Monday, December 12, 2011

I Write Letters

I write letters. Always have. If I read about someone or something that moves me, and there's a way to drop a note, I do. I don't do it often, and that's probably because it takes a lot to motivate me, but when I am really moved, I am really motivated.

When I was a teenager I read in the local newspaper that a young boy had set himself on fire in protest of the Vietnam war. I had already started marching in protest of that war. I could easily identify with that boy's passion and the serious clouding of judgment that filters through a young person's heart. So, I wrote his grieving parents a letter. I wish I could remember what I said. They wrote me back a short note with soft gratitude and sadness. That note is long gone.

I write letters to people whose life's work has enlightened me in some way. There's a long list of people I wish I had finally jotted down the note I had been composing in my head for days or years. Old regrets. But once when I was in my 20s, I did write Bill Moyers after one of his brilliant TV shows. I don't know what I wanted to tell him, but I think I must have rambled on about the joys of finding someone who understood the political world the way he does. He wrote me a short note back. He was the first person who ever used the expression "six degrees of separation" to me, when he suggested that there are some who believe we are all related in some way. I loved that letter. It is long gone.

When I was an adviser to students who published the campus newspapers and poetry journals at UC Santa Cruz, Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan. He was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, a newspaper I don't read. But I felt something about that horrific murder that stirred me. Some of the students I advised were planning on careers in journalism, as did Daniel Pearl when he was a student their age. Any one of my students could end up in the midst of conflicts and wind up in the very wrong place at the very worst time. So, I wrote Daniel Pearl's parents a letter. They sent me a card with some very uplifting words about life's journeys. That card may be in a box somewhere, or not.

The other day I read that George McGovern had fallen and hit his head dangerously hard. My heart panged a bit over that news. Oh, George McGovern was a hero to me. Back in 1971 the voting age was lowered to 18, and in 1972 when I was 20, I cast my very first vote in a general election for him. I had registered to vote in southern California, when the right became mine, but by the time the elections rolled around, I had just moved to Portland, Oregon. If I remember correctly, my twin brother and I set out to hitchhike home so we could vote, but several hours on Interstate 5 with our thumbs out proved fruitless, so we headed back to the rental and made arrangements to fly home the day of the election, which we did. A thousand miles for a vote. It was worth it. So, I saw in the news article which hospital Senator McGovern was in, and I went to their website, hoping there was a way to send an electronic note, and there was. I wrote Senator McGovern this story and told him I'd go any distance to vote for him again in a heartbeat. There's been no response, but in my heart I believe he got the message.

I write letters.

But here's the reason for this recounting: Roger and I watched the documentary "If a Tree Falls" the other evening. Such an incredibly moving story about radical environmentalists making very big and dangerous mistakes in pursuit of what they ardently believe is the defense of our earth. The documentary follows one young man named Daniel McGowan. His story is very compelling, as are all stories of passions, ideas, dreams, and bad judgment. Daniel McGowan has a kind face and a loving family. He loved the forests of the Pacific Northwest. His crimes were committed in 2001, when he participated in two arson attacks in Oregon. No human beings or animals were ever physically hurt by the actions the Earth Liberation Front took. They were meticulous about that detail, but they did destroy a considerable amount of property in a six year campaign against the monied interests that destroy our forests. Well, sadly for Daniel his crimes coincided with the terrorist attacks in our country and George Bush's zealous pursuit of terrorists. Daniel was ultimately turned in by a fellow ELF member in 2005. He plead guilty and received a seven-year sentence with terrorist enhancement, which means he is in a high-security prison in Terra Haute, Indiana with excruciatingly limited outside communication. This story haunts me. I did some research and found a support page for Daniel. I joined his Facebook Supporters page. I bought a very cool teeshirt from his supporters website (maybe you'd like to buy one, as well). The website says Daniel likes to receive letters. His address is there.

You know me: I write letters.

I want to write Daniel McGowan a letter, but I am afraid. What list might I end up on, or who may come knocking on our door?

This is our world.


  1. It is a sad testament to the state of the world when people such as you have to be fearful of writing a letter. I applaud your letters, Robin, and wish I were more like you. I "think" of doing it - but seldom do. You go, girl!

  2. Interesting on your choice of letter recipients. I also voted for McGovern. One of, I think, 10 votes :). I knew he couldn't win but he was honorable. Not too many vote for honorable but losing choices these days, I suspect.

    I used to write letters; mostly though not such noble choices, they were more like to boy or girlfriends. I can hardly write long-handed anymore which is probably a shame.

    On the destruction of that movement, we had a building burned by them in a city nearby. It never made sense to me why destroying property was a good move. They rebuilt it out of less combustible materials-- with now more of a fence around it. I live in logging country; so I am fine with there being logging as an agricultural product. I just want there to also be wilderness areas protected. Anybody totally against logging should be sure and not live in wood homes ;)

    I remember some times that I felt compelled to write a letter to someone because it seemed my inner voice wouldn't let me alone. Some of them I now have to wonder what the heck was I thinking :)

    My handwriting used to be pretty. Not so much anymore

  3. I can't imagine you afraid of ending up on a list, but you've spent ten years more than I have, seeing, perhaps, what it means to end up on a list. I believe you are and will be safe because your intentions are pure, your actions are loving and non-violent. I hope you find the courage to write a letter to Daniel McGowan.

    I read a post today from my friend, Ryan Cooper, who has, with his wife (and now quite recently-born daughter), expatriated to Amsterdam. He spoke about the recent arrests in Amsterdam of people participating in the Occupy movement, and I can hear him losing hope, and it makes me sad.

    I hope Occupy is still at work underground. I fear that in order for the movement to create real change that violence is going to have to happen. I abhor violence, even though I often use violent words to express passionate feelings. It's a character flaw, the ranting I let myself get away with. It's a flaw I ought to address. On the other hand, if heads do roll at the hands of Occupy, it will be difficult to judge harshly. People are hurting. It is not right that so many are hurting while so few control decisions.

    What does Roger say? Is he concerned you would end up on a list?

    Big love to you both.

  4. I love that you write letters. And that recipients actually do respond.

    (Do you remember the hilarious book of letters by Lazlo Toth? A must read.)

    I say, write Daniel. When we stop exercises our very basic rights, that's when the assholes have won.

  5. Although I perceive you to be a much lower-key person than I, I have always thought we were alike in a myriad of ways. Perhaps it is us 1952 people, I don't know. I was a pro-peace activist in the 1970s, and I, too, write letters. It's what I do. Write that letter, Robin, write it.
    (And if you do not own, or have never owned, "The Laszlo Letters" you MUST purchase it. TaraDharma is right.)
    Big hugs. Write on!

  6. i'm sure we are already on some lists. aren't we all? i say write on. sometimes i even do it myself.

    and anyway.... which terrorists win if fear stops us from writing letters.

  7. Daniel was interviewed after the documentary was released. Here is an excerpt:
    In the movie, when describing your political awakening, you say: "I had never seen with my own eyes what kind of world we lived in. I feel like I'm in perpetual mourning and I have been from the moment that... I kind of took the blinders off and was like, 'Holy crap what the hell are we doing?'" Do you still feel this? And how do you deal with this deep sense that something is wrong in the world, now that you are in prison?

    DM: Yes, I would say I still feel this way, though ten years later, I am better able to deal with the frustration that comes with seeing the world like that. When I first got involved in activism, around 1997, I felt like I was exposed to so much, so fast. Part of this was due to where I got involved - at the (now closed) Wetlands Preserve bar, which had an extremely active environmental activism center. Each week, I learned about new injustices and due to my pragmatic nature, felt a desire to put my energy into combatting them. I still very much feel we are on a very ill conceived path but I tend to be calmer about what I see and realize that one person, by himself, cannot do everything.

    Prison, and I would say finding yourself in a legal case, has the effect of narrowing one's focus. This is a dynamic that occurs due to the need to focus on your day-to-day survival and well-being. In this environment, no matter the cordial relations you may have, you are truly on your own. Your emotional, physical, and mental well-being is your responsibility. This focus on the self inevitably changes how you deal with events occurring outside the walls. It used to frustrate me to no end that I stuck in here while my friends were out there, able to work on issues we both care deeply about. Ultimately, what I learned (and I'm not suggesting this concept works for everyone) is that you fight injustice where you are. Can I, as a prisoner of the United States, really be an active participant in outside campaigns? No, of course not - though I am more than happy to share my opinions. I have done what I can, while in prison, to counter the injustice I see. Sometimes, this means refusing to believe what I have read about a prisoner and judging him on his actions and from what I see. Other times, it's more concrete, such as soliciting the aid of various legal organizations to address the CMUs. I share what information and resources I can so people can effectively and legally fight their cases.

  8. I think you should write him even if you are afraid. If only to show how much you admire his courage.

  9. A very wonderful guy named Stimson Bullitt used to live here in Seattle. We used to see him at the climbing gym, into his late 80's. He was a very accomplished man, a lawyer, a senator, a progressive, but he said the biggest accomplishment in his life was being on Nixon's infamous enemy's list.
    Right on.

  10. I saw that documentary. Such a powerful piece.

    Interesting that you should mention two of my favorite people in a few paragraphs; George McGovern and Bill Moyers.

    I wrote to George McGovern in the mid-90s when his daughter Theresa was found dead exposure in an alley in WI. He had tried so hard to help her with her addictions but to no avail. He sent me a very touching hand-written response.

    I'm glad to find that I am not the only person around who still sends cards and letters.

  11. Sometimes it takes a thousand words to paint your picture- of how life is, how you wish it could be, how you feel. I like to write letters. For a while I was writing angry letters to the editor of the Ann Arbor News because they were teaching my children crazy detailed anatomy of sex, using words like "outercourse" which led them all to think that random bl..(I won't type that here) were a-okay but they weren't teaching them anything about relationships. Abigail pleaded with me to stop because they kept publishing them and she was getting the business at school from her teachers, so I did.

    My mother was a rabid environmentalist, as you know and she got sued for, among other things, her passionate letter writing campaign against re-opening mines and developing Lake Superior shoreline up on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan. That came close to driving them to the bankruptcy before the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy helped pay their legal fees.

    Every single Sunday afternoon my husband sits down and writes a letter to my stepfather- a man he barely knew before he went to assisted living after my mother died. They're long ramble-y letters with news about the weather and baseball, my kids- his grandchildren. He tells them what I'm up to and he usually includes some pictures of things like little lizards that sit on his desk as he writes. He never misses a week and if he's traveling on business he writes it in advance and has me mail it Monday morning so that they always arrive for Bud on Wednesday, without fail. I don't get to see them, as a rule, but my sister says they are all kept in a large binder for Bud, one that he looks through frequently. I told her I want that someday. Meanwhile, none of the rest of us write to Bud much at all. I feel ashamed about that.

    I'm with Judy. You go, girl. The world is a better place for your words.

  12. Words from the heart to political prisoners are the poetry of freedom. What a wonderful post Robin. peace, Michael on many lists. :)

  13. I agree that we are ALL on one list or another. Go ahead and write. It's your right. Just don't use the word bomb. You'll get flagged. I saw the movie on Netflix instant play. I understand his position and part of me applauds his conviction but arson isn't okay. Not cool and not funny I don't consider him a terrorist though. Never hurt humans or animals.

  14. I've been a letter writer since I could print.
    I tend to write more personally, and had pen pals all through childhood. When my favorite aunt was dying of ALS, I wrote her a lot. For me as much as for her. Since our move to the big island, letters and cards mean so much. Have learned, though, that most people don't use that method of communication much at all anymore. I love it, myself.

  15. I agree with Judy. Kind of like not being able to take pictures of water towers anymore.
    I admire your letter writing, I just wish you were better about keeping the replies.
    The Internet has corrupted that wonderful way of communicating. I have been guilty of sending e cards to hospitilized friends. Keep those hard copy, snail mail versions alive Robin. They are treasures.

  16. wow thats about all I can say, your comments are full of reasons why you should write. I would be proud to be on any list that was against my ideas. I am used to be in the minortity, I refuse to go along with the talking heads.

  17. Beautiful, beautiful post, Robin. You can see how touched people were by THEIR long and thoughtful responses.

    We are all on lists, indeed. Without a doubt, writing to Daniel will put you on a list. What you say will influence which list you end up on. Your letter will not be private.

    Under Bush, but especially under Obama, we have lost so many of our civil rights, that being on a list is much, much riskier now than any other time in our lives. Environmentalists are more hated by our government than are the Oklahoma City bombers. And now "terrorists" can be held indefinitely, without charges, for the rest of their miserable lives.

    If I thought we were in a brief, temporary slide into fascism, then maybe I could shrug it off; but I think about the fact that Richard Shindell's wife lived through the Dirty War, and the consequences of being on the wrong list suddenly don't seem so far away or exotic. It CAN happen here.

    Go ahead and write the letter if you want, bearing in mind that it will be read before it ever reaches Daniel's hand. But if you say that you aren't comfortable doing so, then no one will criticize you for not writing.

  18. Hi robin. I write letters, too, but I write more letters in my head than letters that actually get typed and sent, more's the pity.

    I've had some interesting responses, including a response from Steven Roberts after I wrote him a polite note taking issue with something he said in one of his columns. I believe he called me an idiot and perhaps something else.