christine Deschryver, co-founders of the City of Joy. Dr. Mukwege is a Congolese gynecologist who has operated on hundreds of women and girls left incontinent by tears in their vaginas (fistulas) due to violent rape.

I also know that it is important to recognize and acknowledge righteous anger at those responsible for all the destruction and violence.

We have to speak the truth that in the Congo, as on Earth overall, it has been men, acting with the blessing of our patriarchal religious, political, legal and social structures, who have been responsible for the machines, technologies and brutalities that have been so destructive to individual women and men, as well as to the environment without which we cannot live.

Women have often been complicit and have enjoyed the fruits of industrialization.  Women, especially privileged women, have gone along for the ride.

But it was never the vision of women that created the weapons and bulldozers, the chain saws and cars, the nuclear power plants and oil rigs.  All of those implements were envisioned, created and deployed by the men in charge of human society—especially the Europeans and their colonized offshoots—these last few centuries.

We can’t know now whether it would have been different if women had been allowed education and access to the board rooms and laboratories and congressional chambers where society-changing decisions got made, particularly during the crucial two centuries of industrialization.

We can’t change the past.  We can only look forward and, as mandated in the City of Joy’s Guiding Principles, “stop waiting to be rescued, tell the truth, and use it to fuel a revolution.”

eve-ensler-approved-photo_193x290[1]At death’s door, Eve Ensler realized that human beings and the world we have so profoundly altered are now at the threshold of a new era.

“What is coming is not like anything we have known before,” she says. “Your dying, my dying, is necessary and irrelevant and inevitable.  Do not be afraid, no, death will not be our end.  Indifference will be, disassociation will be, collateral damage, polar caps melting, endless hunger, mass rapes, grotesque wealth.

“The change will come from those who know they do not exist separately but as part of the river….You worry about germs and stockpile your herbs, but they will not save you, nor will your fancy house or gated villages.  The only salvation is kindness.  The only way out is care” (214).

I would like to quote the entire last chapter of Ensler’s remarkable memoir, but I won’t—just go buy the book and read it for yourself.  And then, as she says, “let us turn our pain to power, our victimhood to fire, our self-hatred to action, our self-obsession to service” (216).

Unknown-1Women, it’s time for us to rise and give birth to a new human relationship with the planet and with each other.  It’s past time.

Men are most welcome to join us in this life-saving mission, as long as they are men in touch with their feminine side, their life-giving, nurturing, relational side.

All of us humans possess both masculine and feminine energies and traits.  What we need now is balance.  Balance within each one of us that can become a catalyst for the balance our planet so desperately needs.

1billion-home-india

PS: Check out this TED Talk by Eve from just before she came down with cancer, talking, miraculously, about the importance of the “girl cell” in both men and women.

Here come the health care refugees

It is stunning—and revolting–the depths to which ultra-conservative Republicans will go to harm their fellow Americans.  Particularly fellow Americans of color.

Living in Massachusetts, a state with an especiallly progressive health care safety net (thanks in part to the efforts of then-Governor Mitt Romney, a then-moderate Republican), I hadn’t been paying that much attention to what was happening with health care reform out in the rest of the country.

This morning’s headliner in The New York Times—“Millions of Poor Are Left Uncovered by Health Law”—was a real wake-up call.

How could it be that “two-thirds of poor blacks and single mothers and more than half of low-wage workers without insurance” will be left stranded by Obamacare?

Simple.  The Supreme Court, although it upheld the health care exchange idea, also allowed states to choose to opt out of the expansion of federally funded Medicaid benefits.  Even though the federal government would cover the cost of the expansion through 2016, and at least 90% of Medicaid expenses thereafter, Republican-controlled state legislatures have balked at the prospect of picking up the tab for even 10% of an expanded Medicaid program that would provide health care for millions of people in their states.

It seems they’d rather let those people suffer and die.

http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/liberalia-and-teapartystan-divide-over-the-aca/

According to The Times, “The 26 states that have rejected the Medicaid expansion are home to about half of the country’s population, but about 68 percent of poor, uninsured blacks and single mothers. About 60 percent of the country’s uninsured working poor are in those states. Among those excluded are about 435,000 cashiers, 341,000 cooks and 253,000 nurses’ aides.”

What would happen if those working poor, the minimum wage earners who clean those Republican legislators’ houses, take care of their children, cook their meals, and tend to their aging parents in nursing homes—what would happen if they just up and left?

I have a vision of a vast migration of health care refugees, fleeing the red states just like they did after it became clear that the end of chattel slavery did not mean the end of bondage—it just morphed into debt bondage and serfdom.

If states can say “No thanks” to Federal Medicaid coverage, citizens should be able to say “No thanks” to states.  Let’s see how they like it down in Mississippi and Alabama when there’s no one left to flip their burgers and shine their shoes.

You can run but you can’t hide

As the heat and humidity of summer bore down on my home turf of New England last week, I made a run for it, spending two days traveling northeast at breakneck speed towards the normally cool coast of Nova Scotia.

I arrived just in time for a rare heat spell here on these windy islands sticking out into the north Atlantic.

Today it was up in the 90s Farenheit, the sun golden-bright and merciless.  Too hot to go out to the beach—a day for staying in the shade and drinking lots and lots of water.

musselsThinking of having something light and cool for dinner, my son and I drove down to the store to get some mussels.

The Canadian Maritimes are a prime source of farmed mussels, and I was eagerly picturing a pot full of the glistening blue-black beauties, steamed in a fragrant shallot and wine sauce.

Ignoring the sad, dried-up looking fish at the Atlantic Superstore fish counter, I confidently asked for a 5-pound net bag of mussels, and placed it in my shopping cart.

I started walking around the store briskly, revived by the freezing air conditioning.  But I kept getting whiffs of a strange smell, like something rotten.  After a few minutes, I realized it was coming from my cart.  It was the mussels.

I returned the bag to the fish counter, where the server took it back without argument.

So much for my fantasy of a mussel dinner.

***

warnsignOn the way home, we stopped to pick up a local newspaper, and while waiting in a long hot road construction line, I noticed a small headline tucked on the inside pages: “Shellfish Harvesting Suspended Due to Red Tide.”

My son and I looked at each other in dismay.  We had already noticed, on our first walk on our normally pristine local beach, that the water was a strange rusty-red color.

We had noticed too that there seemed to be fewer seabirds around, and that when we went down to the rocks to look for the normally numerous crabs, we could hardly find any.

We had been planning to go clamming over the weekend, out on the mud flats at low tide.

That plan would have to go the way of the mussel dinner.

When we got home, we went to the Internet to look up Red Tide, learning that it was more properly known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), and that it was almost ubiquitous along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, especially during the summer.

We learned that eating shellfish that have been harvested from HAB water can cause “paralytic toxic poisoning” in humans, characterized by gastrointestinal and respiratory distress.  Good thing I left those stinking mussels at the Superstore!

HABs have disastrous effects on other species like fish, waterfowl, dolphins, whales, and seals.

If I can’t eat mussels I may be piqued, but I can find something else just as good to eat on land.

Ocean denizens have no such options. I began to picture cormorants and seagulls with bad tummy aches.  No wonder we’d seen very few of the big blue herons that used to be so numerous in the salt marshes.

 ***

Red Tide - Mary Mackin 2My admittedly superficial Internet search did not bother to mention the cause of harmful algae blooms, speaking of them as an inconvenient fact of life, like a rip tide or a thunderstorm.

While HABs are sometimes natural, there is nothing normal about the dramatic spike in coastal red tides we’ve been seeing for the past 25 years or so.  They are part of the same phenomenon that causes the dead zones around the mouths of rivers that run through densely populated agricultural regions.  This summer, scientists are forecasting the largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—some 8,500 square miles.

It’s human and animal sewage and fertilizer run-off that upsets the natural chemical balance of the coastal waters, feeding the destructive algae at the expense of everything else.

What we humans break, we can also fix.  We could fix this problem if we wanted to.  But I found mention only of closing shellfish beds to harvesting, not of trying to turn the entire problem around by reducing the amount of shit we allow to run off into the sea.

***

I thought that up here in Nova Scotia I might be able to escape from the relentless, depressing awareness of the cascading, ever-quickening destabilization of the natural world.

That’s just another little fantasy I’ll have to give up.  There’s nowhere to run, much less to hide.

Living with fear

In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, I have been doing some thinking about fear.

I am no stranger to anxiety.  When I was a kid, between the ages of about 8 and 12, I suffered terrible anxiety attacks whenever I had to be separated from my mother.  I worried something would happen to her, and although I had a loving father, brother and extended family, I felt like I would be totally unable to cope with losing her.

When she would go out for the evening, I would get a full-blown anxiety attack, complete with hyperventilation, nausea and panic.  It wouldn’t subside until she was back home safe, and it was not rational—there was nothing she or anyone else could say to calm me down.  I just had to live through it, over and over, until finally, as I moved into puberty, the fear dissipated and went away.

Sometimes I have wondered whether this was related to a past-life experience.  Did I lose my mother in a previous life?  Was I left alone and unprotected?

Is it possible, as Linda Hogan and others have suggested, that we can be haunted by ancestral legacies of violence?

Both of my sons also suffered from irrational fear during their childhoods.

My older son went through a period of terrible night terrors, where he would sleep-walk under the influence of gut-wrenching anxiety and sobbing fear, not calming down until we managed, with great difficulty, to wake him up from whatever nightmare was possessing him.

He would not remember the episode in the morning, and would be sheepish when we’d tell him what had happened; in his waking life, he was calm and unencumbered by fear.  He hasn’t had one of these night terror attacks for about five years now.

My younger son developed a stutter and a nervous twitch in his early childhood, and would cry and talk about being almost paralyzed with what he called “worry.”  No amount of rational talking-through made any difference; he could not explain what he was afraid of, he was just deeply, inchoately fearful.

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

Mt. Greylock, MA; summer 2012

One day, when he was about five, I decided to take him on a long hike up a tall mountain, and we picked up small rocks along the way.  When we got to the top, I told him we were going to throw his worries over the edge of the mountain cliff, and they would be gone and leave him alone.  A smile lit up his face, and he began chucking the rocks off the cliff with intensity.  That day he was happy, and slowly, over the next couple of years, his unexplained anxiety did lift.

What’s perplexing to me about this “family anxiety” is that none of it has any basis in actual trauma.

Each of us did experience a minor trigger, it’s true.

I was separated from my mother when I was seven, for about two weeks, after a car accident landed her in the hospital; but then she came home and was fine.

My older son attributes his night terrors to an incident where he accidentally locked his younger brother, an infant, in the car on a very hot day, and the police had to come and break into the car to get the baby out.  But we were all fine, and of course we absolved the older child of any blame, it was just an innocent mistake.

My younger son developed asthma after an incident of severe pneumonia at seven months, and he was always afraid of the hospital, with the dark x-ray room, the menacing machines, and the possibility of separation from his parents.

But these are such minor precipitating incidents, compared to, say, the shock of bearing witness to a massacre, or living through a rape or domestic violence.

I can’t claim to have any inside knowledge of the kind of traumatic stress that survivors of serious violence must deal with, but having been taken for a ride by severe, irrational anxiety, I can sympathize deeply.

The truth is that all of us, in today’s hyper-linked media age, are living with the scars of bearing repeated witness to violence.

One of our greatest strengths as human beings is our imagination.  Put our active imaginations together with our empathy, and it should be no surprise to find that so many of us are feeling in our own bodies the fear and anxiety that are properly part of others’ experience, not our own.

How many murders and massacres, real and fictional, have we witnessed through the news and entertainment media?  How many times have we watched homes being bombed, people being shot, crazy predators on the loose?

The presence of 300 million guns in civilian hands in the U.S. does not make me feel safe.  It makes me feel afraid—and this time, the fear is rational.

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