Ann Medlock: Sticking Her Neck Out For Democracy and Our Common Humanity
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Jan 13, 2018
Ameeta: I am so thrilled to be moderating this call with Ann Medlock today. Ann is just a virtual font of wisdom. In her eight decades of life, she has been a freelance writer, an award-winning public radio commentator, editor at Macmillan and a speech writer to US political figures and to the Aga Khan. In 1983, she started the Giraffe Heroes Project. This is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to providing inspiring examples of real heroes - people who, like giraffes, are sticking their necks out for the common good. She launched the organization as a call to spotlight and to inspire more brave, active citizens. She's seeking to highlight the stories of these people on radio, TV and on the internet in order to inspire others into more active participation in life. On the Giraffe Heroes website as well, there's a ton of teaching materials that are available for kids from kindergarten all the way through high school, as well as adults; to distribute civic engagement materials to everyone and to encourage them to participate. So, Ann, we're just so thrilled to have you here so that we can have this discussion with you. I just wanted to start out from the very beginning. You've had so many spiritual influences and political influences in your life. Can you just start and tell us what some of your earliest influences were and how they led you to start this project midway into your career?
Ann: Hmm. Earliest influences? Most of those were negative, so let's get to the 70's when I was in my 40's and sort of hit rock bottom emotionally and there was one person in my life who seemed to have her stuff together. She was teaching yoga at the YWCA, and I said, "What are you doing? I mean, how are you being this presence in the world?" And she said, "Well, I have this wonderful guru..." and she started to tell me about him, and I said, "No details. I’m going with you. Here I come." So I spent several years working with a Swar yogi who did a lot a work with sound and changing people's personal conditions through the use of sound and meditation and diet. It was a very formal process for several years and ended up in a space where nothing really could harm me because whatever came at me, I would just say, "Okay, yes. Okay, I can deal with that," and I would do it. So now I realize that that physical process he took me through to the wisdom of “amor fati” -- whatever comes at you, love it, embrace it, move from there.
Ameeta: Can you talk to us a little bit more about what amor fati is? I’m not sure all our listeners understand this concept.
Ann: It goes back to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and the Stoics of thousands of years ago who figured out that resisting what comes at you, saying "no," trying to get out of it, trying to say, "No, this isn't happening," is not the way to live your life. You will just spin your wheels, burn off energy, dig yourself a bigger and bigger hole. So what they came to was, "Whatever comes at you, embrace it," no matter how awful it is. Just say, "Okay. I see. I got it. Here's my move." It came up also when I asked Joseph Campbell, the great researcher of heroes and myths, what he believed personally after all his decades of research, and what he really said to me in several ways was that he saw amor fati as the way that we must live our lives. He gave me a poem by Robinson Jeffers that expressed that feeling that no matter how awful it is, you love it, you embrace it, you work with it. He also gave me a clipping about a policeman in Honolulu where Campbell was living then who was called to a potential suicide on a bridge, and the policeman raced to the place in the patrol car, and when he saw this man about to go over the edge of the bridge, he grabbed him and almost went over himself. The newspaper reporter said, "Why did you do that? You could have died." And he said, "The moment I saw him, I knew I couldn't live with myself if I didn't save him." And Campbell said, "That's who we are. That's what it means to be a human being, to know that we are one being, that we are all in this together. We must help each other through." So that was the other great thing, along with amor fati that I found that I can live by.
Ameeta: That's beautiful. Joseph Campbell, for our callers who don't know about him, Joseph Campbell wrote The Power of Myth and he talked extensively about using all of these mythological stories to tell a really important story and how they apply throughout the ages.
Ann: He also wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Ameeta: That's right. He did. And he was the inspiration for George Lucas when he started writing his original Star Wars saga.
Ann: Yes. He coached Lucas on the hero's journey.
Ameeta: That's right. So we have a lot to thank Joseph Campbell for; and I know that he was pretty instrumental to you as well and one of the inspirations for you going ahead and starting this Giraffe Project. Can you tell us a little bit more about your meeting with Joseph Campbell and how he inspired you to start this project?
Ann: After he retired from teaching college classes, he would do what we would now call "pop-up classes," and the word would just go out when I was living in New York, "Oh! Joe's teaching over on 79th today," and you'd just go and listen. He was a font of -- clearly -- of wisdom and knowledge about heroes in every culture on earth, how every culture has expressed their interest and their definition of heroes. Another time I was in California for a meeting and drove my partner to Esalen where he was giving a talk on "Politics that Heal," on how to be involved in politics in a way that doesn't scar your soul. I saw, when I dropped him off, that Campbell was doing a class called "Parsifal." Parsifal was the young man who found the Holy Grail when all the Knights of the Round Table could not find it. So it's a core myth of western culture. So instead of going back to San Francisco, I stayed and listened to Joe for two-and-a-half days talking about Parsifal in all his manifestations in every culture you can imagine. At the end of the sessions, one of the slides he put up -- Oh. He had the most wonderful slide collection, and if anybody knows who's got Joe's slides, please tell me, because I would love to have copies of those slides. The last slide he showed was a deck of cards all laid out in columns with the hearts, the clubs, the spades, and then at the bottom of the four columns was this card that's not part of any of the columns, the Joker. And what Joe did talking about that slide just made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He said, "You see these suits? Everybody is in order. You start with the king, you go to the queen, you go to the jack and then the ten, nine...And everybody's in the same suit. We're all spades here. We're all clubs here. And we all know what our job is. We know our position. We know what we're supposed to do. And then there's this guy down here who's not part of anything. He's not in any of these ranking positions. He's not wearing a uniform. He looks poor, he's all in rags, he's about to step off a cliff, there's a dog nipping at his heels. What? What? What is this?" Then he said, "This is the most dangerous person on earth because he's not listening. He's going to do what he's got to do, and he's not following orders, and he's not wearing a uniform. He sees his task, and he must do it. This is Parsifal. This is the Holy Fool. This is the being in every culture you can imagine who is going to step forward and say, "This is not right. Someone must change this. I guess it's me. I’m going to do it." He is too young, too old, too poor, too whatever. Everybody tells him, "No." And he does it anyway." When I was driving back to San Francisco on that gorgeous road up the coast, it just hit me. This is why I can't stop finding these people I’m calling "Giraffes." They are the "Holy Fools" for our time. They are the ones who say, "Wait a minute. This is not right. What this system is doing is not right for the people. I must make a move. I must make this change so that the well being of the common good is served."
I later told him, back in New York what I was doing because I had never told him about the Giraffe Project. And I was standing with him and telling about all these people I was finding and how I was getting their stories out, and watched tears form in his eyes. It was a really great moment, and it has kept me going, what is this, this is 2018. I have been doing this since I was 50, so 34 years he's kept me going.
Ameeta: That's amazing. So Ann, I’m going to ask you, why do you feel that you have to publicize these heroes? Why is it not just enough for these heroes to do these small acts on their own, and why do you feel so compelled to publicize these unsung heroes in our society?
Ann: Well, sometimes when we approach someone and say, "Our jury would like to give you this commendation and we'd like to tell your story," some of them will say, "No, no, no. That's okay. I’m just doing this because I’m doing this. You don't need to do that." And what I say to them is, "It's not about you. I want other people to see what you did and think, 'I could do that!' That's the purpose. It's not to make you famous or to glorify you or to tell people how wonderful you are. It's to make other people see what you did and go do something themselves. Then they say yes. They let me tell their stories.
Ameeta: Is there a particular "Giraffe" story that really inspired you? You've read thousands of these stories. Is there one particular story that really stands out in your mind?
Ann: I think everybody needs their own role models, and I love the old ladies because we've honored people who are even older, women who are even older than I am, and I think, "Yes! She kept going! I can keep going." But I think probably the most astonishing story for most people is two guys who are in California. One of them is an immigrant from East Africa. His family were Ismaili Muslims who were merchants in East Africa, and when Idi Amin came in and started persecuting people, including a lot of Muslims, his family came to the US for safety. Azim Khamisa is his name and he became a very successful investment banker in California. His son was working for college money delivering pizzas, and he got a call from an address to bring a pizza and he came, and it was a gang initiation. The task for the initiate was to get pizza for the gang and not pay for it. When the kid said "No, I’m not paying," Azim's son turned to go and take the pizza back to the truck, and the kid shot him and killed him. Azim was absolutely devastated, but very, very quickly he realized, when the police were explaining what had happened, that was a child who killed his son. The kid was 14-years old.Azim said, "I realized two families were losing sons, mine and his." And he went and found the kid's family. (The kid) was living with his grandfather, a man named Ples Felix, who was an official in the San Diego government. Ples was absolutely astonished that Azim came to him and said, "We've both lost our sons." Because this boy was in prison. They teamed up together to go into schools to talk to kids about vengeance and rage and why they must forgive each other. And the kids look at these two men and they say, wait a minute, "Your kid killed his kid, and you're here together?" And they say, "Yes! We're here together."
They have talked to thousands of young kids about pledging to avoid violence. As the story goes on, the 14-year-old was sent to Folsom prison. He was the first child sentenced as an adult for a murder in California. The warden was so worried that he'd be killed in the general population that he put him in solitary confinement to protect him. They finally -- Azim helped Ples -- got him moved to a safer prison. And Azim found out there were no books. There was no education for this boy. So he brought all kinds of books to the prison and was tutoring this kid. Because he had no education. He talked to him about restorative justice, about understanding what he did, really apologizing, realizing what he's done, making amends. And Azim says that “When he gets out of prison, I’m giving him a job." How is that for a story?”
Ameeta: That is quite the story. Yes, that definitely wins an award for sticking your neck out.
Ann: Yeah, really. And Ples went alone to Azim's family and apologized to them for what his grandson had done. I mean, talk about brave.
Ameeta: Well, I’m so glad that you're highlighting these stories and inspiring others - like you said, to follow in their light and become activists themselves.
Ann: Yeah, if you see that story and then you're mad at somebody and you want to get even with them, wouldn't you stop and think, this is really stupid. I should forgive that guy.
Ameeta: Yeah, my anger doesn't amount to anything compared to his.
Amit: Then you know, the flip side of that -- sorry to jump in like that. You know, the power of forgiveness and understanding and compassion. Looking at the suffering at the other individual, and being able to overcome that is remarkable. So what a powerful story.
Ameeta: Like you said, one of the things that you talk about is also having compassion, but having compassion with action. That it's the effect from adding the action to the compassion piece.
Ann: We talk about courageous compassion. You can have compassion all by yourself and be thinking loving thoughts and forgiving thoughts about other people. But if you don't take a move in that direction -- well, I guess if you're a monk praying for the world, then that has value. But for most of us householders, we need to walk our compassion out into the world and do things with it.
Ameeta: I couldn't agree more. I’m a big believer in the action piece as well. One of the other things that we talked about that really excited me is this Evidence project that you're doing now. Can you talk with us a little bit about what the Evidence project is?
Ann: This is its public debut, because we've been doing this very quietly. I have a very questioning mind, I have had Question Authority on the wall as long as I can remember. And this is fun -- I worked with a television producer in New York for awhile that said, Question Everything, and mine says Question Authority. So I’ve been questioning authority for as long as I can remember. One of the things that I started looking at is, we humans are so creative, we're so imaginative, we're so smart. And we just think up these wonderful stories to explain the unexplainable. I was looking at all the religions we see in the world and thinking, these stories are fabulous. They are just wonderful. But humans created them. What is there that we didn't have any creation factor in? We didn't do anything about this? Is there evidence of order apart from our wonderful stories. One of the things I have found and have been so delighted with is mathematics. The word "Phi" is Greek for 1.618, which is the mathematics of the golden mean. that 1.618 is in your DNA, it's in galaxies, it's in trees, it's in beauty. Whenever you see something a human has made that is absolutely gorgeous, you can probably find that equation in the formation of that thing, because we are attuned to seeing beauty where that is. So when we make something beautiful, when we create something beautiful, it is probably present. We have probably drawn on that 1.618. Which sounds very esoteric, but it's really all around you. It's everywhere. The cover of a book I did just a few years ago is a gorgeous photograph of a a cut nautilus shell, which is a perfect expression of that mathematical formula. So for me that was just a powerful proof that there is order. I’m not sure what the nature of that order is, but it is sacred. It's everywhere, and we didn't put it there.
Ameeta: So you're basically talking about -- I guess, fate. That there's this order that's just above us, this universal order.
Ann: It's above us, it's around us, it's in us. And it's in our interaction with the world. It's in our response to things that are beautiful. We are sensing that it's there. I wrote something a long time ago called Clergy, saying that my clergy are artists. When artists are really in the flow, when they are creating beauty, they are part of this order of the universe. They are manifesting order. So I wrote about a singer who is just astonishingly good at just transporting her audience; about a painter whose paintings just go right into the marrow of your bones when you look at this; and, about Christopher Alexander, who is a British architect, who wrote a book that many people may know, called A Pattern Language, in which he goes for the soul of architecture. It's not what your ego and your technology can help you make. It's tuning in to real beauty and creating beauty. It's tapping into this benevolent force field. I guess that's it -- The Force is with us when we are creating well.
Ameeta: Well, Christopher Alexander, you mentioned this architect. You worked with him specifically on your house for quite a while.
Ann: For five years! Yes.
Ameeta: So what more can you tell us about Christopher Alexander?
Ann: He has a devoted following around the world of people who have this experience of encountering what he has to say. He's a beautiful writer, and he's got maybe ten books that people can find, and when people resonate to what he's saying about "soul manifests in what we build," they just become devoted to his work. He taught at Cal Berkeley for 25 years, and there were young people who came from all over the world to major in Christopher Alexander because they had read his work. He's a renegade; in his own way, a holy fool because he wouldn't listen to the formal, the conventional wisdom of what architecture is, what we are able to build, what we should build. He just kept saying, "No. That's not the way to go. Go this way. Look. Over here. This is where the real soul of building beauty is." Some architects here in the Northwest asked me if I would get him to give their annual awards for architecture, and I said, "No I won't because you do not want him on the podium looking at the winners because you will not like what he says. So here's what you should do. Get him to speak. Just get him to talk, because you want people to hear him, and then you give the awards afterwards, and do not give him the microphone because he will tell you that you have built crap." So they did that. I was sitting with Chris when they were showing the winners, and I was trying so hard not to laugh because he was just having a fit over how horrible they were, how much ego was involved and really brutal technology too. Last month I was at Berkeley and saw a building at the gate and I thought, "Chris must have had to pass that building every day. It is the ugliest thing I have ever seen. It looks like a bunker in a war." And it was an art museum. And I thought, "That must have broken his heart every time he passed it."
Ameeta: So how did you manage to have him design your home?
Ann: Oh, that was so funny. I heard him speak in New York and I thought, "Well, man. If I ever built a house, I'd surely want to build it his way. But I’m a New Yorker, I’m never going to build a house." Then, by a strange sequence of events, I suddenly owned land on an island north of Seattle and was leaving New York and needed to build a house. So I got A Pattern Language, I read the whole thing, and then I wrote him a letter. I said, "This says I should now be able to build a house your way, but I don't think I can. What do I do now?" And I called him after that, and he said, "Oh, I'll build it for you." I said, "What?" He said, "Yeah, sure. Let's get together." And we started having meetings. Years later, I was with him somewhere and he said, "You know the saddest thing about working as much as I do is, I have to say no to people when they want me to build a private house, because I’m just too busy." And I said, "What do you mean you say no? You said yes immediately when I called you." And he said, "Well we were having a meeting of my staff, and we said, 'You know, everything we've built has been in California. We really need to do something in another climate,' and the phone rang."
Ann: Up here in the rain, and the grey, and the mud -- not California weather at all -- so I worked with him for five years.
Ameeta: And you're now writing a book about that, right?
Ann: You know, it's starting as a website because I realize I’m running out of time, actuarially, because it takes so long to get a book published. So I am first putting chunks of it online so people can have it as soon as I finish sections. I’m scanning photographs and I’m going through all my notes. I’ve got piles of notes here in this office, and I am transmitting all of them as soon as I can online because I’m running out of time.
Ameeta: Well, one of the quotes of yours that I love is -- you mentioned this, and you said, "Now actuarially, time is getting short, so I’m gathering up as many breadcrumbs as I can find of that late-begun work and leaving them here in the vast forest that is the internet in hopes that they may be of value on your path to a long and creative life." So what kind of breadcrumbs have you spread across the internet for all of us to find?
Ann: Well you read my home page. If you click your way through there, you find a lot of my radio commentaries. I used to do them on Public Radio and most of them are evergreen, so I put those up. I am gradually putting up poems. I’m pulling things out of my book and will be putting them there. There are op eds. I’ve done a lot of op eds. I used to do them in the Huffington Post but that's too much trouble. I don't do that any more. So I’m just saving it all instead of thinking -- yeah -- I hate Kleenex thinking. We use this once, we throw it away. I think everything should be recycled and re-purposed and everything of value should stay with us. So I’m trying to find everything that I’ve done that might have value to people, and I'll put it all on AnnMedlock.com. What I’m writing about right now is the Alhambra. I did two bucket-list things last year. I went to San Miguel de Allende and I went to the Alhambra. I have wanted to see the Alhambra ever since I worked for the Aga Khan because I was writing for him about architecture in the Islamic world. It's a passion of his, and I was writing speeches for him that he gave all over the world about not turning the Muslim world into steel and glass with all the oil money that's coming into that world. Everything looks like Dallas, and he's horrified. He wants the traditions of Islamic architecture respected. So I started reading about Islamic architecture and seeing these photographs of the Alhambra which is the ultimate, of course. I finally got there last month. I was so excited. Oh and on the walls of the Alhambra, you talk about clergy and artists and channeling the sacred -- the mathematics of that place are just so astonishing. They just give you chills. I had this very young Spanish guide, Jose, who was so funny and sweet, and he's waving his arms at one of these walls and he's saying, "You see? It's all here. The stars, the rivers, the trees -- everything is here and it's all one and it's all God." I mean, bingo! And that's on the walls. Okay!
Ameeta: That's amazing. So Ann, have you spent a lot of time doing a lot of inner work? I mean, in order to cultivate your outer work, do you feel that you have to cultivate your inner self as well?
Ann: You know, I started doing TM, Transcendental Meditation, in 1972, and it's kind of my one-timey thing that I do, and I only do it once a day. But I think it keeps me going. It's like taking a vitamin pill. Ameeta: One of our listeners, Gayathri, one of her questions is, "Before someone can stick a neck out, do you feel that they first have to spend doing the inner work and becoming more centered in order for their outer work to be more effective?
Ann: That's so important. That's such a big question. I was at Saint John the Divine at a big meeting once when, it was a peace group meeting, and the speakers kept talking about doing the inner work before you move. Work before you move. Do the inner work before you go into the world. And there was this marvelous guy from New Jersey who was called The Green Rabbi. I forget what his real name was. We just called him The Green Rabbi and he stood up, and he says, "No. The missiles are going in all over Europe. You cannot wait until you are perfect." And I went and found him afterwards, and I said, " I’m with you." I mean we have to do the work ongoing we have to keep trying to be the best we can be. But if we wait till we're perfect the world will move on in directions you don't want it to move in. So we had a pact that we would keep telling people, "Yes. Do the inner work and get your butt out the street too." Sorry, that's not the the spiritual answer, but it's very practical.
Ameeta: No, that's great. We want to hear your answer. Any other specific nuggets of wisdom that you've extracted in your 80-plus years that you would really love to pass on to all of us?
Ann: Well, Amor fati is the the main thing. Whatever comes at you - it's like improv theater, which makes me so delighted -- the basic rule of improv is you never reject your co player's move. You never say no. Whatever the other people do on stage, you say, "Yes, and," and you move from there. It really does make all the difference. And a respect for art and all its forms, when it is true art it is sacred. It is evidence of order. That's not a lot for 80 some years, but there I am.
Ameeta: Well, that's great. Amor fati translated amor means love and fati means fate, so Amor Fati is love of fate. We're not supposed to just bear what is necessary. You know whatever comes our way, but to love it and to embrace it.
Ann: Embrace it and make your move. Don't don't let it solidify you in hatred or resistance -- make your move.
Ameeta: Before we start opening things to our Q&A session. I just wanted to ask you if there's anything else that you wanted to tell us about your Giraffe Heroes project.
Ann: Just that there's a lot there. It's a legacy project. There's over a thousand stories at giraffe.org. There is free material for little kids.
We have two characters who are twin juvenile giraffes called Stanley and Beatrice Tall as in Stan Tall and Bea Tall. And they tell stories for little kids online free. There's classroom materials from kindergarten through 12th grade free. At giraffe.org. It's our gift to the world. Please take it, use it, move forward.
Ameeta: And so this is what you want your legacy to be?
Ann: That and my books. Yeah. But my private legacy will be in my books and my own website. I have a schizo life. You know I have this public service side of me, and I have the private artist. And one eats the other. I say the giraffe ate my life, but every once in awhile, I get time to do my own private work, and I’m leaving that too. Some more bread crumbs.
Amit: We have another question from Albert. Albert Row who says,"Thank you for this wonderful sharing, and I’m curious as to whether you would be willing to speak to your experience of Christopher Alexander's manner of relating to others. I’ve enjoyed his writings much, and yet have heard that the messenger is often experienced with a rather large ego almost similar to the same you refer to. So regarding the architecture he's reacting or responding to, it's not so much about Alexander as it is about us and a way in which we relate a common story of humanity."
Ann: Yeah, Chris has the persona of feeling beleaguered. He has been so isolated -- like when he was on the faculty at Berkeley. He has this assumption that no one understand him, the world is against him -- so he has a very prickly personality. I found it amusing, but it is not easy to deal with -- he has alienated a great many people and there's a long family story there. His parents were intellectuals who made it out of the Vienna right before Hitler. He was raised an only child and a genius in England to this refugee couple and you can imagine how cherished he was and perhaps how spoiled
I did the artistic work with him, my husband did the negotiating and John, my husband, at one point said, "He's more difficult than Kissinger!" But the work and the man are separate. As it happens with so many artists if you knew the artist you might not like his work so much, but let his work stand alone.
It is magnificent. And when he moves into creation mode he does disappear. I wrote a poem about him that said he was listening to God. When he is in his creative mode. When he's dealing with other human beings he's not so good at listening to God.
Amit: Thank you for that. Thank you Albert --Mr Albert Human Being Recovering Architect as he signed off. Ann I heard you speak to this idea of questioning authority or admiring the renegades and Christopher Alexander or even if you look at the ethos of some of the Giraffe Heroes and so my question is -- where did your Renegade Spirit come from? Was it born or shaped by anything specific in your personal experiences growing up?
Ann: Wow, that's an interesting question of. I have always been the odd kid out. And I don't know why. I remembered challenging my third grade teacher, because she said something I didn't think was true and I remember it was -- she said there were no pandas at a particular zoo. And I knew there was one because I had seen it. So I brought a clipping and put it on the bulletin board in the classroom-- a picture of the panda. She was very annoyed with me.
I don't know where it came from. It must be in the programming somewhere.
Ameeta: Does this relate to your curiosity as well? One of the things we talked about is how you feel that so many people have lost curiosity now.
Ann: If we're talking about the fundamentalist mindset that is manifesting all over the world and the fundamental mind says, "There are no questions. There are only answers, and they are in the book." Whatever book they believe in and are referring to. So anybody who has questions is a mystery to them. They don't understand. Why would you question? It's right there in the book. I’ve never been one of those people.
Ameeta: So how do you make people more curious then? Or become more curious?
Ann: You would hope that it happens in school --that we teach kids how to think, how to reason, how to look at what comes up for them in the world and think it through. What is this? What do you think about this?
I don't think it's happening a lot, so I guess it's up to parents if you value that in the world, you have to teach your kid because it probably won't happen in school. I got called to my son’s junior high school, and I thought, "Oh, what? Is he flunking something?" And his teacher said, "You have to tell him not to wear that button." And I said, "What button?" Because he had a jacket that was covered with buttons. Because it was a thing for kids his age. And he said, "The one that says question authority. And I said, " I gave it to him." That was the end of that conversation.
Ameeta: We have a couple of callers in the queue, so I’m going to go to the next one here.
Caller: Hi, my name is Gayathri calling from India. Thank you. I’m really enjoying this conversation. So my question is, I read you are part of this Hedgebrook Writers Retreat for women. And I found that so fascinating because this is the first time I’ve heard of a writers retreat that was exclusively for women, so I was wondering if you could tell us a little about that.
Ann: Yes, Hedgebrook is spectacular. It is one of the finest things ever created by a philanthropist. There's a woman on this island where I live, Whidbey Island -- its between Seattle and Vancouver BC way up in the top left corner of the US and a woman named Nancy Nordhoff created this retreat.
There are six little cottages that are perfectly set up for an individual writer, and it's all free. People submit their work to a jury, the writers are picked and given a time in a cottage and at this point, eighty percent of our writers are women of color, which is so spectacular. They are coming in from all over the world.
They're writing magnificent stuff. I am just so proud of their work. I’ve had a cottage twice, and it is the best place to write that anybody could possibly imagine, because they totally take care of you and honor your work. And are particularly attuned to the fact that women are not used to being treated this way. You're totally honored and respected.
It spectacular so if you are a writer do go to the Hedgebrook.org site and learn more about it and submit your work. See if you can get a cottage.
Caller: That sounds beautiful especially because I mean in times like these it's lovely to hear that there are so many women of color and just you know women being supported - it's a lot of bright stories. It's actually like a giraffe story-- that bit that I read recently that felt so hopeful so thank you for that.
Amit: Wonderful. I’m going to go to our next caller.
Caller: Oh thank you so much. This is such an interesting call. My Name is Alicia, and I’m in the Skagit Valley which is close to Whidbey Island, kind of on the other side of the water. And I had two things that came up with you talking, and one was the whole idea of the order which I understand and I have experienced the flow you're talking about, and also in looking at nature and the different things that have that order, and it suddenly came to me or the question of that's the reason kindness heals is that there's something about kindness that must be in that mathematical equation. Do you think that's possible? Do you know what I mean?
Ann: Yeah it's like Jose said in in the Alhambra, “It’s all one thing and it's all God." So if you plug into it you are plugging into The Force, you are taking part in the order of things, and I think the order is sacred.
Caller: Yes, yes. Thank you. I mean I want to read more about it because the words and stuff were new to me though the concept isn't. And the other is what you're doing with the Giraffe Project. I was thinking when you were talking about fundamentalism going around the world-- one of the things that I’ve observed personally from people who have become more fundamental is that in being able to question authority there has to be something inside you an inner structure that is strong enough that people that I’ve seen that have become fundamental have kind of collapsed not being able to to be able to hold themselves and they need to lean into something, and I don't know if you perceive that or not but I was thinking that the Giraffe Project and the stories would then at least allow possibility to see something else, so thank you for that. Does that make sense at all?
Ann: It does and I think you're on to it. I’m thinking about the fundamental thinkers that I know personally. I’m thinking, Yeah this gives them strength to know that there is an external source of instruction and direction and it's very comforting, and I could certainly understand how tempting it is.
Caller: Yes. Yes, the people that I’ve seen have had so much pain and haven't been able to stand on their own somehow, they've needed someone else to give them an answer. So the stories, I thought oh my God there is a story of a structure, a structure of a story that someone else might be able to see and step out a bit, so yeah, thank you.
Ann: This idea of all of it being one thing and we're all in this together. And did you see the story online recently about the the whale trying to protect the researcher from a shark?
Ann: There is so much reaction to that saying, "Oh the whale wasn't being compassionate and protective. That's ridiculous - you’re anthropomorphizing an animal." Well that is such hubris! Human hubris. It's like why shouldn't the whale have concern for her? We're all one thing and we're all in this together.
The elephants in Africa who knew that their best human friend had died and walked miles to pay respects to him. That's not anthropomorphism. We are so arrogant to think we are the only ones who could experience compassion.
Caller: But I think that that belief is part of our fundamental structure for safety from something we're afraid of.
Ann: “Animals don't have souls they can't have these things.”
Caller: Right have you read the book Grayson?
Caller: Oh it's by a woman who swam every day. She swam in the ocean and at one point she found there was a baby whale that was separated from his mother and she stayed with that whale and was able to get people in fishing boats her fishing buddies to go help and finally the mother somehow was able to reunite with the whale, and at the end she's in the water and the mother comes up and looks at her in the eye and goes by and thanks her.The story confirms what you're saying, and I think you would love it.
Ann: Thank you.
Amit: That was fantastic and really an example of how we all really co-create this this call together, and so that was fantastic and a nice share. Ann I wanted to come back a little bit to the Giraffe Project. You started it back in the early 80s, and through the decades you have come across so many different heroes, there's so much diversity across that time, so it's sort of a two-part question, first is what have you seen that's been consistent in these heroes throughout these times, and what's changed or evolved, and then the second part of that is how has that impacted you, or how have you grown from that as you as you've been exposed to the changing times and these changing heroes?
Ann: Okay, the issues change clearly. In the 80s there were a lot of stories about people responding to the AIDS epidemic. Currently there are a lot of stories coming in about people working against sex trafficking so the issues seem to change through the times. There's a lot of people now resisting the political trend in the US of this hate based, xenophobic stuff that we're all witnessing. So the consistent thing is this sense in the people of, "This just dropped in my lap. Okay. I'll do it. I'll take it on." Some of them have religious training and some don't so that's not consistent with what else -- just this sense of personal responsibility. And not ducking it and not thinking somebody else will take care of that or the fatalism of thinking it can't be fixed nobody will do anything in the end it'll just happen. And about how it affects me. Can you imagine spending 35 years working with material like this?
I am so blessed. Very often when I’ve given stories to journalists they've had that reaction too, like, "I have to deal with so much ugliness that comes across my desk-- this just puts a smile on my face. It makes me happy to do my job." And I don't want to ever get into feeling like I’m pushing mindless good news.
There's a lot of difficult stuff going on in the world. There's a lot of things that are not good at all, but there's always somebody making a move. So if we can find the people who are moving and look at what they're doing. It's not avoiding the idea that there's bad stuff going on in the world.
It's just changing our focus over to what can be done. That's what's important to me, and it keeps me going. The giraffe ate my life. He also feeds my life. [laughter]
Amit: Blessed is certainly the word that comes to mind. Ameeta and I were just talking before the call and saying how we have so many different guests that come on to this call and just different backgrounds and experiences and insights, and there's just so much to learn from. And we're obviously very thankful to you today for sharing a lot of your insights and experiences as well.
One of the things that you described about these heroes was there's this sense of responsibility right? This has come before me. But I know that some of your heroes are young people -- are kids. And so what's to say about them? I mean they haven't really necessarily learned about responsibility so is there something that's sort of unique about some of these kids?
Ann: I think it's their natural compassion coming out. You know one of the things you find when you work in character education is there a lot of people in the field who really believe that humans come in as little savages, and we have to spend all our time civilizing them.
And there's another school of thought that we come in altruistic, compassionate and honorable and it's bad circumstances in life that turn some people into negative forces in the world. But our natural state is not that, so it's a huge difference of approach to who kids are. Our materials assume that kids are compassionate and altruistic. One of my personal images on that is if you walk into a nursery in a hospital where there are newborns if one of them begins to cry, others will cry, and I hear them saying, "Somebody's in trouble here. Come help." That there's a natural alliance in those infants. But if you believe that we're born awful and have to be trained to be decent members of society you're going to see it quite differently. The kids we've honored, most of them have very supportive families. I have to say that. If you talk to the moms and dads of these kids you're going to find some pretty amazingly good people who are doing a good job with their kids. So I don't know enough about the families to know if there are any kids we've honored who have parents who don't foster this in the kids. But I think some of them have astonished their parents. I’ve had parents tell me that. I mean one Mom I remember said her child watched something on television about a disaster, and he said I want to help-- he was like 5.
And he said I’m going to raise money, and he made toys or cookies. I can't remember what he was doing, but he raised a lot of money and sent it to this aid relief society, and his mom was just astonished. She didn't think it was possible, but he did it. So I’m not sure what the answer is.
I think I should ask parents more questions. This is a good subject.
Amit: It reminds me we had an internship program with ServiceSpace two summers ago and we had a young high schooler, about 15 years old. He lives out in Pepper Pike, Ohio.
Ann: What a great name! Pepper Pike.
Amit: He was 12 or 13, and he started this organization-- his grandfather passed away, and he was very very close to his grandfather, and it just reminded him that there are actually a lot of elderly out there who don't necessarily get the kindness and affection from their families. So he wanted to find a way to sort of work in that direction and he started an organization called Love Letters for the Elderly in which people will write letters of love, and they send it to Jacob and then Jacob sends it on to various assisted homes around the US. And it's a really wonderful little organization, and so hearing about these kid heroes and stuff like that reminded me of that.
Ann: It's like the people who send letters to soldiers they don't know, but just send them into the combat zone. So lovely.
Amit: You know another question that just came in from Albert: I don't believe I’ve heard you share about how you came to this specific name "giraffe project" am curious.whether it was also NVC related?
Ann: Oh no. Marshall Rosenberg - he saw a campaign of ours in New Jersey when he started that program, so we've been doing this a lot longer than Marshall. And I love what he's doing it's fine. Where did we start? It's because it gets attention. Who doesn't Love Giraffes? Everybody loves giraffes. If we put up this engaging image that makes people smile we get their attention and then we hit them with the serious stuff. It doesn't work in every culture. We are in I don't know how many countries now. ..........We just started Giraffe Heroes Europe. Giraffe Heroes Argentina came online just a few weeks ago and the giraffe image is universal. People, you know, love him, but we can't say stick your neck out in every language. In Russia the translation of stick your neck out means commit suicide. So we have to back off and deal with the local culture and adjust the language in a lot of places. Standing Tall works in most places. Oh, and we never say stick your neck out to little kids because they think it means put a cape on your back and jump off the garage roof. You know you can't say that to a little kid. So we say stand tall to little kids. So in every culture we go in and we take a moment and adjust the language.
Amit: That's great. Do you guys have anything that brings these heroes together where they get a chance to meet and collaborate and learn from one another or be able to support one another?
Ann: That has always been beyond our resources. It is terribly expensive to bring people together in one physical space. We now have in waiting a Facebook private group. In the next month, we will be inviting every live Giraffe in the world to come into that group online for sharing experiences, sharing resources, sharing ideas. That is doable. Putting people on airplanes and into hotels, is not. It's just too incredibly expensive and environmentally not a good idea.
Amit: Yeah, well that's great though that you guys are going to be finding ways to sort of collaborate around.
Ann: Our guys in Europe are really interested in the network aspect of this, so we're moving on that in the next month. We're just waiting to get all the invitations out.
Amit: Wonderful. You know one of the things I want to come back to was there's this sense of yes, you know you accept the cards that are laid there before you, but you can take that in a number of different ways you know -- well this is my fate. This is what I can't do anything about and almost end up in a helpless state. I guess you know I was hoping you could speak to more of the other side of that.
Ann: There's a Joan Didion book called "Play it as it Lays," which is an idiom from golf --wherever your ball lands that's where you play from. You don't put your club down and curl up in a fetal position because the ball is in the the sand. You work out your shot. You know -- “What is the way I move out of here?” It should not be an invitation for passivity.
Amit: The other thing that comes to mind was when you talk to journalists, and they would hear all these wonderful stories, and get a sense of relief from their normal reporting-- I’m curious if you know why they don't report this type of stuff more? I know that that bad news sells perhaps, but you know balancing some of that out because that too will have an influence on the mindset and the attitudes of people.
Ann: Yeah, well that's that where I started. I was looking at all the media in the 80s and thinking this is poison. We are poisoning the body politic, because all we're seeing is you know, this awful thing happened and that awful thing happened and isn't this terrible and at the end of it -- here's a poodle riding on a motorcycle yay. No, that's ridiculous. That doesn't help. You can laugh at the poodle, but go back to those stories you just told of every horrible thing that's happening and find somebody who's got an idea what to do about it. That's what we want and that's been our niche of feeding those stories out as much as we can. We don't try to get them on Fox News, you know it's hopeless. We just put the stories out ourselves. If they get picked up, wherever they get picked up, fine, but if you're dealing with a producer who believes “If it bleeds it leads,” you're not going to get these stories placed. They just won't do it. The last good piece we had was Alaska Airlines. If you flew Alaska Airlines last month there was like six pages of Giraffe Heroes in their magazine. They did a lovely job. And we are now moving that electronically through our system of showing people the marvelous job that Alaska Airlines did, but I am thrilled to have our own means of dissemination rather than depending on the producers as gatekeepers because they have the wrong mindset.
Amit: Hmm. Giraffe Heroes as it evolved from a passion of yours -- behind every organization are Heroes within the organization and obviously you had this wonderful vision,and this would be a great opportunity for you to talk about the people that have been a key part of giraffe Heroes to build it to what it is today.
Ann: We've had loyal backers and one of the interesting phenomena of being as old as I am is that they're starting to die off. The ranks are thinning, so we are now looking at, OK we have 20,000 people who read the stories on Facebook. How would they support this? If each person who read stories all year on Facebook put in five bucks we'd be doing fine. We really don't need all our wonderful philanthropists who are dying if the new wave of young people reading online kick in a few bucks. That would work great. We'll see if it works.
If it doesn't, it still exists that they're still online, all we have to do is keep the web fees paid and that stuff will always be there for people to take no matter what happens to the live project itself.
Amit: That's wonderful and are there any other ways we as the ServiceSpace community can support you in the work that you're doing?
Ann: Direct people to giraffe.org. Get them using this stuff. It's so congruent with what y'all are doing. You know just link people up and tell them to go take stories, take the curriculum, take anything they need.
Amit: Absolutely,we send out an email to all of our callers that have rsvp'd in and will definitely include links to the site, and we put up the blog and I took some time to actually go through the database and it was great because you I could find Local Heroes here in the DC area where I’m based, and you know how nice would it be to maybe write a letter to one of those Heroes here saying,"Hey, you know I really appreciate the work that you're doing." Or maybe grab a cup of coffee. I feel like that's something all of us could do.
Ann: And most of them are doing work in the world that could use more hands. If you find a Giraffe who's nearby ask them if you can help, show up at their office or their hospital or wherever they're working.
Ameeta: I wanted to thank you again for all your insights. It’s been very thought-provoking, and I can't wait to go and explore on the web the Giraffe Heroes project and then your personal website as well at Ann Medlock.com. I’m really looking forward to you putting up some more work about the Evidence Project online as well.
Ann: I haven't put anything online about the Evidence project; you and I are just blowing the lid off that one.
Ameeta: Well I can't wait till you blow that out and just really explain to people as well and give them the evidence of order and maybe spark curiosity in kids both about mathematics and physics and everything that supports this evidence of order.
Ann: Yes. Now we need more mathematicians who understand all this yes, and you and I are going to be buddies online. We will keep talking from Lincoln, Nebraska to Whidbey Island.
Ameeta: Definitely look forward to that!
Amit: Wonderful. You know at the end of our calls we like to invite everyone to hold a collective minute of silence in gratitude and really just be appreciative of everything that we've heard today, for each other's time in the space. Thank you so much. Ann we are very thankful for you sharing with us today.
Ann: You are so welcome!
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