Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Walking the Walk


The Dayton Dropout Center was an alternative high school for young people who’d dropped out of the public school system, but still wanted to work for a diploma. On Saturday, I explained that sixty of these sixty-one students were African Americans. Five of the seven teachers were also African American. Only Denny and I were Caucasian, and we two caused a brief uproar among the other teachers.
            Denny had been at Woodstock, and his view of the prevailing culture was even more jaded than mine. Both of us were somewhat aligned with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s—he, much more than I. Denny never spoke of his background, but I assumed, because of things he said and his casual approach to money, that he was of the upper class. I’d come from a working-class background, and had little money, but I surely was part of the prevailing white culture.


Woodstock Poster for the 1969 gathering.

            I’d been involved in the Vietnam War protest; I wasn’t married, nor did I have children; and I’d been a Roman Catholic nun. So my concerns differed somewhat from many other women.
            Denny was a Jewish man of fierce intelligence who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Like myself, he felt that much of what happened in Washington, D.C., the Pentagon, and Vietnam was accomplished by foolish men whose value systems had gone astray. They’d lost their way.


The peace symbol created in Great Britain.

            The students valued Denny’s opinion because he seemed so confident in himself and his views. He seemed to simply know the answer to any problem a student presented. Moreover, his wit was dry and sometimes acerbic. The students, to use a word I seldom use, adored him.
            The dropout center opened its doors to students in late November 1971. By March, Denny and I both felt that the school’s goal was misguided. Its founder wanted to help African American students enter the middle class of the dominant culture. Denny and I both considered this white culture to be shallow and materialistic. Despite that, we’d done our part to fulfill the school’s goal. Yet both of us were beginning to balk.
            We wanted the students to embrace their own culture. Motown records had made people everywhere aware of the richness of the Black culture. Moreover, universities around the country were  establishing Black Studies programs that explored the contributions of black writers, musicians, athletes, scientists, and entrepreneurs to American society.


J. C. Penney, Jr., who established the J. C. Penney department stores in 1902.

            Denny and I wanted the students to reject the dominant culture, just as we’d rejected it—or so we thought. One afternoon we seven teachers sat down together in a spare classroom to discuss what seemed like a dilemma to Denny and me. The two of us explained where we were coming from. Then the conversation went something like this.
            “You’ve got it all wrong,” the teachers told the two of us.
            “Why should anyone want to be part of this culture? It stinks!” Denny and I countered.
            “The two of you are well intentioned. A bit idealistic, though. You’re part of the culture you’re putting down.”
            “We’re opting out.”
            “Just how are you doing that? You both live in white neighborhoods. You shop in any store you want. You don’t worry about the police following you down streets when you drive around town. You both have bank accounts. You’re both highly educated in predominately white universities. Tell us—just how have you dropped out?”
            “But we didn’t choose that. We were born into it. Now we’re rejecting it.”
            “Doesn’t look like that. You haven’t rented a room in the inner city and tried to shop at the grocery stores there. You don’t frequent the stores in this neighborhood. You drive away from this school each day and into your side of town—with its clean stores and advantages. You talk the talk. But you don’t walk the walk.
            Silence.
            “The truth is you’re asking these children to reject what they’ve never had.”
            Silence.
            “You can’t reject what you’ve never had. You need to have it first.”
            “But it’s not worth having.”
            “You say that because you have it. These students need to taste the good life. Only then will they know both lives and only then can they choose—with knowledge and experience—to reject one or the other. Or to somehow embrace both.”
            Silence and then, “That makes sense.”
            Denny and I returned to the classroom. We both continued to help the students prepare themselves to become part of white neighborhoods and businesses—to become welcomed additions to the dominant culture.
            What we also did was to teach them all we could about the richness of their own culture. I used black poetry, short stories, and novels and encouraged the students to use these to write about their own lives. Denny taught American history with an emphasis on the contributions of African Americans.


Zora Neale Hurston, a noted author of the Harlem Renaissance,
whose most famous work is Their Eyes Watching God.

            Today, I know that my fellow teachers were right in their assessment of Denny and metwo young, white idealists who tried to tell our fellow black teachers how to teach and what to value. Our hubris knew no bounds. Both of us were articulate; we could “talk the talk” with ease. As Mary Turpie, the professor at the University of Minnesota, said about people like us—we could “b---s---.”
            But I never “walked the walk.” I still live in an all-white neighborhood. All my friends are white. I feel no apprehension when I go into stores. No fear that the security guards will follow me around. I’ve even stopped protesting injustice. What happens to us? Do we just wear out? Or do we give up? And when I say “us,” I mean “me.”
            In a recent posting, Penny, of lifeonthecutoff, said she’d “lost her bounce.” I have, too, and I don’t know where to find it.

All photographs from Wikipedia.
            

53 comments:

  1. Please don't worry about running out of steam. You put your heart, soul, intelligence, and more into learning about black culture, understanding the language, and then teaching what you learned to black young people. I perhaps walked the walk more and put myself on the line, the danger line more, but I wasn't smart about it, the way you were. I was just so angry.

    And now I'm tired too. And I think it is OK. I think young people need to step up. I think that's what young people are for. We did what we could when we could.

    I admire you greatly and I know that many of those kids never forgot you or what they learned from you.

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    1. Dear Inger, . . . I'm not so sure I was "smart about it" and that you weren't. We just had different opportunities. And yes, I was angry also, but at the time, I didn't know how to handle anger an so I suppressed it. Only later did my body rebel at this suppression.

      The comments on this posting have made me realize that it is time for other, younger people to "step up." I guess what I need to do now is encourage them to do so.

      Peace.

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  2. We are no longer the people we once were, the idealism has faded. I think life kicks that out of you. As we fight the fight, we find that justice will never be for all. The human race has been looking for this since time began, and yet, here we are, 200,000 years later, and fairness is not the norm. Idealism is for the young, it keeps some things in check and makes us to aspire to a more perfect world.

    Dee, you made life better for many, you did the deed, you put yourself out there for others. Now, as we grow older and our stamina is no longer the same, the best thing we can do is to encourage others to pick up the sword of compassion and justice and carry on.

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    1. Dear Arleen, . . . Please see the second paragraph I wrote to Inger above. I am seeing from reading all that you and others have said in your comments, that what I can do today is exactly what you say so well: "encourage others to pick up the sword of compassion and justice and carry on." Thank you for these wise words.

      Peace.

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  3. I understand what you are saying here. I have often wondered what became of my idealism also. The 60's were times of great idealism. I think that changed many things for the good. You were a part of that. That is something to be proud of.

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    1. Dear Sally, . . . Yes, the sixties were a time of "great idealism" among so many of us who were young then. I still sing the songs of that time. Hearing one can take me back decades. Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad that I was born in the time and place I was. I'm glad that opportunities came my way to work for peace and justice.

      Peace.

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  4. Even though you were indeed idealistic, you also had no choice about the life you were born into. You educated yourself, were open to new ideas, and are flexible even today. It's a lot like being in love, to me: you can't see hearts and flowers all the time when you are in a mature relationship. It's changed, but we are still making a difference. I know YOU are, every day, with this blog. We've grown up and need to find where our efforts should be placed today. Aren't you helping to do that very thing with this post?

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    1. Dear DJan, . . . I'm astonished that you feel I'm making a difference with this blog. That makes me feel so heartened. So good. So content with the day. Thanks for helping me step back and get some perspective. Please note what Arleen says in the second comment on this page. I think she's right about what we who are older can and must do today.

      Peace.

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  5. Awesome blog :) Following

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    1. Dear Baur, . . . thank you for reading and commenting on this posting and for signing up as a follower. That's my gift for today!

      Peace.

      Delete
  6. Oh, Dee, you haven't lost your bounce. Now you're teaching young people about the injustices of the past, and the injustices many still face. Your blog is your bounce, and your memoir will be. Many young people are taking over the fight: Look at Teach for America. And thank you for teaching students about Hurston. Remember her heroine in Eyes is Janie. She's a role model for me.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Dear Janie, . . . Both you and DJan in an earlier comment are assuring me that this blog is my "bounce." How wonderful to hear that. And to get the encourage about my memoir also. It's giving me problems, but I don't know just what to include.

      Yes, you are a real Janie!

      Peace.

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    2. Telling me I'm a real Janie is the nicest compliment I've gotten in forever.

      Delete
  7. You my friend can do anything you want to do. You need a purpose, to that I will agree. However you are a long way from losing your steam. Any student be they white or black or even purple would have been lucky to have you as their teacher.
    If we were men and football players I'd slap you on the rump and say with a loud booming (and obnoxious) voice
    Get back out there Dee Ready!

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    1. Dear Melynda, . . . I can feel that "slap on the rump" and hear the voice telling me to get out there! And I guess, from what DJan and Janie say in their comments, I am out there by writing postings for this blog twice a week. Later this month I'll return to growing up or to the convent postings. So I wonder if they will have the same appeal. We'll see.

      Peace.

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  8. We all change....sometimes without realising it but you are an amazing person and admire you very much.

    Yvonne.

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    1. Dear Yvonne, . . . I know what you say is true. We do all change. I guess what has happened for me is that in doing all these postings about when I was young and idealistic, I'm realizing that I do little now. But DJan and Janie above both tell me that this blog is my way now of speaking out. So be it! Thank you for your kind words.

      Peace.

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  9. Here we are, Dee, bounceless. I think these times when we feel adrift are the times we find, once out of them, that we have grown. At least I hope so.

    I do believe that your and Denny's efforts, however idealistic they may have been, helped your colleagues and validated their cause and concerns. Doing the best we can when we can is far better than doing nothing.

    I happened to catch a very interesting panel discussion this past weekend on C Span, Dee. It included Ruby Dee, Alice Walker, and the moderator was related to Zora Neale Hurston. I think it was her niece. You can go to

    www.booktv.org/Program/13343/Panel+discussion+of+Zora+Neale+Hurstons+Their+Eyes+Were+Watching+God.aspx

    There is a box on the right that you can click onto to hear the discussion online if you don't get C-Span. There is also information there on when it will air again.

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    1. Dear Penny, . . . Thanks for sharing the site with me about the panel discussion. I'll try to go there this evening. Today I want to devote myself to paying bills and looking at blogs. I haven't managed to catch up since starting again on May 1.

      I so like what you said about doing the best we can being "far better than doing nothing." That's what I've tried to do--my best.

      Peace.

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  10. You can bounce a ball for just so long, & then you need to rest, even though you'd like to keep bouncing it. Let the kids bounce it now--it's their turn! AND you've taught so many of them how it's done!!!

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    1. Dear Fran, . . . You and others--see Inger and Arleen above--have said that the "kids" can bounce the ball now. Thanks for that. I need to remember it. Right after leaving the convent I saw a psychiatrist in Dayton for several months of 1967. One day I came in and said I wanted to join the Peace Corps. He asked why. I said that I've been given so much that I wanted to give back. He looked at me steadily for several moments and then said, "Dee, you've done a lot in the convent for others. Why don't you give other people a chance now. Let them join the Peace Corps and you just relax for a while." So--people have been telling me this all my life! It's time I listened.

      Peace.

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  11. I don't see where you've lost your bounce at all. I am so enjoying reading your memoirs. It helps ignite things in my memory I recall seeing on tv when I was very young in the late 60's and/or hearing adults talk about. I didn't think I still held that long ago information.

    You are still a part of doing something good, the first being in sharing these wonderful memories.

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    1. Dear Shelly, . . . thank you for agreeing with DJan and Janie that I'm doing good by sharing my memories in this blog. Soon I'll begin to write again about the convent and growing up. I hope those memories will also "ignite things" in your memory and do good.

      Peace.

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  12. Attending a church in our small city's area with the most homeless people is the way I'm "walking" these days, but I didn't seek out this church for its neighborhood. It has been both a good and a difficult gift. I appreciate what you did back when, Dee, and I'm hoping to be some small part of helping where I can today.

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    1. Dear Deanna, . . . Thank you for your words of understanding. I so applaud you in what you are doing today to bring peace and justice to our world.

      Peace.

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  13. But you are still one fabulous consciousness-raiser, Dee. I don't know the answer for anyone but myself, but I move through seasons in my life where I have the "bounce" to DO more, but even in my non-peak times I'm still me, carrying my values and beliefs forward, and sharing what I have when I can. I doubt very much you are are turning your back on opportunities, you are simply not as active in the "fight against" and more in the "support and enlighten" stage right now. I hope you won't underestimate your impact!

    You are so caring. Thank you for asking about my dad. He is recovering from pneumonia, in the hospital and I think will be well soon. It's been hard to see him struggle, but as a family we are good at working together, so the stress has been lightened. Thank you so much for asking. Debra

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    1. Dear Debra, . . . I so appreciate your distinction between the 'fight against" stage of life and the "support and enlighten" stage. That makes such sense to me. Thank you for helping put all this--my life really--in perspective.

      I'm glad, also, to learn that your dad is better. When those we love are ill, we realize very forcefully I think that we are One.

      Peace.

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  14. Dee, this post worries me. You have not lost your bounce at all. It is a more considered bounce and you may not bounce as high, but it is there. If you saw blatant injustice on the street would you walk away? Could you walk away? No, I didn't think so.
    Each post from you shows a little more of your innate 'goodness' for want of a better word. And each of your small steps as a teacher (not least here) is still rippling in the pond of life.
    What would you say to a friend who felt that they had lost their bounce/purpose? Please sit down and tell yourself those things now, knowing that we are at your back.

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    1. Dear EC, . . . please don't worry. All is well. The comments that you and others have sent have put this whole thing in perspective. Debra, in the comment before yours, talked about stages of life. She said that I'm in the "support and enlighten" stage. What wonderfully helpful words.

      And yes, role playing what I'd say to a friend is so helpful. Thank you for cutting through all the haze and mist I was feeling.

      Peace.

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  15. "Bounce"? You are far and beyond "bounce", my friend! You have become someone with far more to offer than something as fleeting as "bounce"! Your words and wisdom from your "bounce" years are probably even more important and far reaching. You still hold your idealism dear to your heart and it shines like an incandescent light throughout your being, like a silent prayer.

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    1. Dear Broad, . . . oh, your words are so heartening. They make me so grateful for my life and its opportunities and my mother who taught me so much and so well and all my friends. I am blessed by those who raised me and educated me and befriended me. And I count you as one of my friends. I'm sending you a "bouncy" belief that you will get your British citizenship soon!

      Peace.

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  16. Probably the most dangerous thing in idealism or any belief is rigidity. You managed to stay firm in your idealism but were flexible enough to see the merits of that other teacher's points. Open minds are such a blessing.
    I agree, it is now time to trust those you taught to take up the banner.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, . . . In DJan's comment she also mentioned flexibility. I have been blessed with an open mind--that's true. Thank you for reminding me of that.

      Peace.

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  17. You've still got your bounce, Dee, but with the seasoning of time and the wisdom of maturity. I agree with Arkansas Patti that rigidity is the greatest danger in our thinking. It reminds me of a book project that a long-time friend of mine had. Envisioning a collection of interviews with a wide variety of people on women in a changing society, she interviewed me and about a dozen others back in 1972. Rejected by numerous publishers, it was relegated to a desk drawer all these years until she retired from teacher two years ago and decided to self-publish it without any updates. I questioned doing this and suggested that she re-interview all the subjects she could but she insisted that the material "held up well." When she sent me the finished project, I was aghast to see my 40-year-old interview. It was a virtual time capsule. It isn't that I totally disagree with any of my major points back then, but I tended to zero in on things that I now see as less consequential than other, broader issues. I hadn't realized how much I had grown until I heard my own younger voice on those pages. So don't beat yourself up, Dee, because you have mellowed or become less adamant. You used your youthful idealism so well -- and share your wisdom so wonderfully today.

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    1. Dear Kathy, . . . I so like the phrase you used-- "seasoning of time and the wisdom of maturity." Thank you. And thanks, too, for sharing the story of your friend and the book project. Some of the writing I've done is twenty years old and I find myself pulling it out of the desk and also viewing it on the computer and realizing that I now write better than I did then. And that I need to polish with my new skills. All of that takes time, but producing the best words we can is important.

      Peace.

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  18. I don't think you have "lost your bounce". I think you have more perspective about the bounce, and can express it so well in your writing. I don't bounce at all well, but I sure can think and write about it.

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    1. Dear Susan, . . . yes! and that's what I want to do--"think and write" just as you do. So now I am a woman of "perspective"--just what I've always wanted to be. Thank you.

      Peace.

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  19. For me I always just try to keep doing something a hobby or something keeps me busy and happy.

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    1. Dear Baur, . . . the truth is that I am busy and happy. I just wonder if I need to be doing more for what I believe in. Life brings changes and I'm still adjusting to being older than I used to be.

      Peace.

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  20. You have great insight - a very valuable asset and from what I read in the press, a rare commodity in the US. Your colleagues and students are very lucky.

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    1. Thank you for saying I have "great insight," but often I both think and feel as if much eludes me. Life is such a mystery.

      Peace.

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  21. I'm asking similar questions of myself. What I keep "hearing" is that I'm doing exactly what I should be doing, which is just staying present to the beauty of the world, be aware, but don't engage in the anger that seems to prevail in much of what is passing for protest. Quiet peacefulness in one's own life is often the greatest contribution to peace and justice. Be For those things that matter and bring joy.

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    1. Dear Teresa, . . . your wise advice means a lot to me. I know that often peace seems to slip away from my consciousness, and I feel jangled, unsure. But I know also that trying to live in the moment, to be present to the moment is the important thing. And that if I stand in that moment and trust, all shall be well. And I agree with you that doing so will be my contribution today to peace and justice.

      Peace.

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  22. Dear Dee,
    What is bounce? Bounce is OK for a ball or if you're made of rubber but for a human, it's flaky. You're up and down and all over the place and can never settle down into accomplishing anything.

    Your soul has been around a long, long time and you've been many colors and lived in many situations. Isn't that enough bounce? While we are in this incarnation, let's accept the life we have chosen and bring honor to it through the grace of God. Or to put it another way, on the next big bounce, we may not be as fortunate.

    Just because we haven't lit our hair on fire, doesn't mean we haven't created a glow in this lifetime. :)

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    1. Dear Manzanita, . . . Yes, I guess it is enough bounce! Like you, I do believe in reincarnation and that I've lived before--and well may live again. And so I shall try to trust that this life is the one I chose and honor it. Such words of wisdom from you.

      I love your last line, Manzanita! It is so filled with the exuberance you bring to life.

      Peace.

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  23. From where I sit you seem pretty active to me Dee. Slowing down is simply part of the greater plan.
    Less bounce and more ponder.
    be well and happy :)

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    1. Dear Pam, . . . I'm going to remember these wise words: "Less bounce and more ponder." I can do that.

      Peace.

      Delete
  24. Hi Dee - so glad to have a morning with wifi before we hit the road so I could come over and read you and talk with you. This post is so moving. The last lines struck at my heart. I think, my friend, that you regain your bounce by telling these amazing stories, this personal glimpse into a person's history within the context of a turbulent time. I'm fascinated by your stories and your willingness to share not just the events but your hindsight feelings about them is priceless. Please weave these into a book. We're off on our way to Charleston, God willing we'll be there on Sunday. xoxo

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  25. Dear Melissa, . . . thank you for the encouragement to write a memoir that could be published. I do plan on doing that although the crux of the matter is that I'm not sure exactly what would be in the memoir. There's enough matter for stories about "these turbulent times." But also there's not enough just about the convent. So I'm not sure how much of my life would be included. We'll see.

    Peace.

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  26. Dee, what you are doing in this blog, revisiting your younger self and looking at the times she lived through and the issues which mattered to her then, is a work of both idealism and action. As we mature and age, so does our outlook, but there is no way you have lost your fierce passion for justice and love for people, especially the underprivileged.

    But those teachers were right - you can only reject what you know and I believe you and Denny did your best to give those students the tools to make their own judgement on the world in which they lived.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, . . . When those other teachers at the dropout center said that--about being able to reject something only if we'd known it--Denny and I could immediately see the truth of their statement. I do so hope that the teaching we did helped those students. My posting for today will show that I didn't stay around to find out. I was always on the move.

      Peace.

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  27. That was an interesting memory for you to share, and very honest. I think the world right now is pulling in two different directions; much of the good you started back then is in the air. The main thing is to have compassion, and you have plenty. So you're doing well, in my opinion.

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    1. Dear Amy, . . . What do you think the two different directions are? I'd be interested in learning your views. I do think that compassion is right up there at the top of the list of the qualities that are essential to being a fulfilled human being.

      Peace.

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