Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Strangers of War

© 2009 by Karen Van Fossan

Strangers of War

There was a woman whose name
I have never known.
The syllables of her name would have been sharp against my tongue,
had I ever tried to pronounce them,
which I did not.

The woman was not my friend.
Her God was not my friend –
nor her sisters, nor her brothers, nor the children of her home.

She rose from soil I have never seen,
singing a prayer
I will never sing,
wiping the hands of children I do not recognize.

The secrets in her eyes will never
flash upon my eyes –
holding hope, like laughter,
in our throats.

The woman was not my friend –
nor her sisters.

Her brothers held their arms against
my brothers.
My neighbors sent soldiers
across the sea
to fight her neighbors.
We were enemies, they said.
She was my enemy, they said.

Never, not for a moment, did I believe them.

The syllables of my name would have been sharp against her tongue.

And yet –
I miss her.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thank You

Thank you for all the kind and hopeful words I've received since posting my letter to President Obama. Since my last post, CODEPINK Women for Peace picked up my letter and ran it on their Pink Tank blog. (Somehow, I got the whole thing down to 600 words.) The comments on Pink Tank are pretty interesting, and you might be interested to read them.

Peace to you,

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dear President Obama From a Neighbor

Written upon the President's Announcement of Another Surge of Troops in Afghanistan
December 2, 2009

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Dear President Barack Obama,

You may not be aware of this, but you and I have plenty of things in common. True, I've never been elected president of the United States, and you've never been elected president of the North Dakota Peace Coalition. But I do hope your tenure as president will be as informative as mine was.

In any case, I'd like to list just four of the things you and I have in common:
1)We have each devoted our time, energy, and heart to the people of Chicago.
2)We have each spoken openly about our vision of a nuclear-weapons free future.
3)We each opposed the Iraq war and occupation from the beginning.
4)We each hold to “hope” as an ideal in the world.

Certainly, you and I don't agree on all political and social matters. I felt immense relief when Chicago's bid to host the 2016 Olympics – and bear its subsequent hardships – was eliminated. Also, when I heard you speak here in North Dakota last April, I was the lone voice boo-ing as you called the war in Afghanistan “the good war.”

I would be mortified if an audience member booed at me, so now, as I write this letter, I feel some compunction to apologize for booing at you. The trouble is, I was not then – and am not now – certain how to be heard by the leaders of my country.

I have called the White House innumerable times to register my concern about your Afghanistan plans. During the weekdays, the phone lines were invariably busy. Over the weekend, the message stated that your mailbox was full. When I did break through the White House telephone traffic, the on-hold message told me that the volunteer operators would answer as soon as they were able.

While on hold, awaiting a volunteer operator, I had time to consider many questions: Why does our White House have so few phone lines? Why does our White House have such limited mailbox space? Why does our White House rely on unpaid volunteers to respond to calls from the American people?

Frankly, I wanted to boo all over again.

And frankly, there are endless reasons why the war in Afghanistan should never be called “the good war.” As you must certainly know, these reasons have names, and these reasons have faces.

Unfortunately, I don't know their names, and I don't recognize their faces. So their stories aren't mine to tell.

What I can tell you is a story of Chicago.

In 2001, my partner and I moved from Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood (on the south side) to the Rogers Park neighborhood (on the north side). In the middle of this move, on September 11, the World Trade Center in New York was attacked by self-proclaimed terrorists from another country – or countries.

As I was grieving this event, the radio news told of another tragedy. A young girl had been shot to death in the lobby of her apartment building, caught in Chicago's gang crossfire.

I spent many nights hollering into the wind, over gangs and war and violence.

Today, I still grieve, though on December 2, 2009, I have a bit more clarity.

The child who lived on the south side was murdered by a gang. Let's just say this gang was from the north side, where I lived. Certainly, someone in the south-side gang might have known this child, might have grieved for this child. The south-side gang might have declared war against the north side.

This isn't fair, of course. I had nothing to do with the shooting. In fact, I abhorred the shooting. Just because a gang sought refuge in my neighborhood didn't mean that I was giving refuge. I didn't want the gang in my neighborhood. And I certainly didn't want gang warfare.

Similarly, there is a gang known as al Qaeda. Their leader has claimed responsibility for the attacks of September 11. They entered the United States' neighborhood, and they killed people. In doing so, they represented no particular government, no particular country, and hence, no particular people. To attack the country in which they have taken refuge – to harm the innocent people who are their neighbors – is to behave as a gang.

For more than 8 years I have wondered – Is the United States behaving as a gang or a government?

A government could make use of a police force, trained in precision, to find the alleged attackers, bring charges against them, and serve the greater justice. You and I both know that the government of Chicago doesn't have the best reputation, and neither does its police force. But a government, unlike a gang, has a degree of public accountability. By design, it represents the people.

Thankfully, the south side never bombed the north side, no matter whether we harbored an enemy gang. But let's just say the south side had attacked us. Let's say they'd been attacking us for 8 or more years. Let's say, all the while, the south-side folks were growing weary of war.

Then – a voice. A south-side visionary. A person who declares, “Yes, we can!” – even if he borrows that phrase from Delores Huerta of the United Farm Workers.

This south-side visionary speaks of hope, the audacity of hope, a future of promise for the children. He offers the people renewal – of the economy, the environment, international relations. He rails against his predecessors' warring predilections. In the mean time, yes, he does call the north-side war “the good war.” But nobody's perfect, and here is a person who's poised and ready to listen. A leader like this would never drown his people in endless war.

And so he's elected. Of course, he's going to listen. Of course, it will make a difference that 55% of his people want to end the war – win, lose, or otherwise.

But suddenly, this leader's phone is busy. Suddenly, his mailbox is full.

Has he forgotten we're all neighbors?

Has he forgotten “Yes, we can”?

Does he think he was elected to kill people?

This is my greatest fear:

The audacity of hope has truly become an audacity – especially for the children of Afghanistan.

Karen Van Fossan,
a neighbor

Friday, November 20, 2009

Women & Spirituality (A Quiz)

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Quiz time! Well, not yet.

First, I should tell you, I recently returned from an energizing (and overwhelming) adventure at the Women & Spirituality Conference at Minnesota State University in Mankato. I traveled there by van (and satellite car) with a group of spirited friends.

As the keynote speaker and beloved leader in the global sustainability movement, Dr. Vandana Shiva linked women's traditional wisdom with the modern cry for sustainability. Here are just some of my favorite quotes from her:

“Across cultures, women have been the seed-keepers – which they have regarded as a sacred duty.”

“People invented this thing called 'the food chain,' with man at the top of the pyramid.” Dr. Shiva smiled and said, “They forgot that the microorganisms get you at the end!”

“Today, women's agriculture produces far more food than industrial agriculture.”

“The womanly way of farming has been through diversity.”

“In the U.S., there are more people in jails than on the land.”

“Industrial agriculture is a system for creating scarcity, a system for creating hunger.”

“The earth is a much more generous employer than Wall Street will ever be.”

“We feed the soil organisms – and they'll feed us.”

“Each day, Gandhi prayed, 'God, make me more womanly – make me more feminine.'”

Now – it's quiz time:

1. In the Trance Dancing workshop, facilitated by Ella Davis-Suggs and Linda Deer Domnitz, participants (including myself):
A) Breathed in unison.
B) Moved to ancient rhythms.
C) Pressed our foreheads and bellies to the floor, for insight.
D) All of the above.

2. With Paula Kramer as our guide, participants in the “Feeling, Seeing, & Psychically Reading Auras” workshop:
A) Journeyed through all the layers (three) of one another's auras.
B) Made colorful drawings of other people's auras.
C) Gave “aura hugs” (or maybe that was just my group).
D) All of the above.

3. In Amy Leo Barankovich's workshop, “Dancing Your Own,” participants:
A) Danced with the floor.
B) Danced with bells.
C) In one case, danced with her nose.
D) All of the above.

4. During the “Introduction to Shamanism” workshop by Rhonda Steele, participants:
A) Journeyed to the lower world.
B) Met their power animals.
C) Made animal movements and sounds.
D) All of the above.

The best thing about the conference was:

All of the above.

(Next year, maybe you...with your aura and your power animal...will join us.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


© 2009 Karen Van Fossan, written at 3:44 a.m.

Once, not long ago, there lived a rosy, young woman. She loved nothing more in life than her apple tree. In Spring, she pressed her cheeks to the sweet, tender blossoms. In Summer, she danced in the moonlight with the shadow of her tree. In Autumn, she gathered bushels of the red, nourishing fruit.

In spite of her love of apples – or perhaps because of it – one particular Autumn, she couldn't sleep. “Crud!” she said, again and again. “It's 3:44 a.m., and I'm awake.”

At about the same time, there lived a purposeful, middle-aged woman. How she loved to run! In Spring, she liked to sprint among the tulips along her walk. In Summer, she went jogging between the tall and reaching daisies. In Autumn, she hurdled playfully over the asters.

In spite of her love of running – or perhaps because of it – one particular Autumn, she couldn't sleep. “Shoot!” she said, again and again. “It's 3:44 a.m., and I'm awake.”

At about the same time, there lived a powerful, elderly woman. She had been making pictures since she was three or four years old, and she had no intention of stopping now. In Spring, she filled her canvas with sweet, tender apple blossoms. In Summer, she painted lanky clumps of daisies in the garden. In Autumn, she put the final stroke on a portrait of herself.

In spite of her love of painting – or perhaps because of it – one particular Autumn, she couldn't sleep. “Glory!” she said, again and again. “It's 3:44 a.m., and I'm awake.”

I wonder, dear readers – can you help?

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's almost time for "Shhhhhhhhh!"

Can't wait! It's almost time for Shhhhhhhhh! -- a very original play by truth-telling teens in the heart of North Dakota.

Join us at 7:30 PM on Saturday, September 12th in the Sidney J Lee Auditorium at Bismarck State College. The show is rated PG-13. (Well, make that PG-12.) And it's totally free.

"But what is the play about?" people ask.

Just about everything that anyone's ever said, "Shhhhhhhhh!" about.

The Group That Opened the Box is ready to talk.
You'll'll'll renew your hope for humanity.

Find out more on URL Radio with Stacy Sturm, on the KFYR Morning Show with Anne Kelly, in the Bismarck Tribune article by Karen Herzog, and at the Culture Pulse website.

Here's a peek at some of my favorite scenes:

written by Rachel Patrie (age 17)
How did this even happen?
Sarah wanders up and down the closest Walgreens to her home, filling a basket with odds and ends. Some Easter decorations. Light bulbs. New mascara. Pregnancy test?
Her hand shakes as she reaches for the box.
Bonus! Free Additional Test Inside!
"Awesome!" she thinks. "Sounds great!"

Is Sarah pregnant at age 16? Find out Saturday night.

"Only She"
written by Caitlyn Taix (age 15)
Lately we're inseparable.
She's the only one that finds happiness in a garden.
We just drive. We don't complain, we just listen to a better time,
preferably Cat Stevens,
and drive on a long gravel road
to nowhere.
Only she finds peace in that...

Who is "She"? Find out Saturday night.

"Matthew and Me"
written by Michaela Miller (age 16)
So in love. So in love, I don't
care who sees me with him.
So in love, we don't care
who judges us.
So in love, I'd kiss him in the middle of
downtown New York City.
A lot of people are watching, spectating.
It doesn't really make sense...

Why are people looking? Find out Saturday night.

"Daisy & Pierce"
written by Megan Isaak (age 14)
I'm in the doctor's office. I cut too deep, I need stitches.
I hear the door ring, as a tall man steps in, wearing a fedora, Mexican sunglasses,
and a big trench coat...
I look up at the sound of my name being said. It's the man with the fedora.
I remember, Pierce used to wear his fedora all the time.
No, don't think about him. He's gone!

Or is he? Find out Saturday night.

written by Alexis Hellman (age 18)
I am Buddha.
Rub my tummy
for luck.
That's what I need --

Why does Buddha need luck? Find out Saturday night.

We hope to see you there.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


You've heard of Jesus Camp. And Posse Comitatus. And that ghost town article in The National Geographic. But do you know the newest news, here in North Dakota?

If you answered, "Shhhhhhhhh!" -- then give yourself a point!

A don't-miss opportunity is coming soon to central North Dakota -- a theatrical event like you've never experienced before. Guaranteed: You will love it! Here's what you need to know...

A very original play called, "Shhhhhhhhh!"

Written and performed by "The Group That Opened the Box" --
a group of truth-telling teens in the heart of North Dakota

Saturday, September 12, 2009, at 7:30 PM

Sidney J. Lee Auditorium, Bismarck State College, 1500 Edwards Ave.

FREE. Donations gratefully accepted.

Directors: Dr. Kathy Blohm & Karen Van Fossan

Special Features:
* Larger-than-life photo montage by Kristi Rasmussen
* Original scenes by Karen Van Fossan & Kathy Blohm
* You can stick around after the show for a chance to appear in a film.

What “Shhhhhhhhh!” is All About:
Life, longing, and love in the heart of North Dakota

North Dakota Women's Network, Cinema 100 Film Society, Dakota West Arts Council, BSC Theatre Department, Chambers & Blohm Psychological Services, and Dragon Jane Theater Company

You'll'll'll renew your hope for humanity. If you have any questions, you can email or call 701-258-6667.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Train Sweet Train

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Finally, I counted. I had to. Twenty-seven here. Eighteen there.

This summer, I spent nearly 100 hours on the train. I'm not bragging, not complaining. But, as much as I long to tell you about the places where I went, rather than how I got there, all I can hear in my head is that cross-country train.

Years ago, I used to get a couple of seats to myself. When gas prices hovered at $1 or so a gallon, when airlines kept their financial woes to themselves, when "green" was a word no self-respecting CEO would say -- the train was my little secret.

But now, I've entered R.E.M. sleep with so many random strangers, I've lost count.

This summer, as I traveled the country, I contemplated the meaning of life, and language, and the train. I realized that the passenger train is almost entirely lacking in cliches.

We've got the high road, the fast lane, who's in the driver's seat; we talk about "paving the way."

But how about Amtrak cliches?

Here's my first try...

1) When the trip is just beginning, and your heart is full of adventure --
Train sweet train.

2) When you find yourself leg-to-leg with a dude who has Restless Leg Syndrome --
Fuel efficiency loves company.

3) When you miss your bathtub so much, you wish you'd brought a picture --
Cleanliness is next to impossible.

4) When you start to wonder how many times the family across the aisle can watch that same, freaking, boring DVD --
Good boundaries make good neighbors.

5) When you're startled awake by a chorus of frogs...or bears...or who-knows-what? --
If you can't stand the snoring, get out of the train.

6) When the nighttime lights keep streaking by --
All that glitters is not easily blocked by your eyelids.

7) When you can't help but question the Self and notions of private property --
Home is where that little-tag-placed-above-your-seat is.

8) When your seatmate wakes up chatty --
Bloom where you and your random seatmate are planted.

9) When a person has to be neighborly, even on the train --
'Tis more blessed to give up your window seat to a married Amish couple, than to receive.

10) When the engineer cranks the emergency brakes --
You can lead a train to the mountains, but you can't make it climb (unless a couple of freight engines come to haul it).

So, the next time you're on the train, save me a seat. Because...

A friend in the train is worth two in the bush.

Words to live by.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bird Lessons

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

So I'm sitting at the dinner table, minding my own business, glancing out the window from time to time. From my designated chair, I can see walkers making their way, the local rabbit's favorite path, and our clunker -- with the windows down -- waiting in the drive.

Suddenly, I hear myself blurt, "There's a robin in the car!"

In seconds flat, Kris and I leap from the table, and out the door.

Sure enough, a baby robin squeaks inside the car, in her young and speckled glory, in the midst of a first flight. She bounces along the back dash, back and forth, around and around, trying to push through the window, which looks like open air, but is a trap.

High on the neighbor's roof, the mother robin, or father robin, hollers with all her might, calling with all his heart -- Come here! Come here!

We throw open the door to the car!

But the baby stays inside, hopping around on the back dash, pressing toward the window.

We run into the house and grab the enormous log we keep for the cats. We prop it on the back dash, making a bridge to the grass.

But the Mama-Papa-Auntie robin continues to call from the roof. The baby continues to panic.

We back away to give the baby space.

But the baby doesn't need space. The baby needs the window to turn to air.

At last, we resort to fear.

We knock on the back window, making a terrible racket.

She scurries away from the window.
Down from the dash.
Down to the seat.
Out the door!

And suddenly, I'm face to face with questions --

Are there obstacles in my life it would be wise to turn away from?

Are there times when the thing I fear the most can help me find my path?

Maybe so...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The End of the Story

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Thank you, dear readers, for all your creative vision in helping me find an ending to the Ogre, Rat, and Princess story. Since my last post, I've been chewing on your ideas.

How will the story end? I've wondered. Of all the delightful suggestions I heard -- as posts to this blog or otherwise -- which will I pick?

Will someone prepare an inviting Greek supper? Will we hear each other's stories? Will a faithful dog bring us, mostly, together? Will the Ogre and the Princess fall in love?

This morning, as the alarm clock buzzed, I suddenly got my answer...

Once upon a time, there was a terrible, angry ogre. The ogre didn’t like me, the ogre didn’t like you, and most of all, she didn’t like herself. “Self!” she hollered. “You’re terrible! And you’re angry! And you’re an ogre! No wonder I don’t like you.” The ogre picked up her house. And she tossed it to the ground.

Well, the ogre happened to live next door to a frightful, fearful rat. The rat didn’t trust me, the rat didn’t trust you, and most of all, she didn’t trust herself. “Self?” she whispered. “You’re frightful! And you’re fearful! And you’re a rat! No wonder I don’t trust you.” She scurried away, as fast as she could, far across the prairie.

Now, the rat happened to live next door to an undiscovered princess. The princess was bored with me, the princess was bored with you, and most of all, the princess was bored with herself. “Boring!” said the Princess -- while she smiled for the camera.

But the princess happened to live next door to the writer of this story. The writer looked around. “Ogre? Rat? Princess?" she said. "I’m trying to write a story. Could you help me?”

The princess yawned. The rat kept hiding. The ogre stomped her foot. Then they hurried home and locked their doors.

So the writer dialed a pay phone. "Help!" she said to the reader. "What should I do?”

The reader scratched her head. Or maybe he drummed his fingers. The readers said to the writer.........

"I think you should cook them a Greek meal."

"It so happens that the writer lived next to a loyal, loving dog."

"I think the Ogre, the Rat, and the Princess should go on a photo safari."

"The ogre was so fully loved by the princess, and the princess by the ogre..."

As the writer sat and listened to the readers tell their tales, she found that there was a moral to the story after all:

Ogres will be ogres. Princesses will be princesses. Readers can be anything they choose.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ogre, the Rat, and the Princess

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Once upon a time, there was a terrible, angry ogre.

The ogre didn’t like me, the ogre didn’t like you, and most of all, she didn’t like herself.

“Self!” she hollered. “You’re terrible! And you’re angry! And you’re an ogre! No wonder I don’t like you.”

The ogre picked up her house. And she tossed it to the ground.

Well, the ogre happened to live next door to a frightful, fearful rat.

The rat didn’t trust me, the rat didn’t trust you, and most of all, she didn’t trust herself.

“Self?” she whispered. “You’re frightful! And you’re fearful! And you’re a rat! No wonder I don’t trust you.”

She scurried away, as fast as she could, far across the prairie.

Now, the rat happened to live next door to an undiscovered princess.

The princess was bored with me, the princess was bored with you, and most of all, the princess was bored with herself.

“Boring!” said the Princess --

While she smiled for the camera.

But the princess happened to live next door to the writer of this story.

The writer looked around. “Ogre? Rat? Princess?" she said. "I’m trying to write a story. Could you help me?”

The princess yawned. The rat kept hiding. The ogre stomped her foot.

Then they hurried home and locked their doors.

The writer dialed a pay phone. "Help!" she said to the reader. "What should I do?”

The reader scratched her head. Or maybe he drummed his fingers. The reader said to the writer.........

(Reader, could you help me? What did the reader say???)

Monday, May 25, 2009

White Folks and the Dandelion

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Some of us who read this blog are white, no doubt about it. As we white folks know, being white is nothing we like to talk about.

But I’ve been observing white folks for a while now.

There appears to be an enemy among us, a ubiquitous kind of enemy. It seems to be our duty (judging by our actions) to eradicate this enemy once and for all.

In 1492, it was Savagery.
In 1593, it was Witchcraft.
In 1954, it was Communism.

As Colin Powell has stated, "What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it's terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?"

Colin Powell suggests our greatest threat is our own fear.

But when you look around –

You can see us white folks, facing a threat which statesmen rarely mention:

Taraxacum officinale.

Otherwise known as Dent de Lion (which translates into Lion’s Teeth).
Otherwise known as Priest’s Crown.
Otherwise known as Swine’s Snout.

In other words, the Dandelion.

Of course, you’ve seen what’s happening: You can spot us white folks, struggling across America – doing battle with the enemy. For some, it’s a daily endeavor; for some, a weekend mission. Some will even hire a private contractor.

And, yes, we have supplies. We have weaponry. We have strategies – keeping abreast of the battlefield. There we are, on the front lines, year after year after year.

Together, we stand. Divided, we fall. When one of us, even one of us, in the neighborhood drops the fight – well, the rest of us have to fight harder.

Still – if there’s anyone who should understand the dandelion, it’s us.

Six Things We American White Folks Have in Common with the Dandelion:

1) We were imported from lands like England and Germany.
2) We love to take root in American soil.
3) When we can, we spread as far and wide as the eye can see –
4) Which causes us to get in the way of indigenous growth.
5) But, under proper management, we can be fairly useful –
6) Even though our best potential has largely remained unknown.

So, white folks, what do you say? What if we dropped the fight?

What if we found compassion for the dandelion?

No more noxious spraying. No more funky nitrogen pellets. No more disposable Chemlawn flags at the corners of our lawns.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to let dandelions take over. History shows that it doesn’t work (and isn’t working today) for foreign plants to occupy indigenous lands.

But, seeing as the dandelions are here, seeing as they’re everywhere, seeing as it’s impossible to send them back to England now – maybe we can find another solution.

What if we found a balance?

Native grasses. Perennials. Some clover for the bees.

And – the common dandelion.

I have a friend who soaks the roots in apple cider vinegar. My partner and I fry the leaves with lots of onions and garlic. Even the USDA proclaims its value.

As a tea, tincture, extract, or food – dandelion has been reported to…

* Dissolve kidney stones.
* Cleanse acne.
* Assist in weight management.
* Prevent or control diabetes.
* Stop cancer.

Perhaps, like the dandelion, we white folks have something to offer.

Maybe, hating the dandelion, we’re only hating ourselves – the invaders who haven’t found a place of balance.

Of course, unlike white folks – dandelions have nothing to apologize for. They never enslaved a nation or dropped an atomic bomb.

But maybe, when we find what we can love about the dandelion – we can stop our fighting.

We can stop our battles.

And maybe we can turn our history around.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Play, Play, Plays

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Well! Since the last time I wrote to you, I've celebrated a dear friend's 100th birthday, heard carrots sing, seen shoes dance, roared like a dragon with hundreds of Devils Lake school children, listened to grown adults make prairie sounds with napkins, and generally exhausted myself to the core.

But, as Jeanne said last fall, after the St Paul peace protests, "I am going to burn out, rather than rust out!"

During the past month, as an artist-in-residence in Bismarck, Mandan, and Devils Lake -- I wondered once in a while if I would burn out. But, before I had much chance to devote myself to burning out, Tracy tuned to a radio show on "play." The spirituality of play, as a matter of fact.

There in the extended-stay Devils Lake motel, as the radio listed the merits of play, Tracy designed a life-sized calculator costume, and I painted a child-sized refrigerator box. While smearing paint on my PJs, I learned some curious facts:

  • Play is any non-competitive activity in which you lose yourself, while losing a sense of time.
  • Play is pointless. You enjoy it so much, you can do it without a goal.
  • Physical play is crucial to children's development of empathy.
  • In a study by the National Institute for Play, none of the murderers interviewed had ever engaged in play.
So I saw, as I taught dramatic arts with Ramona and Tracy, that the children were certainly playing -- inventing rhythms, creating skits, rolling from on-stage fireplaces, leaping from on-stage windows, designing a group dance.

But was I playing?

I quickly glanced at the clock. Wow! Where had the time gone?

I had no idea. I'd been playing.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fur in the Flood

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

You probably know my number. If you watch WDAY in Fargo, you certainly do.

When Kris Kitko told the media:

Foster homes are needed for animals in the floods --

We had no idea our number would be famous. But it scrolled across the screen at a regular clip.

Here in Bismarck-Mandan, KFYR announced it all day long.

What I learned...

1) Over 50 people offered shelter and help in the Bismarck area.
2) More than 70 people offered shelter and help in the Fargo region.
3) Sometimes it seemed like those 120 people were calling all at once.
4) We got zip, zero, zilch, nada, not a single prank phone call.
5) If you happen to be a mouse, rabbit, rat, hamster, gerbil, ferret, guinea pig, bird, lizard, snake, iguana, llama, cow, horse, mule, dog, cat, fish, dragon, or special needs pet of any ilk -- and you get displaced by North Dakota floods, there just might be a spot for you.
6) There's a lot of interesting animal stories waiting to be told...

One caller offered to shelter "just about anything but a snake!"
Another said, "Snakes please!"

(By the way...did you know that garter snakes look like they're shedding their skin when they're giving birth? Then there's all this black stuff. And then -- the little darlings.)

One caller specified -- puppy if possible.
Another said an old, old, old dog would be great.

One could only take healthy pets.
Another could help with special needs pets.

Callers included a zookeeper, animal boarder, equestrians, vet techs, rescue volunteers, and more than 100 kindred spirits.

A few callers said, "We can also house people."

Since Kris started "Fur in the Flood," lots of people have asked me, "How many animals have you rescued?"

Part of me wants to regale you with stories of knee-high waters -- rabbits in my arms, birds on my shoulders, and herds of horses splashing close behind me.

The truth:

"Fur in the Flood" is a simple emergency measure. If dikes break, sandbags don't hold, Humane Societies run out of room, police departments can no longer help, and family and friends have no more space -- "Fur in the Flood" is there.

Though I check for news of floods each day -- I'm hoping I won't get to be a hero.

Monday, March 23, 2009

True Life

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

A Scene from True Life

Setting: Not quite the standard nursing-home bedroom.
One of the decorations reads, "War Is Not The Answer."

KAREN: Hello, Ferne! It's Karen.

Ferne (at nearly 100 years old) lifts her chin from her chest.


Karen improvises a weather report, giving the shapes of clouds, the progress of the birds. Soon, Karen will read to Ferne from progressive magazines. But first, they chat about peace. An idea --

KAREN: I wonder if you have any words of wisdom to pass along to the next generations of peacemakers...?

Chuckling --

FERNE: I doubt it.

After a thoughtful pause -

FERNE: I think peace has to start within oneself.

Ferne's roommate, Marilyn, makes a giggling sound. Karen turns and smiles.
Marilyn says to Karen

MARILYN: You have...real...nice...teeth.

End of Scene

Marilyn has a knack for this kind of humor.

Her impression of daytime soap operas:

"Do you love me? Yes, I love you. No, I don't love you! Is anybody dead? No, nobody's dead. But let's talk about it first!"

Not as comedic as Marilyn, Ferne's wit tends toward the profound:

"We always prepare for war, when we should prepare for peace."

I gather their words of wisdom.

And (I confess) I gather yours. For instance...

"My wish for you is to see wild horses."
Julie Huwe, peacemaker

"I'd rather sit down and talk with a pig than eat one."
William Glen Van Fossan, my grandpa

"Let your life speak."
Tim Mathern, North Dakota Senator (adapted from the Quaker saying)

“We aren't the best looking, the richest, or the smartest – but we're the ones who live here.”
Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth

"I like crocodiles!"
Student, Head Start

"I like snakes!"
Harley, my young cousin

"I eat until I'm full."
Connor, first-grade friend

"Through my moving body I discover my multiple names."
Louise M. Pare', women's spirituality author

"It's not a haircut unless you regret it. And maybe cry."
Ramona Redding Lopez, artist

"Love delights to surprise you."
Lisa Bassett, poet

Setting: True Life

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Being Brilliant

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

The motto of my life has finally appeared.

It all began (like much of my life) at the Seeds of Hope thrift store -- with Ruth Hauff, Eva Hartnett, and "Mrs. Walter Ell."

As far as I know, I've never actually met them. But at 50¢ a piece, their artwork is now on proud display in my office. They signed their work on the back (in Palmer-style script, of course), complete with Minot addresses.

How their art journeyed from the Minot City Art League to a thrift store here in Bismarck -- I can't begin to guess. But it brought me to my motto.


First, the "Celebration of Women and Their Music" in Fargo.

I saw Susan Phelan surf her upright bass, Brenda Weiler ache for her sister, Angie Stevens cast a spell of enchantment on every one of us, and Kris Kitko make us laugh our pants off.

Pants or not, I was getting closer to my motto.

Then there was today. Well, last night.

Lately, my nighttime ritual has been this:
1) Read passages from The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler.
2) Imagine myself in an ancient culture of peace and art and equality, where art by women, music by women, is everywhere and everything, the joy of life itself.
3) Cry myself to sleep. (Sometimes literally.)

Last night, as I did all this, I anticipated today -- and the adolescent girls' Creative Writing Group.

As their co-leader, what could I offer?

Respect? Yes.
My training? Sure.
But what did I hope they might learn?

The girls wrote powerful pieces today, bravely giving them voice. And I was able, at last, to say these words:

We do not try to be brilliant. We try to be authentic.
In being authentic, we are brilliant.

My new motto.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Great Turning: From American Empire to...Drag Show?

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

It was at a Drag Show, of all things. My introduction to Professor Hal Bertilson's peace ideology came at a Drag Show. I didn't actually spot Professor Bertilson in the Drag Show aisles (or on stage in a sequined dress). But on Sunday morning, as I listened to him speak (in tweed coat and trousers) at the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, I kept sensing the connection. What did Saturday's Drag Show have to do with Sunday morning's service? That's what I intended to figure out!

A Drag Show, as you probably know, often features both Drag Queens and Drag Kings. Generally, Drag Queens are men who dress and entertain in an exaggerated womanly fashion. I'm told that the term "Drag Queen" comes from early-20th-century English slang, where "Drag" meant clothes and "Queen" referred to the affected royalty of the performers. By extension, a Drag King is usually a woman who dresses and performs in exaggerated manly (kingly) fashion. Saturday night's Drag Show in Bismarck offered an array of North Dakota Kings and Queens, lip-syncing, dancing, and displaying on the Civic Center stage.

That was Saturday night.

Fast forward to Sunday morning and Hal Bertilson. Title of his talk: The Great Turning -- Evolution of Community. His purpose: To share insights (and hear ours) about transforming our Empire into an Earth-Based Community. Quite a big topic. (Almost as big as Miss Janessa's hair on Saturday night.)

A special guest from the University of Wisconsin-Superior, Professor Hal Bertilson has studied and taught Peace Psychology for much of his career. A quote from Hal:

"One of the tenets of Peace Psychology is that there is both Direct Violence and Structural Violence. Structural Violence includes conditions where people do not have adequate food or shelter, inadequate health care, degradation of the environment, and the hierarchical domination by a few in a society of the many -- something that Riane Eisler in the Chalice and the Blade...calls Domination and David Korten, in his recent books, calls Empire."

Like David Korten, whose work Hal Bertilson teaches, Hal believes that we, as members of Earth's most recent Empire, can indeed turn away from Empire toward true Community. And we must. As the economy, the environment, the supply of natural resources, all face potential disaster -- the lifestyle of the Empire, the culture of over-use and under-responsibility, must be changed.

We can "build a culture of love and peace rather than hate and fear," he says. "We are living in the Empire where life is hostile and competitive, power is loved, the masculine is dominant, and order is imposed via a dominator hierarchy. We have a choice. We can choose instead Earth Community where life is supportive and cooperative. Humans have many possibilities. Order is imposed through partnership. We cooperate, love life, defend the rights of all, and ensure gender balance."

Hal mentions the work of Riane Eisler, who has shown that people co-existed in peace-loving, Earth-loving cultures for many millennia. Surely Earth Community is within our reach as human beings.

But what's stopping us? How do we interrupt our own intentions? Hal sees mega-corporations, perhaps more than any other entity, as purveyors of the unsustainable Empire.

His recommendation for Wall Street? Let it collapse.

"Spending trillions of dollars trying to fix Wall Street is a fool’s errand," says Hal. Let us build our economy at the local level. "Our economic system has failed in every dimension: Financial, environmental, and social."

He quotes from David Korten:

"Our hope lies not with the Wall Street phantom wealth machine, but rather the real world economy of Main Street, where people engage in the production and exchange of real goods and services to meet the real needs of their children, families, and communities, and where they have a natural interest in maintaining the health and vitality of their natural environment."

So what can we do? According to Hal, David Korten "offers concrete suggestions for people in community working together for...a 'political turning.' A move toward local, human-scale enterprises, by entrepreneurs who are members of the community in which they live, who care about their communities. Local food production. Open political processes. Citizen participation. Direct election -- one person, one vote. Open debates. And so much more..."

That's quite a list of recommendations.

Still, Hal didn't mention Drag Shows. If we'd had a little more time, maybe he would have.

Since last weekend, I'm convinced that Drag Shows can model peacemaking in our world.

Jonathan Schell, Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute, writes about peacemaking all the time. In a recent article, he discusses the combined crises of the economy, environment, nuclear weapon stockpiles, and others. "All the crises display one...common feature," he says. "All have been based on the wholesale manufacture of delusions. The operative word here is 'bubble.' A bubble, in the stock market or anywhere, is a real-world construct based on fantasies. When the fantasy collapses, the construct collapses, and people are hurt."

So here's what I love about North Dakota Drag Shows:

Bubbles collapse all over the place. The bubble in which women look like "women." The bubble where men act "manly." The bubble that separates local folk from the glitzy, sparkling wealthy, our modern-day royalty. The bubble that says only famous equals good.

Before our very eyes, Drag Shows toy with deception. They call our own delusions, as members of this Empire, into question. In so doing, they surprise us, and they delight us. Sometimes, they make us laugh. As we watch performers playing with the bubbles of our Empire, we find that we can live without our delusions.

Here's what I love the most:

It's fun.

When we turn away from Empire, it doesn't have to hurt.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Women's Lobby Day" or "Is It Time for You to Run for the ND Legislature?"

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

I probably never mentioned this, but my career in politics started early.

At age 16, I found myself in Springfield, Illinois, a member of the "38th Session of the Illinois Youth Legislature." We deliberated in the chambers of the real, live capitol, which, as we said at the time, was totally awesome!

The first (and only) bill I ever cosponsored would have (had it passed) created a committee in each school to evaluate the competency of high school teachers. I had hoped that the next generation would get a fair shake at a good education.

Apparently, I'd had enough of the chemistry teacher who named the two smartest boys on Day One and henceforth ignored the rest of us -- as well as the history teacher who blithely joked that Amendments 18 and 19, Prohibition and Women's Suffrage, were just one mistake after another.

Sadly, my high school foray into politics (not to mention chemistry and history) was less than rewarding. But I never quite gave it up. As an occasional lobbyist and forever activist, I've been called everything from sinful to anti-American to a "kook" -- by legislators themselves.

For the above reasons and more, I loved Women's Lobby Day, or Women Empowered Rise, which the ND Women's Network sponsored this Wednesday. The North Dakota capitol felt like home to me that day. I could just about taste the urgency and the hope, a potent combination.

Eight Joys of Women's Lobby Day:

1) Being one of over 100 eager women crowding the halls of the capitol.

2) Hearing women legislators urge all 100+ of us to run for office.

3) Getting newsflashes about bills to better our lives.

4) Listening to Kris Kitko's rousing rendition of "Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves."

5) Chatting with hungry legislators in the lunch line.

6) Sitting on the Senate floor as a special guest.

7) Sharing smiles with both Republican and Democratic legislators, whom I hadn't seen since last session.

8) Being the official photographer of the day -- and having license to put my nose in other people's business.

Half as Many Heartbreaks:

1) Feeling dismissed by my legislator when bending his ear.

2) Hearing the Senate's prayer of the day, in which the guest Pastor praised the North Dakota Senate for being "conservative" and "Bible-believing," and then asserted that in our time, "the consequences of sin" no longer appear to be what they should be.

3) Watching Senator Tim Mathern's bill -- to provide health insurance to 100% of North Dakota's children -- die on the floor of the Senate.

4) Seeing a woman legislator do her part to kill it.

The death of this bill, and the process by which it died, would have shocked me more at age 16 than it did this past Wednesday.

But I can't help believing the next generation will get a fair shake -- one of these days.

Monday, February 2, 2009

On a Scale of 1 to 10, I Give "Milk" a 100

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

The only reason I'm not watching Milk right now -- it's not currently playing in Bismarck. As my brother said, "This is the kind of movie you wait for." Someday, someone may try to convince me that Sean Penn is not Harvey Milk II, but I will never believe it.

In college, my friend Shashi had a certain fondness for Harvey Milk, but it took me until now to catch on. In addition to inspiring my favorite movie on earth, Harvey Milk's life also inspired a documentary (which Shashi brought to our college), a book, and even an opera.

Some curious facts about Harvey Milk:

1) He began his work for social justice when he was...
A. In his 40s.
B. In love.
C. A camera-shop owner in San Francisco.
D. All of the above.

2) During his career, he...
A. Joined the service.
B. Worked at an insurance company.
C. Served as the first out gay man elected to public office in the U.S.
D. All of the above.

3) He gained prominence in San Francisco by speaking out against...
A. The anti-union stance of Coors Beer.
B. Dog poop.
C. Proposition 6, which would fire all gay and lesbian teachers in California -- as well as any teacher who supported them.
D. All of the above.

4) As a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk received...
A. Death threats.
B. Come-ons.
C. The loyalty and respect of thousands.
D. All of the above.

5) True or False. Harvey Milk often compared politics to theater.

See you at the theater! Or maybe at the legislative session...

(Oh. And the answers... Everything's true.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Teenage Strangers

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

If you've never been called a b**ch by random, teenage strangers, you don't know what you're missing.

Naturally, I was minding my own business when the whole thing took place.

Location: Corner of 16th Street and Avenue F in Bismarck, ND.
Time: Not long after the local high school let out.
Temperature: Zero degrees Fahrenheit, not including windchill.
My activity: Standing on the curb, waiting to cross the street.
My wardrobe: Suitable for Zero degrees.

Have you pieced it all together?

It took me a while to piece anything together. When the guys yelled out their SUV window, "Nice scarf, B**ch!" I was shocked. Furious. Vengeful. Thirsty for their blood.

What I wasn't -- was clever.

My own teenage years did nothing to prepare me for scarf-related harassment. What's a witty comeback for “Nice scarf”?

Takes one to know one! OR At least I know how to use it! aren't going to cut it.

Then, of course, there's the “B**ch” part. I considered an obscene gesture. But my fingers got it all jumbled up with the hand sign for Peace.

Anyway, as you might imagine, the whole thing raised my temperature quite a bit. I barely needed a scarf anymore.

Even a nice one like this.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Who's Back There... (or The Meaning of Life)

© 2009 Karen Van Fossan

Ever have an encounter that revealed the meaning of life -- or at least put your own life into perspective? Here's mine:

I'm walking through a parking lot in Boulder, Colorado. Ahead, I spot a van -- a 60s-style van, painted in pastels, back end covered in bumper stickers. The van is in my path, in the direction I'm already going, so I head that way. Come to find out, the van won't move. The passenger leans on her open door, trying to walk the van forward.

Then, all of a sudden, a tidy-looking sedan pulls up. A tidy-looking woman gets out. She doesn't say a word. She just steps to the rear of the van. And she pushes. Together, the three of us push. Nothing.

So -- out pops the driver. She pushes at the front, leaning on her open door. The driver says to the passenger, "We can do it. We are strong women!" We keep pushing. We push some more. And can you believe? We get that van moving. All four of us, working together.

But as soon as we're done, the driver and the passenger jump up into their seats. Ready to go. They never tell us thanks. They never even wave. Then I understand -- Never once, this whole time, did they ever turn around. They never knew we were helping them. They never knew there were two strong women at the rear. What I'm trying to say is...

I'm saying a person can never be sure who's back there.