Dreaming of Haiti

Plage Cyvadier, HaitiI have not quite touched down from my most recent trip to Haiti. Since my return, my dreams have pulled me back to the tiny island country in the Caribbean. My dreams are filled with the joyful voices of children singing “Hosanna” in preparation for Palm Sunday worship, water running from a well and bread being baked.

In January of 2013 I made my first trip to Haiti with my husband and five others from our congregation. My first impressions were of the chaos of four million people living in a city designed for 400,000, smells of fish, garbage and charcoal,and the sight of hunger and desperate poverty.

My view of Haiti has changed. This was my third trip to the country and to the village of Pasquette near Jacmel on the island”s south shore. I no longer see only the poverty, the smells or the chaos. The air is still filled with the smell of charcoal fires. The chaos and cacophony of horn honking, bumper to bumper traffic still is the same. The majority of Haitians remain the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere. Those things, however, are not all I see.

In 2013 we helped build the “Blue Roof”, a simple pole structure with a blue steel roof to shelter the congregation of Redemption Lutheran Church. The place where we built the shelter was an empty field of acacia stumps and rocks just off the steep dirt road climbing up the hill from the main highway. Since then, another, larger church/community building has been built with money from the Lutheran Disaster Response. The mission group from Eden Prairie with whom we collaborate, has dug a well 240 feet through the limestone rock to bring the community clean water. Clean water is a luxury in a country where more than half of the residents do not have such access.

Most recently we have, with the hands and ingenuity of our Haitian brothers and sisters, nearly completed a bakery which will provide fresh bread to the community, jobs and income to help send children to school.

I experienced the joy of eating the first samples of bread with our friends as it came hot out of the new ovens. There are new buildings cropping up all around the Blue Roof. There is a garden in the space between the bakery and the church. Even though last fall’s hurricane battered and broke many of the young trees, they are growing and a couple of the mango and banana trees are bearing fruit. The bush next to the porch of the church which was a single twig last time I was there has grown to be eight feet tall and is covered with bright red blossoms. The children seem healthier and more of them are attending school.

I no longer see only Haiti’s poor. I see Vierge, Marlene, Julian, Kevans, Makenson, Carmelite, Janiece and Pastor Holand. I see my friends. They are graceful both in body and spirit, joyful, and hope-filled. They work hard and survive in spite of their hardships. I see my friends, people who are more like me than they are different from me. They love their children, their old ones and they love God. Their faith is strong. They are generous with each other and with us who have so much.

I don’t have any romantic notions about a life of poverty. My friends’ lives are hard. It is hard work to carry a five gallon pail of water on your head. It is hard work to wash clothes on a rock in the river. It is hard to squat next to a charcoal fire on the ground to cook your evening supper. It is hard to tell your hungry child that there will be only one meal today. My friends, in spite of the hardness of their lives, still manage to laugh, sing and shout “Hosanna.”

There are no easy solutions to the world’s poverty. Poverty, however, does not exist because of scarcity. Poverty exists in spite of creation’s abundance. Poverty is a political problem. It is a social problem, a religious problem and a personal problem.

If we truly want to end poverty, we must be willing to think about how our daily decisions affect the lives of others. Are the products we buy made with labor paid less than it costs to live for a day? Does the making of the products we use cause pollution of someone else’s water, soil and air? Do we use more than our share of the earth’s resources? How can we live more intentionally and more simply?

How can we share our wealth in a way that gives others respect and a voice in how those resources are used? Do we ask them what they need and want or do we tell them what is good for them? Are we willing to share our abundance or are we afraid we will not have enough?

Are we willing to advocate for others within political systems? The problems of the poor in our own country and around the world are often the result of political decisions made on our behalf. The agricultural subsidies which aid us, have sometimes had negative effects on the farmers of Haiti. When we call our congressmen to advocate for a farm program provision do we consider how other farmers will be affected? Do we think about how subsidies for farmers in this country makes exported rice, for example, so cheap that  Haitian rice farmers are forced out of business? Do we consider how sending free peanuts as aid to the hungry in Haiti impacts peanut farmers in Haiti?

In my dreams, my friends have enough and so do I.

Taking the easy route

Writing this column is easy. I don’t mean that I don’t work at it. I do. I read for hours every day. I seek information about all kinds of topics from many sources. I try to understand all points of view. It is not possible to agree with everyone, but trying to see the world from others’ points of view helps one understand one’s own beliefs. I write and rewrite and rewrite again. I study writing itself in an attempt be a better writer.

Putting my opinions on the pages of a local paper is harder than writing for a publication read by people who don’t know me. There is no anonymity in writing for the Cavalier County Republican. Many readers have known me since I was a child. Some knew my parents. It is possible, although unlikely, that someone might even remember my grandparents. Those who read my column are the people I meet in the grocery store or sit next to in church on Sunday morning. They are my friends, my neighbors and people with whom I regularly do business. I was not raised to call attention to myself or to think myself better than others. Publishing what I think about what happens in the world often makes me feel exposed and vulnerable.

Still writing this is easy. It isn’t hard to look around and find problems. There are hungry people looking for help. Unemployment in most of the country is still high in spite of improvements in the job market. One in five children live in poverty. Disasters strike around the world with increasing frequency. War and poverty continue to make people flee their homes. Finding something about which to opine is not a problem. Pointing out the shortcomings of our political system and government is always easy.

Opinion pages don’t require solutions to the problems that face us. Writing an opinion is easy. Finding and explaining solutions are much harder work. Proposing the answer to problems requires not only understanding the problem, but being able to envision something different. Solutions also require us to anticipate the unexpected. What are the unintended consequences to our proposed change? Solutions require asking, “Then what?” and asking it over and over again. Solutions require more than a superficial understanding of an issue. How do systems work? How will changing one part affect everything else? What seems simple on the surface often is far more complex when you scrape away the obvious.

Simply making a proposal for doing something new doesn’t accomplish much. Answers to problems need to be implemented. This is the really hard work. There are always obstacles and barriers to change. Fixing one thing often creates a new problem somewhere else. A friend of mine once summed up our reaction to how we view a problem and it’s solutions. He said, “It all depends on whose ox is being gored.” Our reaction depends on how our own well-being and position will be affected. The problem you know is often less frightening than the solution you don’t understand. Almost easier than writing about problems is the tendency to avoid the uncomfortable by avoiding change, to decide there is no affordable solution and to hold to the status quo or even to move backwards.

Solutions require taking risks, stepping outside of the confines of where we are comfortable. There will always be a critic somewhere writing an opinion column who will point out the plan’s failures. Sometimes those critics are right. Trying something new may fail. Failure is a risk innovators are not afraid to take. There will always be something that is missed along the way. Mistakes will be made in calculations and implementation will be carried out by flawed human beings. There will inevitably be people who liked things the way they were and who will fight tooth and nail to keep the things they hold dear regardless of the cost. Doing nothing also has a cost.

Opinions without action are meaningless. They’re easy to write and much harder to turn into a plan. Even trickier is actually making change happen. I admire the leaders around us who put themselves in the line of fire from opinion columnists. I admire those who find solutions and then take the risks needed to implement them.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Politics

Like many of my family and friends, I am tired of politics. I grew up in a family they shied away from conflict. My sister’s and I argued (and still do), but knock down, drag out fights never happened. We tried really hard to get along with our neighbors. Politics were not frequently discussed and most of our closest friends shared our religion.

We cannot all agree all of the time. If we willingly and happily all marched to the same music, we would always make massive, disastrous mistakes. No one knows all the “what ifs” of every policy and every decision. We need each other to point out the missed flats and sharps in the score, the subtle changes in tempo and the markings for repeated measures or chaos ensues.

Politics exists in all of our human relationships. Every workplace has internal policies, power struggles and complex relationships. Families relate to one another in ways determined by children’s birth order, gender, real and perceived hurts, and learned behaviors. Organizations have official hierarchies and unofficial power structures. We are faced with politics of one kind or another in everything we do.

Our government is probably more political than any other part of our lives. Partisan politics has become institutionalized and determines everything from who we vote for to the policies enacted on our behalf. Each party has factions and their own left, right, and middle. There are formal structures and elected leaders and then there are the informal leaders. The real power in our political parties has recently become entrenched with the faction which comes up with the most money. Money buys advertising, media coverage, and mass marketing that can determine who is elected.

What happens if those of us who are tired of the arguments simply give up and tune out all politics? Perhaps that is what those who seek the unofficial power in our system are hoping for. If, as in the last presidential election, half of us give up and don’t vote, those with the most money gain control of how our country is run. It is possible the same people may have been elected (no one knows for sure how those who stayed away from the polls would have cast their ballot) but they would know that they needed to answer to the real majority of citizens not just those who showed up at the polls.

I am tired of politics. I am mostly tired of the meanness, bullying and rancorous tirades that are passed off as debate. I am tired of elected officials who deflect criticisms of their actions by casting aspersions on their opponents. I’m tired of politicians who act as though winning an election means that they do not have to listen to both sides of an argument. Winning an election is not like winning the lottery. The winner still has to govern everyone.

Like it or not, government is necessary to the orderly functioning of a country. We need rules and regulations that protect citizens from fraud, toxic pollution, abusive labor practices, and exploitation. We need publicly funded water and sewers, schools and universities, roads and airports. We need government to negotiate with other governments and to defend us from attack. No one that I know thinks our government is perfect. How we live together is complex and changing rapidly.

I am tired of politics. I do not believe we would be better off without our government. As flawed as our system is, doing without is not the answer.

I will be spending a week in Haiti soon. Haiti’s government does not enforce labor laws, there are few environmental regulations and those that exist are overlooked. Public education reaches very few and only about half of all young adults can read. Health care is cheap, but is mostly inaccessible. Three out of four children will not celebrate their fifth birthday. When a hurricane hits head on, there are no FEMA funds to rebuild. Most Haitians do not have access to a sewer or to clean water.

Instead of turning off the news and disclaiming politics, we might do better to become informed, engage in debate and make sure we vote.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

More than a pretty melody

Nineteenth century politician and orator, Robert Ingersoll once said, “Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” Music is said to be the language of the soul. Plato wrote, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Music is a part of every culture, both in the past and today. Everyone knows a song or two. Mothers sooth their crying babies by singing lullabies. People worship gods with singing. Lovers croon beneath the windows of their intended. Children instinctively dance to lively tunes. The old remember the music of their youth when other memories fade.

Scientists who study how the brain works are learning interesting things about music and neurology. With modern methods of observing brain activity, researchers are able to see the effects of music on our brains. They are finding that philosophers are right. Music is a built-in part of how our brains function.

It seems that we are born with an ability to recognize the beat of a song and the repetitive notes of music. Mothers almost instinctively know that music and a rhythmical rocking back and forth both have a soothing effect on tiny babies. Scientists are finding that the parts of the brain which respond to these kinds of stimuli are deep in the brain in the unconscious mind. Music, research shows, activates parts of the brain which control speech, hearing, thinking, emotion and even movement.

The connection of music to our muscles makes us tap our feet when we listen. It makes us want to jump up and dance. This stimulation of the part of our brain which controls our muscles is being used in new ways to heal our bodies. Music therapy is being used to help patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and for victims of strokes, multiple sclerosis, and brain injuries. Some Parkinson’s patients are helped in their balance and ability to walk by listening to music. Stroke patients who have lost their ability to speak sometimes can relearn speech through singing. There are some therapists who have been able to help children with learning disabilities with the use of music.

People suffering from Alzheimer’s disease respond to the stimulus of music familiar to them. Remembering a favorite song may stimulate other memories buried deep within a person’s brain.

Learning to play music has been shown to increase a person’s ability to solve other problems. Learning to distinguish different sounds in a piece of music such as recognizing a specific harmony or a specific instrument seems to help in being able to pick speech out of a noisy environment. Older people who play music seem to be able to hear conversation better in spite of background noise.

Music makes people happy and allows people to express feelings of sadness and loss. Music helps our bodies heal and to cope with pain. Music is universal and stimulates creative thought. Music lessons are never wasted. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that only those who can play music on a professional level should take up an instrument. None of the research indicates that the benefits of playing music only works when the music is good enough for Carnegie Hall. It doesn’t even seem to matter if anyone else hears it.

Scientists are telling us that pulling out that old trumpet or clarinet that is molding in the closet may be the best therapy for much of what ails us, young and old.

Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

ACA, AHCA, Obamacare, Trumpcare…more of the same

Before the adoption of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, I was approached by MoveOn.org to make an ad for them. Their request was as the result of my commenting on an article they had written about the need for health care reform. At the time we had dropped our bare bones, high deductible health insurance. The premiums were going up by double digits in most years. In those years when we hit another decade in age, the increases almost doubled. Every year we increased the deductibles and the out-of-pocket maximums, but still the premiums were so high that we could not afford even the basics of medical care. I had written opposing adoption of the Affordable Care Act and advocated for as single payer, Medicare-for-All option.

I spent a couple of days with make up artists, a film crew, script writers and producers from  the activist organization. My MoveOn.org ad aired on television stations around the region. The reaction from people I know was surprising. Some of my friends pretended they hadn’t seen the ad. Others expressed concern that we were putting our farm at risk because we had no insurance. At least one person offered financial assistance. A few friends told me they envied us. They wished they had the courage to quit the job they hated, but they felt trapped because they were too afraid to let go of the insurance that was part of their job. Some people I didn’t know sent me hate mail. They had been misinformed that those of us without insurance got free health care at the expense of everyone else.

The reality was that without the bills for insurance premiums and with the good fortune to have good health, we were able to put aside money to pay for basic health, dental and eye care. These were things we had gone without when we had insurance. We usually paid the billed amount for these services, or at most received a 10 percent discount for paying immediately, not the “negotiated” discounted rates paid by health insurance companies. We didn’t receive “free” services.

I supported parts of the ACA such as not being refused coverage for pre-existing conditions and covering young people to the age of 26. I thought standardizing coverage for different levels of insurance made shopping for coverage easier. Subsidies for purchasing insurance helped a lot of people obtain coverage they could afford. Limiting the amount of money insurance companies could pay their executives and setting the level of premiums that needed to go to actually providing medical care were also good starts.

The ACA and the new American Health Care Act (AHCA) proposed this week by House Republicans both have a basic failing. The assumption is that buying health insurance and health care services are like buying anything else. Consumers will shop around for the best deal, the cheapest provider, the lowest cost option. The “free market” will bring lower prices and better care. That simply is not the case. I want the best doctor treating me when I’m sick. I don’t want the equivalent of an economy airline flight where I need to bring my own food and water. When someone is told, “You have cancer,” the patient and his family wants the best available, no matter what the cost. We might look for the most effective treatment, the doctors with the most experience, and the best outcomes, but we rarely ask, “How much is this going to cost?” The life of our child, parent or spouse is worth more than money to us.

President Trump is right about one thing. Health care is a very complicated issue. It is made more so by the power and influence exerted by an industry that is making big returns on our fear of being ruined by a major illness. The plan offered by President Trump and the Republican Congress is not even a band-aid. It will keep a few of the more popular provisions of the ACA and it will drop the mandate that everyone buy insurance. Employers won’t be required to provide insurance to their employees. However, you will be penalized by a 30% increase in your premiums if you let your insurance drop for more than 63 days. It will raise the allowable pay for insurance company executives and it will eliminate the tax on the most expensive insurance plans and the wealthiest of Americans which paid for the subsidies for the poorest. There will be no consistent coverage between plans and the Medicaid expansion will be rolled back and replaced with per capita block grants to states. It will allow marketing insurance policies across state lines, eliminating states’ rules about minimum coverage requirements. It will give insurance companies the freedom to sell extremely high deductible plans that cover nothing.

This will be worse than the ACA for the majority of Americans, not better. It will not solve the problem of the cost of health insurance and health care. It will not help those of us who live in rural areas to be served by more health care providers.

Since my brief starring role in a television ad, my spouse and I have reached the age of Medicare eligibility. We pay a premium for Medicare B and for our supplemental insurance. The total cost is a fraction of what our high deductible insurance cost more than ten years ago. It covers almost everything. We’ve had no problems with bills not being paid or with necessary care being denied.

Everyone should have access to the same.

Sacrifice

Ash Wednesday was this week. Christians around the world mark this day as the beginning of Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of sacrifice and fasting. This tradition is meant to remind us of the sacrifice made for us by God. The idea of “giving up” something for lent was not really part of my Lutheran upbringing. When I got to school and my Catholic friends asked me what I was giving up for lent, I was intrigued. I asked my mom if I, too, could give something up. “Of course,” was her reply. “What are you going to do without for the next six weeks?”

My friends and I discussed the possibilities. Some suggested candy, a standard sacrifice among my devout Catholic friends. Some of my more irreverent buddies suggested things like homework, brussels sprouts and liver. Those who had televisions gave up watching their favorite programs. Some gave up going to the movies. Some of the “giving up” was difficult and some was just plain silly.

I never really managed to stick to my “giving up” for all of Lent. Six weeks is a long time to a fourth grader. The symbolism and significance of sacrificing was missed by my developing religious convictions.

Pope Francis reminds us that sacrifice in itself is not meaningful. Our sacrifice and fasting must do something for others. The Pontiff admonishes us that with more regular and intense prayer during Lent, Christians are called to think of the needs of others, “interceding before God for the many situations of poverty and suffering” in the world. “Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.” Fasting, he added, is a sign of becoming aware of and taking responsibility for injustice and oppression.

Pope Francis often admonishes the world to care for one another. He has said, “I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” It is not a sacrifice to give up something you do not value or need, like giving up brussels sprouts, or giving away clothing that is too small, worn or outdated. Sacrifice is like the story of the woman in the Bible who gives away her last penny. Sacrifice is giving away your favorite coat before it is worn out and before you have a replacement. Sacrifice is sharing your food even if you might not have enough yourself.

When politicians in Washington propose cutting programs which provide food to pregnant women, infants and children, or for food stamps and for Medicaid, the sacrifices being asked of the poor are real. Without food assistance many will go hungry. Some will feed their children what they can afford, not what is good for them. The long term costs of poor nutrition both for the children and society as a whole are significant. Minimizing the cost of living increases for Social Security for many elderly means deciding which bills to pay. Co-payments on medical bills do not come out of the poor’s “mad” money. The result may be the sacrificing of adequate food in exchange for needed medical care. It may mean deciding whether the rent will be paid or if the children will have the shoes they need for school.

If we ask the nation’s wealthiest citizens to pay higher taxes, does it really result in a sacrifice? Will they have to downsize their home, give up a meal, or go without new shoes? Probably not.

One does not have to be an economist to understand that the impact of many of the proposed government cuts, especially to programs characterized as our “safety net” or “entitlements” may indeed be sacrificial for many Americans. Those who suggest that substantial cuts to the programs which feed, house, and clothe the poor, the elderly and the disabled are equivalent to the sacrifices as being asked of the wealthy are mistaken.

Giving up brussels sprouts, imported caviar, or the tax deduction for interest paid on one of multiple homes are not sacrifices. Giving up what one doesn’t need or want means nothing as a Lenten practice nor does it contribute to making our country stronger or to creating a world which is a better place to live.

Farming’s “Hidden Figures”

The movie “Hidden Figures” is a great movie, but it made me cry. Partly my tears were in recognition that what was being portrayed as “history” was my childhood! I remember clearly Russia’s successful launch of Sputnik and poor dog who circled the earth. I remember the excitement of those first manned space trips. We watched the launches live on fuzzy, black and white television broadcasts. It was an exciting time in history but I still have not come to grips with being part of history.

I did not, as a child, ever hear about the role women, women of any color, played in launching those rockets into space. The control rooms pictured were all filled with white men in white shirts and ties. When the movie informed us that women had a dress code that included skirts to the knees, heels and a simple string of pearls, I wasn’t surprised. We were required to wear dresses (to the knees) as long as I was in high school. I wasn’t surprised by the images of separate bathrooms, water fountains and coffee pots. The inhumanity of those images of segregation still brought tears to my eyes.

I know first hand about how women were told they shouldn’t seem too smart because they would have a hard time finding a husband. Women who went to college were said to be pursuing an MRS degree. I personally was told that pursuing a career as a physician was too hard for a woman, that I did pretty well in physics class…for a girl, that I would be prettier if I just wore more makeup. I was called “honey” by my boss and paid less than males doing less skilled work because, “They get dirty and work harder physically.” That was a long time ago. Things are different now, right?

This month’s “Successful Farming” magazine features four women on the cover. The article inside highlights the women as “groundbreaking female farmers” who are “big-time operators.” They are apparently a novelty to the female “Farm Journal” writer who writes, “Finding a female farmer who is confidently making management decisions on a farm is a rarity.”

Excuse me?

I know many women who are farmers. Some of them farm without the support of a male farm partner, but many women farm in partnerships with their fathers, brothers or spouses. I have farmed for more than 40 years. In that time I have birthed calves, herded cows and sheep, built fences, run tractors and the skid steer and driven the truck. I have put more hours in driving the combine than my spouse and am the one who makes most veterinary decisions. I do the accounting and pay the taxes. I have had input into most major decisions on the farm. Isn’t that what a “farmer” does? However, when I wanted farm program payments for the sheep that I own in my name, I needed to be declared a “person” by the FSA. I could never get my tax consultant to list my occupation as “farmer”. I now do his job. I am not saying I am the farmer and my husband is not. He does his share of labor and management. We have always been partners.

I admire women who farm independently. I admire men who farm alone. It is a lonely and difficult job, even when you work with a partner. I know that I would not be able to farm in the same way without my spouse. I need him to loosen really tight bolts, to help lift really heavy things, and to do major repairs. I’m not about to take on a new momma cow all by myself. I also know, however, that my husband would also need to adjust how he works without me. We are farmers together.

Ironically, half of all farmers in the world are women. The world’s women farmers grow more than half the world’s food even though in much of the world, they very often do not control the land they farm. They do not have the same access to credit or education as their male counterparts. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) concluded in a report released in 2011 that if male and female farmers had equal access to resources, world food output would increase. Giving women equal opportunities could pull 100 to 150 million people out of hunger. Women who farm could change the world.

The movie “Hidden Figures” made me cry because more than a half a century later, we still see women who are farmers, construction workers, scientists, engineers, mathematicians as “rarities”.  It is apparently newsworthy, not that they are good farmers, but that they are women who farm on their own.
Copyright © 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains