Posts Tagged ‘journey’

Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.

― Jack Kerouac

Inspired by a photo exhibition I recently viewed called The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip at the Detroit Institute of Arts (based on a book by Aperture with a fuller array of photos on the same theme) I will now sketch my Open Road experiences, hoping later to flesh this out more fully as perhaps a photographic memoir.

First however, I should nod a thanks to Jack Kerouac and his revolutionary, and for me highly affecting book, On the Road. I read it when well into my 30s, with family in Maine, camping for much of the summer. I recall reading it while riding in our car to Branch Lake. The book was old and decrepit. So as I finished a page I tossed it out the window, heedless of environmental consequences, but I thought then, as pages flew like autumn leaves, a fitting reflection on the ephemerality I detected as a subtheme of the novel.

When a youth during the depression unable to find work in his hometown of Dubuque Iowa, Fran, my dad, hopped a freight train and landed in Chicago. No doubt he influenced me to, as soon as possible, join the Open Road, even tho at that moment I was yet unborn.

I attempted a similar vagabond trip—my first real road trip— when, at the age of about 4, I decided to run away from my pleasant, safe, comfortable, relatively loving Southside home in Chicago. I gathered a few things, probably candy bars and pop (and toilet paper), into a large hankie or bandana, and tied it to a stick. I threw the contraption over my shoulder and set out. I made it to the local school, Caldwell Elementary, about two blocks from my home, and quickly returned.


Skip Schiel, age 4, 1945


Skip Schiel in his First Communion suit, age 7, 1946


Skip Schiel with Tom Rinkach (L), age 11, 1952 c.

While at Boy Scout camp in Michigan, my buddy, Kruli, and I ditched the program to make an all day hike. Without permission we left before breakfast, returned after dinner, and carried with us only brownies that my mom had sent me—and that crucial toilet paper.

Between my junior and senior high school years, my dad and I canoed Boundary Waters along the Minnesota-Canada border. I felt responsible for him, even tho I was only 17 years old. Until that trip I’d resisted the idea of attending college. Since my father was a salesman (a traveling salesman at that, eventually in charge of a large Midwest region, warranting many road trips for him) and sometimes very persuasive, I expected he would urge me—incessantly as he’d done before—to attend college, make something of myself, utilize my interests and possible gifts in engineering to become an electronic engineer. During that entire ten-day journey, he never raised the topic.

I decided to attend college. Long bouts of paddling, lugging our canoe over portages, making camp, and cooking together might have softened his outlook about me, developing his trust that I’d make the correct decision.


Frank (Fran) J. Schiel, 1958, Boundary Waters, Minnesota-Canada, photo by Skip Schiel

Fran and my mother, Pearl, with my sister Elaine when she was old enough, every summer drove long distances for vacations—West Coast to San Francisco, East Coast to Maine. Dad photographed; eventually I took over, probably reluctantly. Mainly he (because I refuse such setups) created endless images of Pearl in front of some scene or historic marker.

Easter, 1953, Chicago

Frank Schiel, Elaine (sister), Pearl, Chicago’s Southside, 1954 c. photo by Skip Schiel (probably)

My big road trip break was in the summer of 1959. I’d just graduated Arlington Heights High School in a Chicago suburb, felt a strong urge to “go west, young man, go west,” and boarded the Union Pacific train to Utah where I thought I might find summer work, possibly on a ranch. Shortening that story (which could constitute one chapter—or even the entire memoir) I ended up working the balloon dart and bingo games with a carnival that paired with rodeos traveling thru Colorado and Wyoming—the summer of my big rupture from family.

During term breaks at Iowa State University I would often not return home (long distance, 300 miles) but instead hitchhike around the Midwest, with camera, with curiosity, producing numerous slide shows that predictably bored all the neighbors and family I could persuade to watch.


Skip Schiel in Cimarron, Arlington Heights, IL, 1960 c.

Still at Iowa State, I bought my first vehicle, a Ford pickup truck that I named Cimarron (after a western movie), and let it cart me around to places distant and exotic, like the Black Hills. Amidst wandering defecating, fornicating buffalo, sacred to the Lakota Sioux, I camped, I photographed.

My first international road trip was to Romania in 1977, the year my father died. As an instructor of filmmaking at Boston College, I’d received a scholarship to attend a program in Cluj Romania, in the heart of the Transylvanian Alps, as an introduction to Romania. It was skilled propaganda during the era of the tyrant, Nicolae Ceaușescu, designed to generate positive impressions of this then communist and iconoclastic country. Altho by now I’d identified as a photographer and movie maker I decided not to bring equipment for this first, for me monumental, road trip. Instead, I’d observe, observe as purely and contemplatively as I could. For this decision I am forever grateful. When to not photograph is a skill difficult to develop.

With my wife Lynn and our two daughters, we bought a black VW bug and drove it each summer, Katy and Joey stuffed in the back seat, luggage hurtling from the roof top carrier, back to Chicago and Racine Wisconsin to visit grandparents. I photographed along the way.


Joey, Skip, Katy (left to right), Watertown Massachusetts, 2009

For three months in 1979, one year after Pearl’s death, two years after Fran’s, I visited Nepal and my sister Elaine and her husband Bob, studying Buddhism with a lama at the Swayambhu monastery. I made numerous road journeys, including one with a guide to Helambu, the foothills of the Himalayas. Lots of mountain walking then.

I should add the many mountain hikes with family and my former partner Louise over a long period of time—White Mountains, Green Mountains, Sierra Nevada, etc. Don’t they constitute travel along the open road, a very open and winding road?


Skip & Louise, White Mountains, 2002 c.

In 1982, a pivotal year for me, I drove across the Great Plains alone and discovered American Indians.


Rosebud Reservation, 1983

Which led to 1983 when I bused the same route at the end of winter, and took up residence on the Rosebud Indian reservation, hosted by Jesuits. I lived and photographed there for one month.

(In this report I do not constrain myself to car-based road trips only, but include other modes of transport, soon to be foot and plane, never boat or ship, surprising because of my love of water-borne transport.)

In 1988, the first of my many Alaskan journeys (roughly every 3 years) I walked solo the Chilkoot Gold Rush Trail. Since then I’ve made other Alaskan exploits, alone and with my Juneau family.

In the summer of 1989 my newly discovered mate, Louise, and I flew across the country to visit her family. Followed in the summer of 1990 by a car trip across that same continent to meet my family. With stops in Chicago for cousins Karen and Bob and aunt Anna Mae and uncle Spike, Rockport for cousin Ginger, Dubuque for uncle Eldon, Napa California for her mother and father, Elizabeth and David, and Juneau for Elaine and Bob. Returning, we stopped at Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and learned about the upcoming Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee that winter. We decided to raise money for the Ride generally and to ourselves participate as support people.


Elaine, sister (L), and Louise

In early 1990, with Frank Gatti and Tom Sander, I explored South Africa on behalf of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, mostly by car but also for short trips on foot. Circumventing restrictions from apartheid we had reasonably free range of the country.

In Dec 1990, Louise and I boarded the train for Denver, rented a 4-wheel drive SUV to help as support people and participated for 2 weeks on the frigid plains. We camped out some nights, stayed in school gymnasiums on others. Louise walked the final day with Buddhist walkers into the Wounded Knee Massacre site for our final ceremonies, Wiping the Tears and Mending the Sacred Hoop. Here she met Jun-San, a nun of the Japanese Buddhist order, Nipponzan Myohoji, that would lead inexorably to more road trips we shared—almost entirely by foot.


Morning circle, Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990, photo by Skip Schiel


Big Foot Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990, photo by Skip Schiel


Lakota lands, South Dakota, 1990, photo by Skip Schiel

In 1995 I joined the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2 from a Japanese perspective. We walked (mostly, also used bus, train, and plane) thru Poland, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Running out of money in Hungary after about 4 months, I returned home to raise more money (with help from Louise and daughter Katy) and incidentally joined the Turtle Island pilgrimage that Jun-San, one of the Buddhist nuns, had organized to support native rights. We walked from Plymouth Massachusetts, around Lake Ontario, to New York City, to learn the story of Peacemaker (the founder of the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy). Staying on reservations and reserves (in Canada), walking thru the Hudson River Valley in the spring, we finally arrived at a major conference in NYC about violence. We walked some 1000 miles in about 3 months.


Auschwitz main gate, December 1998, photo by Skip Schiel


Croatian women, Lipic Croatia, former Yugoslavia, 1995, photo by Skip Schiel


Boy with peace crane, Cambodia, 1995, photo by Skip Schiel

At the end of that long walk I returned to the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage and walked from Thailand to Japan, thru Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The journey of a lifetime—until the next one.

Then in 1998 on the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage I and many others, mostly European Americans, African-Americans, and Japanese walked from Leverett Massachusetts, down the coast to Savannah Georgia, thru the deep south to New Orleans. I left that pilgrimage for one of my own, first driving thru the Mississippi Delta to Chicago and across to Leverett in Western Massachusetts, and then by train back south for 4 months of pro bono photography to groups we’d met during the Middle Passage Pilgrimage.


From the book, The Middle Passage: White Ships/ Black Cargo, by Tom Feelings


Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, Ingrid Askew, co-founder & co-director, 1998, photo by Skip Schiel


Gulf Coast, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1998, photo by Skip Schiel

In 1999 I rejoined the pilgrimage in South Africa and remained there for 4 months doing photography.


Robben Island, South Africa, Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, 1999

Subsequently (and earlier), driven mainly by Louise’s enthusiasm, she and I joined Nipponzan Myohoji for various walks: to and around Walden Pond in Massachusetts; in 1992, commemorating the Columbian quincentenary in a counter cultural manner, Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to Reno Nevada; numerous Walk for a New Spring journeys thru Boston and environs; and the Hiroshima Flame Walk in DC (which was mostly Louise because by now my enthusiasm for such long walks had waned and Palestine-Israel had taken over).


Louise, 1995 c., photo by Skip Schiel

And currently Palestine-Israel and Detroit. In Detroit I bike around the sprawling city. In Palestine-Israel for short periods I rent a car and have traveled the entire length and breadth of that small (by United States standards) region, mainly by bus and shared taxi—Negev Desert, Galilee, Golan Heights, and the Israeli coast, also Gaza, by foot and rides with friends.

by mark, 2003

Skip Schiel in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, 2003, photo by Mark Daoud


Pre-wedding party, Gaza, 2013, photo by Skip Schiel


Johnny Price, Detroit, 2011 c., photo by Skip Schiel

Ghost Bike, with my folding bike in the background

Ghost Bike, marking a bicyclist’s death, Schiel’s folding bike in the background, Detroit, 2016, photo by Skip Schiel

Later I may add various other photographic tours I’ve made in the United States while touring with my Palestine-Israel presentations, especially south as far as Florida by train and bus, Chicago by train and car, and the West Coast, California to Alaska, by airplane, train and car. At each location I prod myself to walk, often to photograph.

When will I reach the end of my road? And how will the end manifest? Who if anyone might emerge as a solid travel partner or am I fated to walk this path alone (probably, most unlikely that current close friends will ever join me). In addition, my peers and I are aging.

I conclude this little foray into my road trips with two quotes, one by the illustrious peripatetic poet, Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, the other by what might have been a fellow walker but this was not to happen, my former wife (or simply my former as we call each other), Lynn.

I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.

I am large, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me…

—Walt Whitman

And from Lynn, her inscription in Whitman’s, Leaves of Grass, that she gave me shortly after we’d met.








The Open Road: Photography and the American Road Trip (at the Detroit Institute of Arts, summer 2016)

The book the exhibition is based on, by the same title

My photos

“And you will be carried where you do not wish to go” in 8 parts, part one

Auschwitz to Hiroshima: A Pilgrimage, 1995

On Turtle Island, A Pilgrimage, 1995

My account specifically about my Open Road experiences in the troubled lands of Palestine and Israel:

The Palestine-Israel Kaleidoscope, a memoir-part 1

The Palestine-Israel Kaleidoscope, a memoir-part 2

And my most recent writing and photography from Detroit (as of posting this blog)

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The city of Hiroshima Japan, August 1995

The Hiroshima Dome, one of the few buildings that survived the atomic attack on August 6, 1945 and the creation of the Peace Park

Peace Crane, in the tradition of the young Japanese girl, Sadako, irradiated, surviving the initial blast, folding cranes to protect children from death, finally succumbing to her injuries

Lotus blossom, Hiroshima Peace Park, August 6, 1995, the lotus is a Buddhist symbol of compassion and enlightenment

©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)

For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

…resistance as spectacle has cut loose from its origins in genuine civil disobedience and is becoming more symbolic than real. Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are fun and vital, but alone they are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe.

—Arundhati Roy

Rosa Parks arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr on his way to the Birmingham Alabama jail, 1958. Photo by Charles Moore

Dorothy Day arrested and jailed at age 75  protesting with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers supporting grape workers in California. Age 20 she was arrested with a group of suffragists who were demonstrating at the White House in favor of giving women the right to vote. Photo by Bob Fitch

John Pendleton arrested at the Pentagon for blockading the doors, Slaughter of the Innocents action to end war, 1980 c.

Puppet of Oscar Romaro by Bread & Puppet Theater, 1992 c.

Now Jesus from the gospel of Luke. Then about Hiroshima, the conclusion of this series.

Now as He drew near, He saw the city (Jerusalem) and wept over it. Saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side. And level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it.

—Luke, 19: 41-45

One of the fathers of atomic weaponry, Robert Oppenheimer, said while watching the desert explosion of the first bomb, blasphemously named Trinity,

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of worlds.

He was quoting the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text.

As most of us realize, today [August 6, 2005, the day I delivered this keynote] is the 60th anniversary of the United State bombing Hiroshima, killing some 140,000 people outright, mostly civilians, innocents, and another 40,000 or so in the following year. Three days later this nation dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing upwards of 70,000 people. More than one-third million cremated bodies are enshrined in the Hiroshima Peace Park sanctuary. This follows the vicious fire bombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, and Dresden and other German cities. We must commemorate this particular atrocity—this series of horrific terroristic attacks on innocent people— and look deeply at its horror, grieve for the victims which include citizens of our own country who might persist in not only denying the reality of the event, but professing a willingness to develop and use weapons of mass destruction. We must understand their motivation, rationale, and actions and their consequences—and take appropriate action. Yearly Meeting’s Peace and Social Concerns Committee and I invite you into this commemoration following my presentation. Which is very simple. Look deeply into your own hearts to disclose what happened, what you and we can learn from it, and what next steps we shall all take, individually and collectively to move toward a better world.

From Unforgettable Fire, Pictures Drawn by Atomic Bomb Survivors, Edited by Nippon Hoso Shuppan Kyokai, 1977

We are not helpless in the face of possible catastrophe, but we must all understand the picture, and move toward changing it. We could join the Mayors for Peace campaign initiated by the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It now numbers some 60 US mayors, including the mayor of Cambridge. Or we could encourage our legislators to reverse the drift toward war, partly by demanding that the US join most of the enlightened global community by ratifying various treaties and agreements that work toward abolishing war. Or we could reflect on and retell the story of Sadako, five years old when bombed in Hiroshima, using the Japanese origami tradition of paper cranes to call for no more killing, no war, let children ripen into wise adults. Or we could remain a few more minutes together in a joint effort to remember some of our past and commit to move toward a better world.

Sadako Sasaki Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima, August 6, 1995

This week at New England Yearly Meeting sessions our observance of the atomic bombing can take several forms: drawing shadows on the ground to mark the lives of those whose lives ended in shadows on pavement and walls, the intense light carving memory into concrete; a photo exhibit and videos and other materials; a petition; a candle light procession to the Bryant campus pond [the site of our sessions and this keynote], and finally that all important profound silence. Perhaps during the silence you can each commit to one action this coming year that will move our nation toward a higher civilization, one truly honoring the sacred in all beings by burying the weapons of war and living in peace based on justice.

Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist monks praying at the Hiroshima Dome, the end of a 9 month pilgrimage for peace and life, 1994-1995

This end image is from the first edition of John Hersey’s revealing book, Hiroshima, first published in 1948 in the New Yorker, then, with this illustration, two years later by Bantam. I quote from the book about the illustration:

When Geoffrey Biggs, a master of shadow and light technique in art, brought in his startling illustration for the cover of Hiroshima, everybody wanted to know: “Where’d you get those people…why those two?”

Biggs said he thought back to that August morning in a certain big industrial city and he imagined how universally terrifying that situation was, how it could strike fear into anybody’s bones. “And I just drew two perfectly ordinary people—like you and me—and had them portray alarm, anxiety, and yet wild hope for survival as they run from man-made disaster in a big city—a city like yours or mine.

So, let the quiet begin here and flow out thru the doors into the world, first the near world of Byrant College, then the larger world, not a silence of resignation, despair, heartlessness, but a powerful silence of resilience, fortitude, wisdom and compassion, out from our comfortable benches and into the needy world.



Sadako Sasaki

Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage, 1995

Hiroshima Peace Park

Flotilla to Gaza, May 2010

From the American Friends Service Committee:

Gaza in Crisis (PDF) – A fact sheet that includes a general overview of the conflict.

Gaza Resources (PDF) – A useful collection of films, blogs and other online resources.

Speaker Resources (PDF) – Listing of seakers knowledgeable on topics and issues surrounding Gaza.

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Dr Martin Luther King Jr

©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)

For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

—Theodore Roethke, from “In a Dark Time”

Early Christians

These early Quaker luminaries, Margaret Fell, George Fox, the Valiant Sixty, and Mary Dyer were carried by the strength of their beliefs, by the closeness of their community, and by their repeated use of the model of early Christians, who themselves, before Constantine institutionalized the budding Christian movement, were equally willing to witness. Indeed, the word martyr stems from the Greek word for witness. Those martyrs were numerous, numbering some 2000 who died during the persecution that arose around St Stephen’s time. Their suffering was legion, manifold, endlessly varied and often unspeakably horrific.

Beheading John the Baptist

Apparently this included all of the gospel writers: Matthew, slain with a halberd (like a long hatchet with a steel spike) in the city of Nadabah, CE 60; Mark, dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria; Luke, hanged on an olive tree in Greece; also John, the author of Revelations, boiled in oil only to survive; and Paul, once Saul, dying in the first persecution, under Nero, his neck severed by a sword. And finally Peter, to whom Jesus offered the lesson of “and you will be carried,” Peter apparently was crucified in Rome by Nero, choosing to hang upside down because he said, “I am unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.” (History of Early Christian Martyrs, European Institute of Protestant Studies)

This is dedication. Not to the degree most of us might personally undertake, but worth considering. Can change occur, true witness be presented, without risk, without courage, without a testimony that says, here I stand, this is what I stand for, and I shall not be moved?

What carried these early martyrs? What was their direction?

Jesus Christ

For some of us in the Religious Society of Friends and the wider United States community, Christ is bedrock, surely for early Friends and early Christians. We can interpret his life and its aftermath in many ways, most onerously—and I believe wrongly—as anti-Jewish and anti-Judaism. Read James Carroll’s massive book, Constantine’s Sword, for explication, or the seminal book by Rosemary Radford Ruether, Faith and Fratricide, or from our own Alan Kohrman, his pithy booklet, Quakers and Jews. Christ died in part for challenging the authorities, the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities. He spoke out. He acted, and like Martin and Malcolm, he had premonitions of his own death. He was not deterred, he might have been emboldened by this threat. He was free to die, therefore free to live. He knew what he stood for and what the costs would be. In my book, he is a hero and a role model and a guide, arguably divine or maybe not, but certainly courageous and sagacious and prophetic.

Jesus with the woman accused of adultery

Archbishop Oscar Romero

I believe in resurrection, in the idea of resurrection, not necessarily bodily resurrection, but pedagogical resurrection. The teachings live on, or can. Here’s an example: Oscar Romero, knowing what might happen if he continued to oppose the military government of El Salvador, said, If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.

This last part is crucial, in the Salvadoran people. Romero will not live again magically, but only with the participation of the people. That is you and me. What carried him? What carries me? What carries you?

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador

I dream of Martin Luther King

While working in South Africa in 1999, I dreamt of Martin Luther King coming to me. I was back on the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, we were in our stay place for the night, a church somewhere in the south of the US. We’d eaten, we pilgrims were sitting around on benches and at tables. In walked Martin, he sat down at an empty table and no one came to join or welcome him. So I did, nervously. I sat opposite him, said in a quavering voice, thank you for coming to visit with us Dr. King. Can I bring you some tea?

He nodded yes.

I returned with the tea, set it down in front of him, my hand shaking. I worried I’d spill the tea on his papers. He was to talk to us. And that is how the dream ended, but only the sleep part ended. I awoke as if from a nightmare, and horrifying it was in its implications. Like profound dreams generally, this one carried into semi-consciousness. I lay there, thinking, Martin has appeared to me, as if tapping me on the shoulder, and whispering in my ear, “Skip, my friend, I’m dead, but you’re alive, it’s your turn.”

My turn to walk the talk, do the deed, take the risk. Martin—remember I am a born again Kingian—both commands me and holds me. He directs me and he supports me.

He’s reported to have said, Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. And those with nothing they’re willing to die for are not fit to live.

Let’s look at the last year of his life. He was speaking and acting against the war on Vietnam, angering many of his supporters. He chose to stand with the sanitation workers in Memphis when he might have been concentrating on organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. The Campaign itself was an attempt to shut down the federal government until it changed the system that fostered suffering. He and Malcolm were hinting at collaboration, bringing together the militant and more moderate wings of the civil rights movement. He propounded an analysis that pinpointed the roles of militarism, materialism, and racism, the triplet of our anguish. He called for a revolution of values.

On the way to the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC in 1968

I believe his analysis was correct and continues to be applicable. I believe government hands killed him—the so-called, by former vice president Dick Cheney, dark side—knowing how threatening he was. Thank god the dream is not dead, thank god for people like Boston city councilor Chuck Turner who is organizing to fund the dream. And I continue to be thankful for how Martin carries and directs me.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy and others at the Poor People’s Campaign, Washington DC, summer 1968

My role is not to organize the resistance, but to motivate and inform it. My role is not to analyze the political and social picture but to visualize its manifestations. My role is primarily to wake myself up and awaken others. Awaken, rise up from the slumber of comfort, from the ease of security, from the balm of convenience. Awaken to a life that is free to live, because free to die. To a fuller life, a more robust and edgy life.

We do not need to look far for examples of living the good life: Martin, Malcolm, Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, George Fox, Margaret Fell, Mary Dyer, Frederick Douglass, Francis of Assisi, Nichirin of the Buddhist order, his student Nichadatsu Fuji , founder of Nipponzan Myohoji, Gandhi, Thoreau, Dorothy Day, Rachel Corrie, the list is endless. We can each be, in the words of the South African author and activist, Alan Paton, humble apostolic successors, joining the cloud of witnesses, our lives teaching others how they might live.

Or closer to home we can look to the war tax resistance of people like Susan Furry and others in our New England yearly meeting. They see the folly of praying for peace while paying for war. They refuse to give their tax money to the government and instead usually put the money in an escrow fund the proceeds of which fund socially beneficent organizations. The agencies they and other dissidents and witnessers work for, such as Friends Meeting at Cambridge, New England Yearly Meeting, Cambridge Friends School, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting all have to decide whether to accede to the demands of the Internal Revenue Service or live by the principle of our founder, the good Rabbi Yeshua: honor life, do to others what you wish them to do to you.

I honor political and social witness—sharing the suffering of the afflicted and fighting for justice and peace. As someone pithily put it: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This may not be for everyone but it is important and a prime example of what I’m trying to express: the need for courageous, possibly self sacrificial action to challenge and correct the onerous conditions smothering us.

What carries you? What is your direction? How will you—in community—rise up?


Christian martyrs

Oscar Romero

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, April 1967

The Poor People’s Campaign

War tax resistance/redirection

US Social Forum, June 22-26, 2010, Detroit Michigan

Allied Media Conference, June 17-20, Detroit Michigan

Free Gaza Movement, a flotilla leaving in May 2010 for Gaza with humanitarian supplies and personnel—to break the siege

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To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

—Arundhati Roy

©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)

For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

Mary Dyer

While exploring this idea of risky journeys, I discovered Mary Dyer, giving her life willingly for the right to practice Quakerism in the stultifying air of puritan New England. She insisted on the right of all to follow their inner lights. She rejected oaths of any kinds, taught that gender had no bearing on the gift of prophesy, and fought for equal rights for women and men in worship and church organization. Her statue in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston honors her witness, paradoxically as is often true, bringing truth to bear at the site of a great mistake.

Dyer’s words ring true today, even tho immersed in that period’s locutions, from her:

Once more the General Court, assembled in Boston, speaks Mary Dyar, even as before: My life is not accepted, neither availeth me, in comparison of the lives and liberty of the truth and servants of the living god, for which in the bowels of love and meekness I sought you; yet nevertheless, with wicked hands have you put two of them [other Quakers] to death, which makes me to feel, that the mercies of the wicked is cruelty.

From an early illustration

Early Friends—often labeled “blasphemous heretics”—suffered many punishments for practicing their faith: fines and jail time, ears cut off, tongues bored, whipping, and finally hanging.

A particularly vivid description from a contemporary student and admirer of Mary Dyer, Sam Behling:

Capt John Webb signaled to Edward Wanton, officer of the gallows, who adjusted the noose. Mary needed no assistance in mounting the scaffold and a small smile lighted her face. Pastor Wilson had his large handkerchief ready to place over her head so no one would have to see that look of rapture twisted to distortion—only the dangling body. As her neck snapped, the crowd stood paralyzed in the silence of death until a spring breeze lifted her limp skirt and set it to billowing. “She hangs there as a flag for others to take example by,” remarked an unsympathetic bystander. That was indeed Mary Dyer’s intention—to be an example, a “witness” in the Quaker sense, for freedom of conscience.

And her purported last words:

Nay, I came to keep bloodguiltiness from you, desireing you to repeal the unrighteous and unjust law made against the innocent servants of the Lord. Nay, man, I am not now to repent.

Defiant to the end, Mary Dyer died because she supported—and this is true support, going beyond mere words, more than that sometimes lame Quakerese phrase “hold you in the light” conveys—Ann Hutchinson who was excommunicated by the Puritan church for her Quakerly convictions. At the risk of her own death, Dyer  had reentered the Boston region, primarily to uphold other imprisoned Quakers and to oppose laws restricting freedom of religion.

As Quakers we have many examples of lives given willingly as evidence of conviction, of living fully the testimonies of our tradition.

Mary Dyer statue in front of Massachusetts State House, Boston

George Fox

Another example—many can be drawn from early Quakers, and this might be one of our problems, that we come to believe that once done, always done. We have our cloud of witnesses, that’s done and finished, now I can rest on their achievements, a peculiarly seductive attitude that might account for some of what I believe is contemporary Quaker quietism. Another example I’ll bring to you is one of our founders, George Fox. He was one of the Valiant Sixty, which included his wife. Here he writes about an incident in Tickhill:

When Friends were in the meeting, and fresh and full of the life and power of God, I was moved to go out of the meeting to the steeple house…So I went up to them and began to speak; but they immediately fell upon me; and the clerk up with his Bible, as I was speaking, and struck me on the face with it so that it gushed out with blood, and I bled exceedingly in the steeple house Then the people cried: ‘Let us have him out of the church!” and when they had got me out, they beat me sore with books, fists, and sticks, and threw me down and over a hedge into a close, and there beat me and threw me over again…After a while I got into the meeting again amongst Friends, and the priest and the people coming by the house, I went forth with Friends into the yard, and there I spake to the priest and people…My spirit was revived again by the power of God, for…I was almost mazed [bewildered] and my body sore bruised but by the power of the Lord I was refreshed again, to him be the glory.

Fox’s Journal, chapter 3, 1651-52

One view of how Fox may have appeared

Quoting The Missing Cross to Purity:

In the time of the restored King Charles II alone, 13,562 Quakers were imprisoned; 338 died from injuries inflicted in meetings or imprisonment, and 198 were sent into slavery over the seas. Under all the kings, Besse’s Sufferings counts 869 Quakers who died in prison. They were viciously persecuted by Independent Calvinist Puritans [Congregationalists], Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians. Per Fox’s Journal: “Friends never feared their acts, prisons, jails, houses of correction, banishment, nor seizure of personal property; no, nor the loss of life itself; nor was there ever any persecution that came, but we saw how it would result in good; nor were there ever any prisons that I was in, or sufferings, except it was for the bringing multitudes out of prison; though they who imprisoned the truth, and quenched the spirit in themselves, would imprison and quench it without them; so that there was a time when so many were in prison, that it became as a by-word, ‘truth is scarce any where to be found but in jails.'”

A more likely appearance

Bunhill Fields Quaker Burial Ground next to Bunhill Fields Meeting House, photo by Mark Barker

Margaret Fell

And his wife, Margaret Fell, writes to King Charles in 1666:

And now I may say unto thee, For which of these things hast thou kept me in Prison three long Winters, in a place not fit for People to lie in; sometime for Wind, and Storm, and Rain, and sometime for Smoke; so that it is much that I am alive, but that the Power and Goodness of God hat been with me. I was kept a Year and Seven Months in this Prison, before I was suffered to see the House that was mine, or Children or Family, except they came to me over two dangerous Sands in the Cold Winter, when they came with much danger of their Lives…And in all this I am very well satisfied; and praises the Lord, who counts me worthy to suffer for his sake.

—Hidden in Plain Sight, Quaker Women’s Writings, 1650-1700

A contemporary observer, Richard Baxter, no friend of the Friends, wrote:

Abundance of them died in prison, and yet they continued their assemblies still—yea many turned Quaker because the Quakers kept their meeting openly and went to prison for it cheerfully.

Home of Margaret Fell and George Fox and early meeting house of Friends

The Valiant Sixty

The Valiant Sixty—a small portion of the estimated one thousand—suffered many years in prison, loss of wealth, illness and death. To what was their witness, and what carried them? They believed in equality, truth, and nonviolence, and walked their talk by not doffing their hats to so called betters or addressing them with the language of deference of the time. If in business, they expected to receive the prices they asked for, not engaging in haggling. They were intensely concerned with the disadvantaged, including slaves, prisoners, and inmates of asylums. Later, they advocated for abolition of slavery and bettering prison conditions. In fact, we can credit them with solitary confinement, thought initially to be an opportunity to reflect on one’s life, to seek and find and offer penance, hence the word penitentiary.

They refused participation in the military, they did not pay tithes to established churches, in short, they lived what they believed was a life true to the teachings of their key mentor, Jesus Christ. For this they willingly, even joyfully at times, suffered.

They not only suffered, but they preached, they outreached, they went into the streets and proclaimed their truths. And they suffered, their suffering becoming part of their testimony. During the second half of the 17th century, over 3000 Quakers were incarcerated in English jails and prisons, many hundreds died there. Oh, where are the Valiant Sixty among us now?

And today?

All this historic heroism puts me in mind of Bil’in, a small village near Ramallah in Occupied Palestine. I’ve joined the villagers and others to defy the Israel occupation army. It protects the Separation Fence which denies farmers access to their land. At the risk of imprisonment or death, courageous Palestinians advocate for their basic human rights. May my Quaker colleagues (and others) join me and put to the lie a sometimes heard claim about contemporary Quakers: quick to stand to be counted, equally quick to sit down to not be noticed.



Bil’in, resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine

Mary Dyer

George Fox

Margaret Fell

The Valiant Sixty

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©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)

For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

John Woolman

An early friend I met at Cambridge meeting—a meeting known by some for being frequently frosty to newcomers—was John Woolman. I read Brother Woolman with relish, quickly discovered his account of nearly dying, how it provided the seed ground for his transformation. He put it this way:

In a time of sickness, a little more than two years and a half ago, I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass of matter of a dull gloomy color between the south and the east, and was informed that this mass was human beings in as great misery as they could be, and live, and that I was mixed with them, and that henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. In this state I remained several hours. I then heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious that any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, “John Woolman is dead.”…

[Then carried in spirit to mines where people suffered because of Christians, awakening the next morning, he said:]

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in men. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Then the mystery was opened and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead,” meant no more than the death of my own will.

—Woolman’s journal, “John Woolman is dead,” 1769, p 214

This experience came relatively late in his life, in 1769. He was 49 years old, and had only 3 more years to live. But it is telling, one among many of his turns of heart that as I read them in the chilly Cambridge friends’ atmosphere, warmed my heart and penetrated my fog. I might not use his language, nor carry all of his beliefs, but the fundamental message of dying to one’s past and awakening to one’s reality is true for me.

Woolman’s travels to Indian country

Later I learned about his travels to Indian country, the frontier, not far from his home in New Jersey. Here’s what he wrote in his journal:

Love was the first motion, and thence a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they lived in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might be in any degree helped forward by my following the leading of truth among them, and as it pleased the Lord to make way for my going at a time when the troubles of war were increasing, and when, by reason of much wet weather, traveling was more difficult than usual at that season, I looked upon it as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.

—Woolman’s journal, Love is the first motion, to the Wehaloosing Indians on the River Susquehanna, 1761, p 142

“Troubles of war were increasing…much wet weather…traveling more difficult that usual at that season…” His response: “I looked upon it as a more favorable opportunity to season my mind, and to bring me into a nearer sympathy with them.”

Wounded Knee

Growing up in Chicago, I had a dim awareness of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Being who I was, subject to societal pressures and inclining toward delinquency, whenever considering Indians I sided with the white guys. Playing cowboys and Indians, I chose the cowboy role. My parents liked to take long car trips during summer vacations; one brought us to the Badlands. I knew the Badlands were connected with Wounded Knee, and for the first time considered the hardships endured by the Lakota Sioux in 1890 just before being massacred. Some had fled to the Badlands and tried to survive there during the blizzard conditions.

Mr. Kills-in-Water, Rosebud reservation, South Dakota, 1984

Margery Jumping-Eagle, Rosebud reservation, 1983

Rosebud reservation, 1984

Badlands, South Dakota

Wounded Knee Valley, Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota, December 1990

Bigfoot Memorial Ride to Wounded Knee, December 1990

In high school, I read more about the events surrounding the Indian-white wars and slowly shifted my perspective. But it was only in 1983, going to the Great Plains myself, initially to be confronted with the flatness and intense light of that region—a challenge for my photography—that I suddenly discovered the depths of that suffering. I explored the Badlands, I was ineluctably drawn to the valley of Wounded Knee, I camped overnight nearby, unable to sleep in the valley itself because of what I sensed was the great evil perpetrated there less than one century earlier. In 1990, exactly one century after the massacre, I returned with over 300 Native people to commemorate that event: “wipe the tears” and “mend the sacred hoop,” in the words of the organizers, end the period of mourning and begin rebuilding the Lakota nation. Wounded Knee inspired and taught me to place myself in the body of another, to empathize, to exhibit compassion. And to attempt to depict thru photography some of that experience.

I could overcome my fear as I entered the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota, largely because of having faced my mother’s death just 5 years earlier. Another gift that even she could not anticipate. I was also learning from John Woolman.

The Southside of Chicago

This was part of my breakthru year, not only this trip to Wounded Knee which led to returns for photo projects, but thanks to my then 12 year old very daring daughter, Katy, returning to my childhood home on Chicago’s South Side. When we lived there it was all white. Black people were moving into what I regarded as “our” neighborhood. Gang fights and fire bombings ensued. My family, ignobly, was the first to flee, the first to engage in white flight. The year: 1955. Also the year of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, the year of the murder of the young Emmett Till, exactly my age and also from Chicago, and the year of the Freedom Charter in South Africa. A pivotal year, the import of which I’m slowly realizing. But in 1983, nearly 20 years after we’d fled to a Chicago suburb, I returned to my childhood home, overcoming my fears about entering my old neighborhood, required to share it with people of color. This led directly to my photo project with the Chicago Fellowship of Friends (CFF), who were located in one of the most notorious zones of Chicago, Cabrini Green. Not only CFF but my work on anti racism generally sprang from this breakthru year, including serving on New England Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Racial, Social, and Economic Justice, co-editing our publication The Freedom and Justice Crier, and my home meeting’s Friends for Racial Justice committee, which itself was also an outgrowth of my first trip to South Africa.

Cabrini Green, Chicago

Charlotte Thomas and daughter, members of the Chicago Fellowship of Friends, Cabrini Green

East 86th Street, Chicago’s Southside, 1990 c.

My home at 1648 East 86th Street, 1992 c.

In my old Southside neighborhood



The Journal of John Woolman

Wounded Knee

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©All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)


For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

The earth is defiled by its people;
they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
and broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
its people must bear their guilt.

—Isaiah 24

Now let me try to apply this teaching from the gospel of John [about being carried where one does not wish to go], and the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Art Gish, Rachel Corrie to my life. At various stages of my life, what carried me and what was my direction? And most importantly what is the context for this life?

Skip, The Bad Boy

From the age of about three I was Skip, The Bad Boy, a delinquent, easily prone to a life of criminality. At three, I ran away from home, not for long, and not far geographically, but out of the house I fled. At five, I organized a crew of young peers to break every window in a neighborhood church, finally caught and made to pay restitution from my glass piggy bank. During my elementary school years, the principal, the dreaded Mrs. Rylands, every term, called my mother to the school for a conference, often threatening to send me to reform school. I was inching toward a life of crime, sometimes petty, but in later years a bit more serious. In high school, the police put me on one year of probation for driving my mother’s car without her permission and crashing it.

My mother, Pearl Schiel, a photo I made in about 1954 in our Chicago Southside home, surprising her when she walked thru the door—my early “wild mind photography”

I was Skip, The Bad Boy, succumbing to the influence of Chicago’s history of organized crime—Al Capone, the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Other elements of Chicago’s big-shouldered rough-necked history resonated within me. I also had an inexplicable native drive toward defying authority, especially if it was patriarchal, beginning with my father who could be a tyrant and, on occasion, beat me.

My truck, Cimmaron, 1960 c.

At that stage I was directed and carried by something unsavory and self destructive, but thanks to the college YMCA and YWCA programs that I joined at Iowa State University, I began to straighten out. With this turning came another pivot point, related and equally important, from a projected life as naval warrior to a person who tries to foster peace and justice thru art.

Born in 1940, one year after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, four years old when my country dropped atomic and incendiary bombs on the innocents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and other cities, I was a tender and impressionable 13-year-old when the TV series, Victory at Sea, was broadcast.

War in the Pacific

Join the US Navy

I was enthralled, I had my first message from god: join the Navy, become a Chief Petty Officer, sail, defend the country, fight and win. I vividly recall buying my first photographic book, US Navy War Photographs, edited by the illustrious Edward Steichen. He went on to design and produce the groundbreaking photo exhibit, Family of Man, equally influential to my development as a photographer and human being. Mom, Dad, I pleaded, in just 3 years, when I’m 16, I can join the Navy, but only if you give me permission. Please!

From US Navy War Photographs, edited by Edward Steichen

From The Family of Man, an exhibit by Edward Steichen

To their credit, they refused, pushed me instead into college and training to become an electronics engineer. However, I did manage to join the Naval ROTC at Iowa State University, marched, learned naval history, studied weapons, but most importantly—again thanks to the teachings of the campus YM-YW movement, where I was now a program officer—came to the following realization about my role as a naval officer: the true mission of the US military is to protect access to resources, open markets to commerce, and assure the dominance of US ideology. I will be ordered to destroy and kill for American hegemony. Not for me. Must be a better life than this, for me and for the world. But what is it?

I was adrift, anchorless, hopelessly angry and disgruntled.

Then came my mother’s gift, what was it?

Many things. Within five years, these included Buddhism, difficult journeys to places like American Indian reservations on the Great Plains and my childhood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, a shift from filmmaking into photography, meeting my future sweet heart and partner, and the discovery of a coterie of ancestral spirits including early Friends and early Christians, and most importantly, Quakerism, the theology and the practice.

I discovered Quakers

In searching for an audience for the film of my mother’s last year, Pearl Schiel, I discovered Quakers, the Religious Society of Friends. Thanks to a suggestion from Marjorie Swann, then the executive secretary of the New England regional office of the American Friends Service Committee, an act of kindness on her part, I showed my film at Friends General Conference and New England Yearly Meeting in 1980. And that autumn I found my way to Friends Meeting at Cambridge.

Pearl Schiel

This wasn’t my first contact with Friends. I’d been counseled for my conscientious objector (CO) application in 1965 by Andy Rudin at the AFSC, himself a CO doing alternative service. And before that, I saw a film called Language of Faces, which centered on a vigil the Religious Society of Friends organized in 1960 at the Pentagon. In part prompted by the 300th anniversary of the writing of the Peace Testimony, some 1000 Friends stood silently in front of the Pentagon for 2 days to witness for peace and against nuclear armaments. Impressive, but I have to ask now whether Friends are capable as a collective of organizing such a massive public event.

Quakers at the Pentagon 1960



“Poll: American voters’ support of Israel drops,” by JTA, the Global News Service of the Jewish People

“Foiling Another Palestinian ‘Peace Offensive”’: Behind the bloodbath in Gaza.” by Norman Finkelstein

“The Doomsday Weapon,” by Uri Avnery, about the report by General David Petraeus concluding that a speedy resolution of the conflicts in Palestine and Israel is in the vital interests of the United States

Read Full Post »

Dedicated to Rachel Corrie, the seven year anniversary of her killing by an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar D9 tractor on March 16, 2003, her parents now (March 7, 2010) in Israel for the opening of a court trial (details below)

© All text & photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Skip Schiel, 2004-2010

A series from my earlier writing, not always directly about Palestine-Israel, this an attempt to understand and express my journey of discovery that continues to enthrall and mystify me.

Originally written for the New England Yearly Meeting sessions (Quaker) keynote presentation on August 6, 2005 (revised February 2010)

(This version is expanded from what I presented at Bryant College in Smithfield RI.)

For the complete slide show that accompanied the original keynote presentation

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to gird your loins and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your arms, and someone else will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he [Peter] would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

—John 21: 18

Now, what’s the context for this passage? Jesus has been crucified, he’s resurrected and appeared to the unseeing apostles along the shore of the Lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee. They were failing at fishing. What great guys, these apostles, always so human, so foible-filled, so like me. He was hinting to the apostles what following Jesus meant: possible sacrifice.

The story might be apocryphal. For that matter, much of the gospels, much of holy script might be apocryphal, but the teachings are so often true. What can we learn from this passage?

In my experience, is God what carries and directs me, do I seek to learn god’s will and follow it? I have misgivings about the notion of god, especially when used to justify attitudes and behavior. Seeking the will of god is something resolutely I do not do. I’m cautioned by the following statement and by who made it:

I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator…By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.

—Adolf Hitler, from Mein Kampf

There are too many instances of the notion of god’s will gone bad, that to use this or even seek this guidance seems a fatal miscalculation. Instead, for me, I seek the still small voice—critically understood—in the context of the times and the community.

I am now an older man, 69 to be precise, and my days of self-direction are over. I do not myself independently choose to go on long pilgrimages; I do not choose to wander into zones of conflict such as Cambodia, Bosnia, American Indian country, Cabrini Green, or Israel, or Palestine, or right here on this blog, naked in front of you trying to share my life. I do not choose this mission, nor do I resist it. I am often fearful, I am usually very unclear, I hesitate and demur and find excuses. I’d rather be in bed or the library reading Kafka or watching Front Line on TV or playing with one of my grand children. I would never say, after offering you a slice of my life, go and do likewise, follow me.

Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem, 2003

What carries me, and what is my direction, perhaps my fate?

A lead comes from a person I feel might be a latter day saint, a contemporary incarnation of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, St Francis, St Nicherin of the Japanese Buddhist tradition, and George Fox and Martha Fell themselves, and especially John Woolman (the last 3 are key Quaker figures). I am speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I confess, I am a born again Martin Luther Kingian. I’ll explain that in a moment, but first, for me, one of his most important and overlooked teachings:

He said, if a person hasn’t discovered something to die for, that person is not fit to live.

When I first heard or read this passage, I was incredulous, Martin, speaking this way, so harsh, so demanding, so critical? And I checked, yes, he’d said it, or at least he’s widely quoted as saying it.

His admonition teaches the importance of living a life that is pointed, vital, full, meaningful, direct, and at risk constantly of ending because of the course of that life. Not a life content to settle into the easy chair and read a book. Or watch a video. Or even attend a demonstration or sign or circulate a petition, as important as all these can be. Or writing a letter to a congressperson, or even visiting that person. The emphasis is on fronting life directly, as Thoreau put it when explaining his excursion to Walden Pond for two years, and not dying regretting one has not fully lived.

Israeli soldier, originally from Australia, with a Quaker grandmother,
Hebron Old City, 2003

I feel that the value of living fully is timeless, but especially so today with numerous global crises so looming and clear. As Howard Zinn put it recently in a talk referring to the United States Declaration of Independence, we live in hard times, as hard as anything he’s seen. In response to possible impending catastrophe, he actually quoted from memory portions of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (sic), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

—US Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Howard Zinn (L), member of Community Change Inc, and Tim Wise

He emphasized the right of the people to alter or to abolish their government if it is not securing the guaranteed rights. In our age of galloping empire—based on the triplet Martin Luther King taught, militarism, racism, and poverty, have we the people indeed earned the right to significantly transform our political system?

Some might argue that life is always tough, always harsh and violent and full of despots and tyrants and brutality and occupation and invasion and problems for the environment and immigration and poverty and racism. But several features stand out that define the contemporary era: nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, the desecration of the environment, the rise of global corporatization, and the fact of empire. We, the citizens assembled, live in its midst, benefit from its continuance, and suffer from its egregiousness.

Art Gish, in the Hebron southern hills, living in At-Twani with the Christian Peacemakers Team

While in Palestine, photographing for the Christian Peacemakers Team in Hebron and the nearby southern hills of Hebron, I met another luminary, Art Gish. Art is in his 70s, as is his wife, Peg. Both have been frequently in Iraq and Palestine with the CPT, obviously risking their security to witness and tell their truths. Art encapsulated Martin’s words like this: free to die, then free to live. And he lives his truth, walks his talk.

In 2004 Palestinian farmers and shepherds asked CPT to set up a monitoring site in the southern Hebron hills, while their first site continued in the heart of Hebron’s Old City. Settlers neighboring the hill people—who are my neighbors?—threatened Palestinian school children as they walked past the rural settlements to and from school. The also spread poison over the land, many of their sheep and goats then could not stand and soon died. Within a few weeks, two CPT members, Chris Brown, originally from South Africa, and Kim Laherty were accompanying the children when masked settlers attacked and beat them both. The children ran away but the settlers, speaking American English, punctured Chris’ lung, broke Kim’s leg, and stole cell phones and wallets, The Israeli army then declared CPT could no longer accompany the kids, the army or police would. To this day CPT, aided by an Italian Catholic nonviolence organization, Operation Dove, keep 24-hour vigil, at some risk. Art is one of the mainstays.

Chris Brown (courtesy of Christian Peacemakers Team)

The Palestinians in At-Twani built a new health clinic, initially without building permits which are virtually impossible to acquire. At the last minute and despite threats of demolition, the Israeli authorities granted a permit—unprecedented. The people thanked CPT for their witness.

Rachel Corrie, a young woman from Washington state, tried to block a Caterpillar tractor driver from demolishing a home in Rafah, the Gaza Strip. The driver did not stop, despite Rachel wearing an orange glow vest and speaking thru a bullhorn. Her witness in 2003 and that of CPT and many other individuals and groups in Palestine and Israel inspire me. Once I am willing to die, knowing why I might die, not when and where and how—the exact conditions of one’s death can be hard to predict—I am free to live. How did I reach this state, if I am in this state?

My mother, Pearl, died

Fran and Pearl Schiel

In 1977 my father died, age 65. I’ve outlived him by 4 years. Upon retirement he assumed he had many miles to go before he slept. My mother, Pearl, died in 1978, age 63, exactly nine months after Fran. I’ve outlived her by nearly 7 years, I was with her when she died, making films at that time, and in fact making a film about her, never guessing she was about to die. My sister Elaine and I accompanied her during her dying. It was a painful death from ravaging cancer that commandeered her body. She did not die easily or peacefully. But she said to us in her last moments, Elaine, Skip, you won’t understand what I’m about to say for many years, but my death will be a gift to you both.

She never spoke like this before, as if an oracle, but she spoke true words. From her death sprang for me—as if a lotus springing up from the muck and mire of the pond—Buddhism, Quakerism, and my turning from filmmaking which was becoming fruitless to photography and my continuing witness with camera. That story of transition is for another time.

Into adulthood

The deathwatch for Pearl lasted 3 days. We then sat with her body. As she lived her last moments, I noticed her jugular vein throbbing, tried to show this in my movie. Now that she was dead, I looked at that jugular again, it was motionless. She was indeed dead, gone who knows where. But I soon discovered where I was directed—into adulthood. After the funeral home people came for her body—it was June 24th, a stormy night—I left the house and walked thru the dark wet streets of Arlington Heights Illinois. I felt for the first time in my life a full and complete adult, with all the responsibilities of adulthood, not only for my 2 young daughters, but for a wider community. Slowly, beginning with this moment when I was 38 years old, I had a daunting responsibility but I didn’t know then what it was or how to undertake it.

A second discovery from her death was that once I’d faced the reality of death it lost some of its sting. I find that fearsome matters at a distance are abstract, and my mind amplifies the threat, but when I face the trouble directly—in this case the loss of my mother, in many other cases going to places like Israel and Palestine during conflict—the fear lessens. It rarely evaporates, but it diminishes to become bearable.

Israeli bus bombed by Palestinian suicide militants (courtesy of the internet)

What doesn’t kill me strengths me

And a third discovery, first with my parents’ deaths, but recurring whenever I face danger. If I’m grounded in clarity and community support, I’m ultimately strengthened rather than weakened by adversity. Returning from the Holy Land in one piece nourishes me, builds my muscles, proves to me that if I can survive in Palestine/Israel, I can survive most any threat. As Napoleon put it, quoting Seneca, “What doesn’t kill me will strengthen me.” Witnessing is good medicine, it rejuvenates, it revitalizes, it clears the brain and body and spirit, pushes away sluggishness and prevarication, tans the body and makes it alive again, reborn and invincible. As for the individual so for the global community. The planetary body is healed, or can be, with the correct form of witness, done by enough people.

Palestinian men on their way to school, Jerusalem, 2003

Fruits of my photographic witness? As with teaching, as with making art, as with fostering children, no one knows what fruit will issue from the seed of witness. The seed never sees its own fruit. I hope to plant the seed in good soil—But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8: 15)

I and the witnessing community labor, pray, and persist.



“Call to Action: Corrie Trial in Israel, March 10-24, 2009”

“Soldiers disturb and assault B’Tselem’s video photographers in the West Bank despite army’s declaration that filming is permitted”

“Robert Fisk: Israel feels under siege. Like a victim. An underdog”

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