In a new place, Asking “Who now?”

In Which I Planned to Clear Something Up

The William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India brought me back home at just the right time: back “home” to India after three years of law school.  Three years of studying amid a diversity desert, where some professors were mentally and emotionally and verbally violent, a place where critical thought was often pushed away as a useless antithesis to the black letter law.

Given all the changes and the prolonged unpleasantness of law school, it seemed right to give myself some space to clear things up.  Well, to clear a thing, up–a single thing.  I call it my HeartMind.

I wondered in what ways I had been changed by law school, good ways and bad ways.

One good way which I could see was that I developed my ability to have a confrontation.  This is something I couldn’t learn much about previously; our society does not have systems in place to teach about some important things (relationships, the death of the young, confrontation), and so I learned it at law school, while being hastily mentally modified in the law school’s pressure cooker.

One scholar whose name is irrelevant used the metaphor of a bramble bush to describe law school–how beginning law school was falling into thorns and losing one’s eyes.  And the only way to regain the eyesight was to remain longer in the thorns and “scratch them back in again.”  I think this same dead fellow might have been responsible for how law is “taught” today; it’s a method of confrontational bullying called the Socratic Method whereby students are called upon without warning to be mentally undressed by a calmly brutal professor.

Whether the pressure cooker or the thorn metaphor is more apt, I do not know, but whatever the case, I suffered from depression, lack of appetite, loss of hair and an eye twitch. And all this despite a daily yoga and meditation practice, mostly organic food, and having supportive spiritual and musical communities.  It was amid all this that I began to have conflict nigh-daily, or to at least witness it, usually between professors and students.  Sometimes I felt that I needed to intervene, or to be the only person in the room to stand up and say, “You say that Justice Scalia is a great writer; but, if a scientist creates a new gun and shoots a bunch of folks, it doesn’t make them great. Scalia’s a hurtful man, and his writings worsen poverty and perpetuate the maldistribution of life chances.”  Sometimes my few radical classmates would do this instead, and I could sit quietly in my seat as the scene progressed through the inevitably awkward segue back to business as usual.

The lessons in conflict were frequent, and when I began to work with other students on an equitability plan to try and make the school a safer place for people who were not from wealth, or not white, or not cisgendered, I had to have many more confrontations.  When the school decided to implement a Prosecution Clinic instead of following through on the equitability work, my conflicts with the school intensified.  Claiming we had no money for a good diversity plan, they had managed to find over 30 grand to fund a prosecutor to help jail bodies for our prison-industrial complex.  So, after a year and a half of conflict, we finally convinced the school that the prosecution clinic wasn’t the best idea and that a diversity plan was needed.  So not only did I engage in conflict, but I saw that it bore some good fruit.

But what had it cost the students of color that started this struggle?  And what had it cost me? The conflict-averse Arkie who carried the torch when they graduated; who had he become?

 

Distance as a Mirror

When graduation came, I was sad to leave the professors I’d grown close to, the deans, the classmates.  But mostly I was glad. Law school is a nexus of the worst of our society; it facilitates and ensures the perpetuation of private property, of wealth protection and wealth accumulation, of racialized-gendered violence through the criminal punishment and administrative law systems.  And golly, most folks there had come with the goal of securing a job, any job, no matter the effect on our communities; just a job that would allow them to live in a certain strata of society—it wasn’t about world changin’.

And that was tough to be around.

But it was finally over, and living in Seattle was awesome. And for graduation, my wonderful family flew to Seattle for a week of good times, and then I enjoyed a glorious summer: lots of yoga, vegan cooking and soccer with friends.  And I could have stayed there; in Seattle–I could have made it work and found cool social justice work.

But, then the America India Foundation offered me this opportunity, and I knew that flying to a place I had never been, amid folks that don’t speak my language… well, what better place to look at who I have become?  Doing human rights work 9,000 miles from home?

Talk about distance.

And a Buddhist friend from Arkansas once suggested that when experiencing an unpleasant thought or feeling that I ask, “Can I sit with this pain for one moment more?”  The effect of this internal question—for me, at least—is to put some distance between me and the unpleasant thought/feeling. I can examine it without believing so much in its power to affect me.

So: distance as a mirror. To examine who I am now. The internal explorations that I need to do could have been done in the US, but to be removed from my ordinary context is helpful.  Maybe it is because in the ordinary context of US life things are relatively easy–the illusion that I am in control is far stronger, the mirror gets fogged. For example, I don’t need a translator to shop for cinnamon.  Whereas here I am learning amid a vacuum of experience: learning an instrument I know nigh-nothing about (the sitar), learning principles of international law that I had never examined in law school, and learning how to interact in a culture far different than Arkansas, Argentina or even North India.

Maybe this distance from familiarity and from apparent independence is why I feel clearer about examining who I am now, after three years of a mental boot camp that left neither time nor bandwidth for reflection.

Death of the Young

So my plan was to come and be an excellent intern during the day, and do these personal explorations in the mornings and evenings through writing journals and fiction and poems, through music, through yoga and through mind watching.

Then, a week after I arrived at my placement, one of my very best friends from home passed away.  His name was Jacob David George, and a brought, an uncle, my cousin; he was a change agent, a lover and a mover in the movement for a world where all beings can fulfill their potential. He co-founded Afghanistan Veterans Against the War and he was active with Veterans for Peace.  He’d ridden his bike from our home in Arkansas all around the South to spread the truth about the costs of war.

After some NATO generals refused to meet him and his fellow veterans, he flung his honorary medals back at them; he published a chap book of poetry and released an album of songs called Soldier’s Heart, where he explored the trauma and moral wounds that our militarized society inflicts upon well-meaning youth like him who suffer from opportunity deprivation.

He was one of my closest friends.  The only member of my family who I played music with. The only other activist in the family.  The only one I thought might travel with me on my international trips.

And two weeks after our last jam session, suddenly he was gone, and given the distance, I had no way of directly perceiving that fact, so it seemed unreal: just a phone call from my sister, and sad posts on Facebook.  Then it was all over the internet: the UK, the US, Afghanistan.

And my work at this amazing human rights NGO it seemed impossible—my energy for the steep learning curve was gone.  My mornings and my evenings, which had been reserved for yoga and writing, were as barren timescapes, and even music and yoga fell from my routine.  Sleep wouldn’t come and then when it did, it wouldn’t go—I remained sluggish and lethargic far into waking.

AIF Community

Just after learning that Jacob had left his body, I sent a lengthy email to all of my newest friends: the other Clinton Fellows and our caretakers.  I described the intersecting trajectories of Jacob and mine’s lives: the play as children, the irreverent music as young adults, the burning activism as semi-grown ups.

And the phone calls I received from AIF folks, and the emails and the Whatsapp messages… it was like a continuous line of intentional hugs from friends from around India and the world.  AIF alum also reached out to support me and sent me their Madurai-based friends to check on me.  My colleagues at People’s Watch Tamil Nadu also provided me with the loving space to cry, reminisce and to be alone.

And now, with this fantastic community of supporters, I am finding my center again.  Yoga and meditation are multiple-times-daily activities, sitar gets at least an hour per day, and I’m cooking delicious dhal in the shared kitchen at People’s Watch.  I’m working on a project will be the first of its kind, a sort of tool for human rights institutions to help them promote and protect the human rights of some of the most vulnerable people living in India.  I’ve found a great yoga master and healer nearby, as well as a knowledgeable ayurvedic massage therapist.  My favorite source of pomegranate juice has also been located.

AIF has given me this lovely gift, a 10-month moment, and I will use it to lead, learn and serve as our motto goes.  I’ll also use it to play and love and heal.  I will relay my personal and professional meanderings and reflections for you here, and I invite your comments, questions and correspondence.

For all of my friends and family, and also anyone who wants to amuse me, my contacts are:

Stephen Coger c/o People’s Watch

No. 6 Vallabai Road,

Chokkikulam, Madurai

Tamil Nadu 625002

India

stephen.coger at riseup.net

 

Culture

One final thought.  On culture.  One of my most useful classes (and there were some) at law school was taught by Eric Liu, a thought leader and activist based in Seattle.  One of lectures was about the importance of building a culture in an organization, and how this will facilitate positive interaction and the achievement of goals.  The America India Foundation (AIF) has built a team of people who promote this culture, and one of the HeartMinds that ensures this is of a human named Priyanjana Ghosh.  Priyanjana is leaving us now, and I only hope that we will be able to maintain our joyous, goal-meeting culture as she goes on to care for herself and her family and our global community in new ways.  Thank you, Priyanjana.

And I invite you to consider who you are and how it might have been shaped by where and when you grew up.  Amid my different-ness in my new hometown in India, amid my AIF culture of loving support, I am asking these questions.  Do it with me, if you like.  How did law school (or any experience) shape me? Let’s ask ourselves: would I feel comfortable being totally unknown by others in a place totally unknown to me?  Would I let someone offer me refuge?

What marvelous and fun explorations I might have, developing my own culture and even my own language…

And now, dears, consider comfort, culture and the limits of willingness as you read these words of my favorite author:

In these days when any man can comfortably dance naked in a snowstorm (Imagine careening down a long and leaning hillside, knee-high in snow, free flakes swirling about you shank to thatch. You kick and scatter the snow, start slides, throw it over your shoulders in scattering double handfuls, hop and caper in the gray and white twilight.) it remains true that the general run of mankind is sufficiently attached to their clothing to forego the opportunity. Theirs be the loss—I am assured by those who know that it is an uncommonly rewarding experience.

Some—simple folk, mostly—plead the need for pockets. If they must carry their trinkets and knickknacks about, even in the midst of an uncommonly rewarding experience, one would think they could wear a pack, or carry a poke, or hang a little bag around their neck. But they say it’s not the same, and pass snowstorms by.

For many, clothing is style. Clothing is taste. Clothing is breeding, intelligence, pursuit, ambition. Place. Clothing defines, letting us know who and what a person is. But one naked man in a snowstorm is much like another, and these people are incapable of baring their anonymity.

And for others, clothing is identity. Without their single well-worn suit, they would have no idea of who they were. Naked in a snowstorm, they know they would be invisible and become lost. There are many people like this, most of them very much in need of an uncommonly rewarding experience, but limited and fettered by their clothing.

Even more limited and fettered by the fact that they have stuck staunchly by the very first suit of clothes they ever tried on. If you are going to be what you wear, you should try more than one style before you settle.

As an experiment, try on something strange and wild. What sweet whirling thoughts unsettle the mind? Think about them. Now, who are you?

–Alexei Panshin, from Chapter 2 of his book Masque World

 

 

Stephen first learned to care for community in his 2,000-person hometown, where immigrants from Laos, Mexico, and El Salvador lovingly guided his growth, along with the town's European Americans and African Americans. Next, he attended the University of Arkansas, and founded OMNI at the UA for Peace, Justice & Ecology. The organization was responsible for organizing the Peace on Earth Music Festival, which featured artists and students from around the globe singing and sharing art for peace. OMNI UA also helped the state and university divest from the genocide in Sudan. He co-founded a group that united business leaders, attorneys, and undocumented youth to advance community interests and protect against police violence. Stephen worked in poverty law at a pro bono law firm dedicated to equal access to justice. He also co-designed the Justice for Arkansans Project, funding eight new full-time AmeriCorps positions throughout rural Arkansas, including members of the client communities. Stephen moved to Argentina on a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English, as well as music and swimming. Then he relocated to the University of Washington, School of Law in Seattle as a Gates Public Service Law Scholar. He worked in rural Argentina on poverty issues. Domestically, he served immigrant farm workers through legal research in support of litigation. Stephen writes fiction and music, and teaches yoga in a juvenile detention facility.

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3 thoughts on “In a new place, Asking “Who now?”

  1. Stephen, I’m so touched with your message. Thank you so much for all the love and warmth that you and your Class has shown me. While I’m leaving to join a new family, you all still will be always closest to my heart and soul…

  2. Stephen
    Catching up on the blogs. Being the dad to an attorney , I identify with some of this. Keep up the good fight. I know you will.
    Sridar

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