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Anne and Terry Symens-Bucher: Making Peace, One Block at a Time

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Anne And Terry: How Life is Living Us

When was the last time you broke down your inner barriers and reach out to someone such as a neighbor or co-worker?

Some believe that in order to have a worldwide shift in consciousness, something big needs to happen. A natural disaster. A global catastrophe.

Then there are those who choose to believe otherwise. That change starts small, and at home. Anne and Terry Symens-Bucher are two of the later. They believe this shift can happen one heart, one home and one neighborhood block at a time.

Co-founders of Canticle Farm, located East Oakland's Fruitvale District, Anne and Terry are cultivators of a community that walks its talk on a very dynamic path. With a combined experience as poets, parents, nonviolent changemakers, Franciscans, Catholic Workers, and so much more, the couple sat down with Sam, Pancho, and many of us on the phone, to share insights from their shining journey:

Anne: Well I’m sitting here, just feeling deeply grateful. I find myself at this point with people like Pancho and Adelaja, Sam, and other folks who have been pulled to come here to be part of the widening circles of what we’re doing here on this one block. It’s very humbling to me.

Sam: This idea of removing fences and barriers is part of one of the big challenges we’re facing. How do we invite our neighbors and everyone that wants to be family? How do we really create that connection?

A: If I were going to boil it down to being something really simple, I would say it’s really about being neighbors. In the sense that we’ve lost what a neighborhood used to be. When I grew up a few blocks from here, we knew our neighbors—we knew the people on either side, across the street. We played with the kids in the neighborhood, we rode our bikes, and walked places.

Now, in this very same neighborhood, there are bars on windows, fences around properties, front yards have been cemented over, there are dogs that bark. And that’s one way for people to find security in a place where there’s so little of that sense of feeling safe. These strategies provide some safety, but it also cuts us off deeply from what I think our true safety lies, which is in our relationships.

So what we’re trying to do here is to demonstrate that our safety is in our relationships. That’s just about taking down fences, sharing and growing food, greeting people on the street, being neighbors in the way that neighbors used to be able to look out for each other and know each other. So that’s where we get this idea of change happening one heart, one home, one block at a time.

Pancho: You were both very active in social change work-- Terry was on his way to be a Franciscan priest, and Annie was working in the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day. And then you met, fell in love, and now have five children! How have you progressed along your individual journeys?

T: One of the things I’ve found that’s been an obstacle in my life is to be distracted by the circumstances in other people’s lives. And one of our focuses is that this does happen one heart, one home, one block at a time. Each one of us has to start. And if I focus on the circumstances of other people’s lives: what they’ve done, their experience, things like that, then I can actually be distracted from what I’m called to do in my own life. Which is start close in—start with the first step. The step that I don’t want to take. That’s where I need to put my attention.

A: One of the beautiful things that’s happening in our community is to see people be most deeply and authentically themselves. One way that’s manifesting in Terry is that he will—in the middle of a meeting, or when it’s most needed—have a poem to share.

Terry and I, from the beginning of all time, were called and pulled by the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. My own story begins in this place where my family settled four generations ago in a Franciscan parish with lots of Franciscan priests. And I grew up wanting to be one, because that seemed like the best way to be with the suffering, and to be a peacemaker.

Terry found a pull from a different direction, but that’s where we met and found our common ground— first at a Nevada test site, working on a campaign to end nuclear weapons testing. And then just finding a way to embody the values of justice, peace, and deep care and love for all of creation. And understanding ourselves as connected, not separate. That’s how we got the name for our community.

The Canticle was a form of praise that came out of Saint Francis of Assisi at a time in his life when he had a lot of wounds, pretty much lost his eyesight, and was on the margins of the community. So at a time of the great unraveling of his own personal life, he sings a song of praise, where he understands himself connected to brother sun, and sister water, and sister moon and stars. So we say that at the great unraveling of our own times, that Canticle Farm is our song.

Sam: There’s a common phrase, “Good fences make good neighbors.” It comes from this notion of wanting to set limits on how much you can do. What is the value of a fence? Of boundaries and limits?

T: I think that what we’re trying to do is to see fences and boundaries as opportunities to reach out. When those boundaries and fences are placed in order to keep us separate, that’s actually an invitation to begin a dialogue. And we want to start with our own hearts, and the boundaries and barriers in our own hearts.

Pancho: Can you share a poem? Also, I know Louis Vitale, a Franciscan priest, introduced Annie to Joanna Macy, and now you’re her personal assistant. Together, you’re two powerful females. So, what’s at the heart of the poet (Terry) and the heart of the mother (Annie)?

A: Of the people in my life: I have been so blessed to spend the majority of my life doing what is most meaningful to me. I feel very blessed and grateful for that. I don’t know how I could be handling anything if I hadn’t had this work, first with Louis and the Franciscans for twenty-five years doing justice, peace, and integrity creation, and now with Joanna and this community. So I look over my life and feel so sorry for the moments when I lost track.

Because now it all feels like everything’s been living me all along, and I’m the one who forgot. I want to get up every morning and know that there’s a guiding grace—a flow—that I feel in right now. That’s actually too beautiful for words.

Do you have a poem, Terry?

T: I have one. It’s written by Mary Oliver. To put it in context, I did some work with Bill Plotkin last year and in that work, on a vision quest, I was given the task of –the word that came to me was to honor death. It’s a very important word for me, as I live my life these days. It’s connected to Saint Francis and the Canticle. Saint Francis actually calls death “Sister Death”. And that’s the way I want to approach death. As his sister.

So I want to share this poem, When Death Comes.

A: One of the things that feels so rich for me in this community is that it feels like the thread of a lot of things coming together. That would be integral nonviolence, and the Work that Reconnects, and Catholic Worker Movement, the work of Bill Plotkin. So I just was reflecting as Terry read that poem that, a few years ago, if you had asked me “Did I die feeling like I had done what I came here to do?" I would’ve said, “Wow. I’ve had this most amazing life. I feel so blessed by it.” And being married and having my children, is a huge part of what I knew I was here to do. But there would have been some sense of not fulfilling some piece of what I knew what I was here to do, which is being part of bringing forth this community. So I feel very deeply now that if I die tomorrow, I would not have any regrets of how I’ve chosen to spend my life.

And I think that is such an invitation. You know, Bill Plotkin talks about how we are each here to do our soul work. Our niche. And it’s completely unique—it’s something each of us gets called to do. And it gets manifested through a particular delivery system. So that’s the invitation-- each of us is called, “What are we here to do?” And I feel the gratitude of the people who have come to help manifest my soul work.

Janis: I loved what you said about how we really don’t have a lot of control. And that what we need to happen could very well be beyond our imagining. What kinds of surprises have happened to you that you could not have possibly foreseen. Something where, looking back, you go, “Ah, that’s why it happened this way.”

A: The way that Pancho came here—we had known each other through various venues. But the way that he ended up here was in this miraculous moment that we would have never imagined.

One of my closest friends was visiting, and she wanted to go to the Metta Center. Pancho was there, and I hadn’t seen him in awhile. I start telling him about how things are finally starting to come together—this fledgling community that I’ve been trying to get happening for years. And he tells me about his own ideas of bringing some people together to form a community. So we say to each other, “Lets stay in touch about this.”

I’m very excited about this conversation, but I’ve had this experience many times with many people. So I kind of file it away and walk out of the house.

Then, I get to my car and I check my cell phone and I have a message from our neighbor who owns the house right across the yard. And it turns out, well of course, that just this morning, he finds out that his house is going to be open and for rent, and do I know anybody?

So it takes me 24 hours to track down Pancho, because he didn’t have a phone. But when I finally find him, I say, “Do you want to come over and look at this house?”

When he looks at it, he says, “This is the place.”

About a month and a half later, he moves in.

So I couldn’t have imagined or predicted that. And there have been so many moments like that. Of magic, or grace, or emergence, whatever way you talk about it.

That’s what I mean when I say “Life is living me now. Life is living us.” When you just get to that flow, you get to coast a little bit rather than everything being so hard. Because there is a way that life just wants to live you.

Kanchan: Can we end with a song?

A, T, S, P, and Callers:

I’m gonna let life move me
I’m gonna let life stir me be
I’m gonna let life wake me
From an ancient sleep

I’m gonna let all my laughter
I’m gonna cry all my tears
I’m gonna love the rain
As deeply as the sun
When it clears


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