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Flavored with Rumi’s Poetry and Pizza

What if an answer to violence and hatred, here and there, is pizza and love poetry? Not the answer. I don’t know what the answer is, or if anyone does. But maybe an answer. Part of the answer…

But let’s back up.

My children attend a Quaker school. We didn’t go looking for a Quaker school. To be honest, we sort of stumbled into it. It happened to be close to my workplace. A few weeks into the experience, I realized that it was not a school or a daycare, but a love nursery for young souls.

They use this slogan that didn’t make much sense to me at the beginning: “We teach the whole child.” This simple insistence that our children’s academic growth is but one facet of their overall well-being. That their personal, interpersonal, and spiritual growth matters just as much as their narrowly academic prowess. Years ago one of my kids struggled in life. Big time. All of a sudden the choice of which college he would go to didn’t seem as important as whether he had a smile on his face. So I started to think about this “whole child” well-being, and recognize the wisdom of this approach.

There is something extraordinary that happens when we devote ourselves to the whole of us. When we open our hearts to all of us, it becomes possible to open our hearts to each of us. All of a sudden “over here” and “over there” reveal themselves as already connected. All of a sudden the conversation about seeing the “light of God” inside every one lends itself quietly, and confidently, to a steadfast commitment to social justice.

When the atrocity of 9/11 happened, the members of this beautiful Quaker community sat and thought about what would be a “Friend-ly” response to this unspeakable atrocity. I spoke with one of these dear teachers, an amazing woman named Françoise Heyden, whom I got to know better when she came on Illuminated Tours, a travel journey to Turkey I lead every summer. This is what she said about how the group of mothers decided to respond to 9/11:

“It all started after 9/11 when five moms with children in LS were sitting around a kitchen table wondering what a Quakerly response to the tragedy would look like if it engaged their children and showed a peaceful way forward.”

They first started with a simple blanket drive for the children of Afghanistan. When they established a partnership with a school outside of Kabul, they discovered that this particular school excluded girls. Eventually they came to settle on Topchi, a girls’ school near Bamiyan (with the famed Buddha statue). The idea is brilliant and simple: every Wednesday, the students here in North Carolina have the option of buying a pizza lunch. The revenue from the pizza lunch goes to a special funds account that are then used, in consultation with the teachers and administration of the Afghan school, to buy school equipment, books, projectors, etc. for the school in Afghanistan.

What was born out of this partnership has been the Afghan Sister Schools Partnership (ASSP). The program has also involved a pen pal letter-writing campaign, where the students write letters back and forth. In other words, it would not be a simple “charity” model, not one of those “let us come and save you” efforts. Instead, it would be about having a lasting, enduring relationship among students, faculty, and parents from both sides of the world.

Again, that same Françoise said:

“I still firmly believe that any American or Afghan student who writes a pen-pal letter will never ever advocate dropping a bomb… The moms have continued to work incredibly hard all these years overcoming all kinds of cultural, logistical, and financial obstacles to realize their vision of building peace through education.”

The program has grown through these years. After Françoise came to Turkey and we had a chance to study dream catchers, they designed “poem catchers.” Each student had gone through the corpus of Rumi poetry, and chosen his/her own favorite poem. How lovely to see some of the students come back to the “Guesthouse” poem, and connect their own middle school struggle with emotions with Rumi’s deep reservoir of wisdom.

How moving to see students respond to the issues of human diversity not as a challenge but as an opportunity for growth, by embracing Rumi’s poem:

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times.
Come, yet again,
come, come.”

Françoise said that she started the whole class with this poem:

“You were born with potential.
You were born with goodness and trust.
You were born with ideals and dreams.

You were born with greatness.
You were born with wings.

You are not meant for crawling,
so don’t.

You have wings.
Learn to use them and fly.”

Which in many ways she compared to Dr. Seuss:

“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own.
And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one
who’ll decide where to go…”

The school invited me to give a talk on Rumi’s tradition of love poetry, a subject that I greatly enjoy. While I do often give these kinds of talks around the country on how to read Rumi’s poetry, I don’t recall having had middle school children in the audience very frequently! Imagine my surprise to see that they were right there with me, with hearts so open.

The Q&A period brought some beautiful questions from the young and old, questions that I imagine Rumi himself would have been delighted to meditate upon. One of them stayed with me:

“How can it be that Rumi reminds us simultaneously that we are both more than we have ever imagined ourselves to be, and yet that we have to become truly human? What does it mean to be human and yet to have to become human?”

Coming home, I paused to think of the seeds of Rumi. We live in a world where bad news travels at the speed of a click. Zealous, hate-filled people are counting the fact that their barbarity is going to be broadcast again and again, and even serve as a tool for recruitment.

What these women have done through simple pizza lunches, building up schools halfway around the world and teaching love poetry, is to plant seeds of love.

Every farmer who plants a seed takes a risk. We work through faith that the good deeds we do are to put down roots. The roots are invisible, but they sustain plants that may not give fruit for a while. How lovely is this planting the seeds of love. How lovely these quiet seeds of love take root in Afghanistan and the Carolinas. Both of us are in need of all the love we can get.

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