The year passed and the year to come.

What a year it’s been. A year that often felt like hate was getting the upper hand. Terrifying, frustrating, heartbreaking and more. But amongst this hatred and fear, it was also a year that proved the resilience, strength and necessity of love.

At the beginning of 2017, I must admit, I felt pretty bleak. I’m not going to go over all of the hard things that took place during the year – we all know what they were – but I am going to remind you that for each and every one of those things, love was there in some form. Millions of people around the world refused to sit back and let hate take over, taking action to fight for love at every opportunity. There were the people who became champions for the environment, making changes to the way they live to protect our planet and ensure a healthy and safe future for younger generations. The ever-present helpers doing anything they could to help their fellow humans through the many natural disasters and other tragedies that took place around the world. There were neighbours that looked out for neighbours, and the random stranger helping another to carry their shopping, or just giving another person encouraging words or a smile. Each one of these actions was fueled by love and each one of these actions made a difference, whether on a global, national, local or personal level. They all matter and you all matter. We all have the power to make a difference, and we are!

For me, 2018 feels like a year of hope, a year where love is going to continue fighting hate and where, I truly believe, love is once again going to get the upper hand. We can all help this happen by continuing to refuse to be silent in the face of hatred, ignorance and fear, by continuing to care for our fellow humans and by continuing to care for our earth.

Happy New Year!

Let’s make 2018 a year of hope and Love!

#NewYearMoreLove #Loveeachother #Loveourplanet #JustLove

To love, and to build

I had no idea. I thought there were important, proper adults who had this down. I thought we were doing ok. Things were getting better, for most people, and even though environmental news was alarming, and there were horrific conflicts ongoing, and heartbreaking conditions for refugees in many parts of the world, there also seemed to be steps taken to address those emergencies, and others. I figured I could just worry about my own little life, and the world would take care of itself. Many of us thought so.

Well… We were wrong. Apparently, we are not going in the direction we thought, and there is no reliable driver getting us home safely. So whether we like it or not, we have to get off the beaten track, the one were our lives were about us, and us alone. Sadly, getting off the familiar road, when there is no other visible way to go, sucks. It is scary, unscripted, and lonely. But still, we have to. We entered an era were we can’t afford to be on the sidelines anymore. We have to get out of our comfort zones, reach higher and further, and build whatever future we want to see.

To get over the abyss that seems to have opened underneath us, we will have to start by building bridges. They need to be long enough to reach the bridges and roads of all the other people out there trying to do the same, and it will take a lot of work. But there are millions and millions of builders, and I know that eventually we will have enough bridges to form a network; a beautiful, global web of hope and support. These bridges and roads will lead anyone who wants to work for a bright future upwards, and onwards, and through connecting us, they will provide a framework that can withstand whatever fear or divisive rhetoric tries to throw at us, and help us remember that we are all in this together.

So how do we create these amazing bridges? How do we soar? It’s so hard, and so easy. We just love.

We love fiercely, uncompromisingly, in big ways and small. We love those who agree with us, and we learn to love those who don’t. We love for the common humanity in us all, and we love our shared home. We love by always saying no to hate, to greed, to division and to fear, and we love by acting for what we believe in. We love, we connect, and we stand together.

So much of what we hear every day tells us to creep back into our shell, that there is no hope, no use even trying, that we are small and insignificant. We need to tell each other another story, the true story, which is that the future is not written yet, and that history has proven again and again that “small and insignificant” people can indeed change the destiny of millions by fighting for their beliefs. Some people know this truth on their own, but many of us need brave communities around us to support and inspire us, to counteract the constant narrative of fear, telling us that there is nothing we can do, when actually, there is nothing we can not do.

This is such a community, and we would love to have you be a part of us.

The same, but different

I grew up in California, not far from the diversity and vibrancy of San Francisco. At 15, I loved world history and geography in school. I had never travelled outside of the US, and I didn’t have a passport. Still, I thought I was aware of the world beyond the borders of our country.

That summer, our neighbor was working with a cultural exchange program, and he asked my family to host a student from Japan for two weeks. The student would arrive in just a few days, and share a room with me. I started to imagine what Japan was like; what the girl would be like – proper, shy, reserved, formally dressed, tea drinking, sushi eating – completely different from me? Would we have anything in common? Japan was such an old country, Japanese people so traditional.

That experience, those two weeks, meeting, living with, getting to know Eiko, changed my life. Yes, she was from Japan, and I was from the US, but as two 15 year old girls sitting together, chatting about boys, clothes, learning to drive, shopping, hanging out with friends, and school – we were the same. We were just teenage girls. Sure, she had brought a Kimono with her, for a special performance, and she ate Miso soup and sushi, and still we were the same. Two teenage girls, two people, getting to know each other.

I remember it as such a wonderful time, such a fun summer. This was before social media and email, so we said goodbye, and vowed to write to each other, but eventually we lost touch. The memories of our time together, however, have stayed with me always. Now, looking back 20+ years, I am beyond grateful for that experience. It changed my life in more ways than my family could have ever predicted. It paved the way for my career, my family, my passions, and my children.

My interest in other cultures became an obsession, my focus in life.  My family went on to host more exchange students, I ran a society for international students at my high school, I studied international relations at a university on the other side of the world, and I married a Brit. I built a career working with international students, families, expats, and new immigrants. It’s my job, but it never feels like work – it is my passion, and it all started with the intriguing surprise that all my assumptions about a girl from Japan had been so wrong. I became obsessed with meeting people from all around the globe.

In the US I was taught what other cultures were like, usually old, traditional, different than the US (usually implying they were wrong, or less than) but what were they really like? What similarities did we share? How were we different? Traditions, holidays, food, clothing, philosophies – there were so many things to learn about. So many different ways to live. Were they better than the ‘american way’? Worse? I now feel that the answer is neither, just different. Everyone I came to meet lived in some kind of house, ate food, learned, worked, and loved. And that was it. We all have different ways to do things; even within a single country. We are not monolithic, we are individuals. We are different and our differences make life oh so wonderful and special. But at our core, we are all the same. All human. All with the same basic needs. All with the desire to love and be loved.

You don’t have to live an international life, travel extensively, or marry a foreigner, however I do encourage you to have a chat with a person who looks different to you, shops at a different supermarket, or speaks in a different language. How many differences can you find? How many similarities can you uncover?

 

Michelle Laker

About the author: Michelle Laker

A California native; I spent 10 years living, studying, working, (and falling in love) in the United Kingdom. I returned to the Bay Area in 2011, with my British husband in tow. I am re-adjusting to life in the bay, feeling more like an expat than a local. I have spent my career working with international student & families. I love learning about other cultures, languages, and traditions.
My desire to welcome newcomers, and help you make the most of your new life in the Bay Area comes from the unforgettable memories (and mistakes) I made during my time in the United Kingdom. If you’ve just arrived, and don’t know where to start, email me (michelle-at-lifeinthebay.org). I am happy to help!

#StandUp4HumanRights

Today, Sunday 10 December, is Human Rights Day. On this day, I feel proud when I reflect on how far we have come over the last century, in terms of pursuing a better world, and fairer societies. And at the same time, I can’t help but be worried about some of the steps we seem to be taking backwards, with rights that we are seeing eroded almost on a daily basis, such as the right to seek asylum and receive international protection, the right to live your life free from any discrimination (be it of a racial, political, sexual or any other form), the right to live free from violence, the right to equal protection of the law, the right to be protected from arbitrary interference with our privacy, or attacks on our reputation.

We are also seeing how some rights are overlooked or trumped by a misunderstanding of how human rights work, such as claiming the right to free speech while violating the right of others to live free from discrimination or incitement to discrimination. Many people and policy makers do not understand that rights come with responsibilities: human rights are not a way of getting yourself ahead at the expense of others. They speak to our collective community, not to our individualism. What is universally recognised in the Human Rights regime are the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. Admittedly, it is a delicate balance, but I feel this notion is being seriously distorted for political and financial advantage.

 Other rights, such as the right to a nationality and identity, we often take for granted. A nationality allows us to belong to a community, to own a passport, to access public services, to marry, to open a bank account, to work, to not be arrested arbitrarily for being undocumented. Yet, thousands of children and adults face the challenges that come with being stateless, not recognised by any country, and very few politicians are willing and brave enough to make it possible for this to change. The Rohingya crisis is a classic example, a crisis rooted in such a lack of recognition that dangerously equals dehumanisation, now unfolding in front of our eyes but brewing for years. Only two decades ago we declared that ‘never again’ would we allow another Rwanda. Then again, we had already said “never again” to witnessing genocide and violence without doing everything possible to protect people’s human rights when we came up with Refugee Convention, the conventions against torture and genocide, the Geneva Conventions… And yet, here we are. Again.

And what about the erosion in the ability to claim our rights? This, I feel, constitutes one of the biggest barriers to the fulfilment of the aspirations of the drafters of the Declaration of Human Rights, and of those of us who believe in the international human rights regime, and also to the attainment of justice and peace. You may not be aware that on 29 November, we marked the International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders. On that day we commemorate women who died while fighting for human rights. Like these women, millions of people are still today unable to claim their rights, they are people without a voice, people silenced. The Guardian newspaper has a special section dedicated to ‘the defenders’, people around the world committed to environmental protection, and who too often die in the process, their rights ignored. Journalists also lose their lives daily in places like Philippines, Mexico, The Maldives and, recently, Malta, for speaking the truth and exposing injustices. While in many other parts of the world their work and worth are undermined constantly – ignored, at best, and often ridiculed or discredited.

But there is always hope. The #metoo movement, Australia’s new equal marriage law, the generosity of many countries towards those crossing borders to escape violence, #blacklivesmatter, you and me working towards more love and kindness, striving for a world where we all live free from fear. All these are amazing examples of processes to claim our rights. We must find more ways to contribute to claiming our rights and the rights of others, and we should demand our leaders to aspire to be in a race to the top when it comes to the fulfilment of human rights, not a race to the bottom.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” –

Eleanor Roosevelt.

metoo

There is one kind of love that is harder, and more complicated, for a lot of people than all other kinds of love, and that is the love of self. Being able to rest in the deep feeling of worthiness and peace that comes from truly loving, not just accepting, you.

There are millions and millions of men living with deep self-doubt, and self hate, and that is a horrible and needs to be addressed, but today, on the “International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women” I will focus on this issue with women. The difference between men and women, in this context, is that the narrative of self-hate is a huge part of women’s open communication with each other, as well as with themselves. It is how you are supposed to be. Any woman reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about. Telling others, and yourself, that you are not good enough (“oh, that is so pretty, but I could NEVER wear that with this flubby tummy-fat!”, “oh, I’m sorry, I’m sooo stupid, this is just like me to do that”, “I wish I could pack such lunches for my kids, but I’m such a mess!”) is such a natural part of how we are that we usually don’t even think about it. But it does affect the way we think about ourselves. So why are we doing this? Why are we constantly putting ourselves down, in words and thoughts, why do we have such incredibly low regard for who and what we are, when we are these amazing miracles of life and love that most often go above and beyond every single day?

I am no expert in this field, so I will leave the question open. I will, though, take the leap and say that I believe the feeling of unworthiness that most women have, is important to the discussion of the sexual and other physical violence that women are victims of. On one end, previous experience of violence and assault will affect your self-esteem, and on the other end feelings of unworthiness might make you belittle harassment experiences that are actually illegal and morally appalling, thinking “it was probably my fault”, “I’m so sensitive, that was nothing”, and refrain from reporting sexual assault by thinking “nobody would trust me”, “I could never handle going through a trial” etc.

There are so many things that need to be changed, drastically, and there is a lot of discourse on the subject in the media, in homes and workplaces right now, thanks to the massive outpouring of stories through the #metoo campaign, but since love is the focus of this blog, I will speak up for that today. Since the start of this movement, a lot of women have realized that it wasn’t just them. It wasn’t just them being “stupid” or “sensitive”, or that thinking it being “unkind” to the perpetrators family to report them is a valid reason not to. But importantly, I also believe that a lot of women realized that their silence actually meant that the abuse could go on. That evil and powerful men could stay powerful, when they could have been brought down. So they are now speaking out, I think in huge part thinking about OTHERS. Being sisters and mothers and daughters and protecting each other by pointing out the danger, and that is absolutely beautiful, but I want to get further.

I want women to speak up out of love and respect of themselves, their own bodies, and I want them to be empowered enough to do it right away. I want us to teach girls about the massive lies that they are being fed through almost all cultural channels and contexts, and help them grow up knowing how infinitely worthy they are, how nobody, ever, is allowed to make them feel scared or uncomfortable, or worse. How their body is for NO ONE to judge or abuse, but only for them to use and enjoy and share with men or women who they feel safe with. And I want grown up women to learn this too.

Love every piece of your body, and honor it. There is nothing wrong with it, there is nothing wrong with you. It is the world you live in that is broken, but we are going to fix it. We won’t fix it by focusing our energy on loosing “those last five pounds” though, we fix it by loving every ounce of those five pounds. We fix it by showing every woman and girl around us that we’re standing tall and proud and powerful, and that we will not be shamed, we will not be silenced, we will smile, we will laugh, we will voice our very important opinions, we will fight for those who have no voice, and we will not sit still and look pretty and make every one else feel comfortable, at our own expense.

Truly love and honor yourself, and trust where that takes you. You might think that sounds scary, but we have nothing to lose, because THIS is our reality today, the reality of our sisters around the world. And this is a living nightmare:

http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/25/health/sexual-harassment-violence-abuse-global-levels/index.html

Happy Universal Children’s Day!

In preparing for this post, I was determined to keep it positive. At the end of the day, there is nothing more amazing than children. Children are born perfect, pure, unbiased, without prejudices and full of unconditional love. Oh to stay like that forever!

As they grow, they watch and copy our words, our actions, our responses. They become exposed to a larger world, and to all kinds of beautiful experiences as well as risks and dangers. They are influenced by what they hear, what they see. They start making sense of the world around them in their own way, and according to their developmental stage. Their childhood experiences even determine their health as adults. Children who are exposed to abuse and neglect grow up to suffer increased risk of depression and other mental and physical diseases. They also often grow to replicate the same behaviour in others, not knowing better and sometimes unable to break the cycle.

Yet, how often we forget how important children are to our own and humanity’s future, and the future of the planet. We take for granted that teachers at school will do all the hard work and we don’t support or appreciate those teachers enough. We don’t provide enough opportunities for working parents to give children enough quality time. We make it hard for single parents and those who live under the poverty line to make a living and allow their children to enjoy their childhoods. We often let their voices be drowned in our everyday routines and negative narratives about how to raise them. We create gender and race stereotypes from the moment children are born, with colours and toys, cartoons and advertisements, and create a false sense of security by making parents believe that money, toys, and material things are enough to raise the human beings of the future.

And youth, we forget about the youth! We fail to inspire them, to give them hope, to guide them, to mentor them. We spend countless hours in front of our computers, phones, iPads, on social media, and forget how to make time for children of all ages. And they need our time. Being a child is very hard sometimes.

I want to keep this post positive, I do. I don’t want to bring up the suffering that many children around the world experience, I am not even going to talk about their rights. But I would like to remind us all that all children want and need is that we love them, that we believe in them, and that we hear them. They need that, and they deserve nothing less than that. It does not take very much either: reading a book with them, a nice walk in the park, 5 minutes of unguided play, making a cake together, drawing, listening, a hug, being fully present when we are with them… We have the power and responsibility to ensure the best possible childhood for our own children and must do everything we can to do the same for every child we come in contact with, and even those we can’t connect with directly, for example by staying informed about children’s issues and supporting organisations that exist to protect and empower children. Never forget, there is no such thing as other people’s children. They are all our shared responsibility, and joy. Children have so much to say and so much to teach us. Let’s listen. The world can stop for one day. Let children take over the world.  ♥

People are awesome and I have proof.

This is a story of loss: loss of possessions, loss of land, loss of entire towns and tragically the loss of life. It is also a story of hope, love, kindness and the incredible strength of community.

On the night of 8 October the worst fires in Californian history began burning. A week later they’re still burning – over 200,000 acres of land have been decimated, tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes, and thousands of properties have been destroyed. Heartbreakingly, at this point, over 40 deaths have been confirmed. It’s hard to fathom the loss and devastation. It’s also hard to fathom just how quickly nearby communities jumped into action to help in any way they could.

This story focuses on the amazing love, support and kindness displayed by people during this time. There are many, many examples: of friends and neighbors opening up their homes to take in evacuees, of the unwavering dedication of incredibly brave firefighters, some of whom lost their own homes but kept on fighting to protect other homes and other people. In fact, there are so many that there wouldn’t be space here to talk about them all. Instead I will tell you about my personal experience of this love, support and kindness.

On Tuesday 10 October, I noticed my friend, Michelle Laker from Life in the Bay, was collecting donations for fire victims. I thought I would put a call out on my Facebook page to try and help. On Wednesday 11th, I asked the principal of my son’s school, Nesbit Elementary, whether we could post on the school Facebook page to ask for donations – and if we could use the school as a drop off point for collections. She responded with a resounding ‘YES!’, and on Wednesday night she sent out a school-wide email that ended up getting circulated to other local schools too. On Thursday the donations started to arrive:

Thursday afternoon

I started to realize the car-load of donations I had expected may be turning into a little more than that. On Thursday evening I heard reports of people from the wider community dropping off donations. By the time I arrived at 8:30am on Friday the pile had grown to this:

Friday morning

Not only that, but there was already a mom from one of the other schools waiting to help us sort through donations. I had to leave to drop my youngest at pre-school and was gone around an hour, by the time I got back the pile of donations had been organized into categories by an incredible group of moms who had also arrived to help. These ladies worked some kind of magic and from then on as donations came they were quickly sorted into their appropriate places, ready for distribution.

organizing

And the donations kept on coming. As the neat piles grew and were organized by amazing volunteers, so did my concern about how I was going to get this all to the distribution centers. I had initially planned to get one or two carloads of things and to drive them to Michelle’s house so she could distribute them. This was way past that now. I was worried about what to do if we couldn’t get enough drivers!

I had been in touch with a lady in our area, Krysten, whose husband had a large pickup truck that they would be driving up to distribution centers. She said I should bring some things to her house. I warned her that we had a lot and her response was ‘bring it!’. We did. My friend Nichole and I packed our cars full and drove them over. Krysten wasn’t perturbed, she felt she needed to help out and was going to do whatever it took to get supplies to where they were needed, even if that meant doing numerous trips over the weekend. This is not a short trip; we’re talking between 3-4hrs each time. After unpacking our two carloads of donations, Krysten told us to bring more and we did. By the time we got back her husband had arrived and decided he’d clean out a very large trailer they have and they’d fill that up too. Krysten drove back to the school to collect more donations to deliver.

Even though we had taken so many things to her place, by the time we got back the spaces where they had been were filled up with more. There was a constant stream of people coming in to ask what was needed and how they could help. N95 masks were in short supply in the area and we had asked if anyone could get hold of those. A short while later someone delivered a large crate full of them. We had asked people to stick to the donations listed and this is what everyone did. Not only that but people added small personal touches to them, such as the person who donated a pack of high energy snacks for the firefighters and handwrote ‘Thank you’ on each one.

The rest of the day continued in this way, a whirlwind of donations, and volunteers giving their time, their skills, their strength and their love. I had put requests out for drivers on the school Facebook page in the morning, and amazing people stepped up to help, but the donations just kept on coming. So on Friday afternoon I posted a request for drivers on our neighborhood website, Nextdoor. Within an hour I had so many drivers that I had to start turning them away. We stopped taking donations at 2pm and by 4:30pm on Friday afternoon, this was what the school hall looked like –

empty hall

Every single donation had been picked up by volunteer drivers and they were either already on their way to the distribution centers or would be heading there on Saturday morning.

Overall, I estimate that between 12-15 truck loads of donations were received and dispatched within the space of two days. The way members of our community came together to help blew my mind. I spoke to and met so many wonderful people over those two days, most of whom I had never met before, and every single one of them just wanted to help. Every single one of them was so kind. Every single one of them wanted to spread some love and some light during this hard time.

In the beautiful, historic town of Sonoma there is a statue of the community’s founder in the main square, which has been draped with signs thanking the firefighters for everything they have done. One of the signs reads, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke”.

Right now, there are so many things happening around the world that can make it seem terrifying but this, this right here, is how we try to make it better. We come together to help each other wherever we can, we share what we have, we treat each other kindly and we love.

In the face of horror, choose love 💜

We, at Just Love, are devastated by the events in Las Vegas this past Sunday. We feel there is no room in the world, and in our hearts, for the kind of hatred and senseless violence that drives people to commit these acts.

We want everyone to remember to stay strong in the face of darkness, to not succumb to the kind of weakness that allows us to become desensitised to the suffering of others, nor to fear that which is different, or react other than with our hearts.

Our thoughts are with all that have been affected by these events in any way, and with those who have suffered at the hands of individuals that choose the path of violence, fear and division. We will not give in to hate, or apathy. We must stay strong and face these things with love. Just Love 💜

We need more glue.

I have just completed back-to-school shopping, which this year included getting glue sticks for my kids’ classrooms. First and second-graders go through kind of a lot of glue, and as I was unpacking a delivery box of about a million glue sticks, one of my sons came up, made big eyes and said “WHAT? How many glue sticks do we need???” to which I replied “Well, you know what, you can never have too much glue”. That’s probably not actually true in regards to physical glue, but there is, however, another kind that you can never have too much of.

At our wedding, the minister quoted U2’s Staring at the Sun, saying “There will be hard times ahead, but God’s glue, love, will help you stick together”. I thought that was beautiful. Whether or not you believe in a higher power, I’m sure you can agree that love is what keeps us together, in families, in communities, and as a world. And I am also pretty sure that you can also agree we need boxloads of it.

Today is world peace day, and to me peace, true peace, is love on a wider scale. It is safety, respect, equality, compassion, and freedom. The bad news is that these are all fragile things, which will inevitably get cracks, but the good news is that with enough glue, we can put them together again.

Another back-to-school activity for me is to help getting the art supplies for this year ready. Being in the art room, smelling the paint and looking at the master pieces the children will learn about, I realized that humanity actually has two kinds of glue: Love, and art. Most of us will never learn to love every single person on this planet, we will only truly love those in our immediate proximity, those whose stories we know. But that circle can get wider, through art. We might read an author, listen to a musician, a passionate speaker, view works of an artist, and over years of paying attention to a person whom we will never meet, we do learn to love them. Because they share their stories.

We learn of the stories of others in more ways, of course. Our compassion for victims of natural disasters, wars or persecution doesn’t come from cold, hard numbers, it comes from stories about individuals, or pictures of individuals. Any news team will try to interview survivors, bereaved families, first responders, people who can share their stories of what happened, because that’s how we connect. Story telling, sharing your truth, be it through talking, writing, painting, whatever expression you have, makes the world smaller, and glues us together.

So tell your story, and listen to the stories of others. In particular – find stories of people you don’t understand, people you fear, and try to see their humanity. The only way for leaders with malicious intent to stay in power is to keep us apart; to make us fear each other, to take away our glue sticks. But you can fight this. Be the one who keeps handing out new glue sticks! Keep loving, keep telling your story, keep listening to others. And if you have to – shout your words, listen harder, read more, love more.

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with you.

Emily B.