Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Teaching her children well: The remarkable life of Fawzia Koofi and her fight for a better future

Fawzia Koofi / The Favored Daughter

"As you grow older you will learn about loyalty," writes Fawzia Koofi in her courageous memoir The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future. In a letter to her daughters, Shurha and Shaharzad, that precedes the chapter entitled "The War Within," Koofi says: "Loyalty to your faith, to family, to friends, to your neighbors, and to your country. In times of war our loyalty can be sorely tested."

Indeed, these are challenging times for everyone throughout much of the world. For some of us, our homelands are facing political upheavals, while others are battling through the economic reality of uncertainty. 

Our loyalty is being tested every day.

In Afghanistan, one of the world's poorest and most volatile countries, Koofi, 38, who is her country's first female Parliament Speaker and a noted activist for women's and children's rights, is currently a leading candidate for the 2014 presidential elections. Mind you, in a country where women have been struggling for generations just to achieve gender equality, a woman has never been elected president of Afghanistan.

Recently, Koofi appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spoke at Harvard Law School as part of a visit to the U.S. to drum up support for her candidacy as well as to promote her book. Immediately, after seeing Koofi's interview with Jon Stewart, I went online to put a hold on her book, and checked it out from my local public library by the weekend.

Since obtaining a copy of Koofi's book, I have not been able to put it down. It has been my reading companion at home and at work, even at the gym. It is both a highly fascinating and riveting read. And, I highly encourage anyone wanting to learn more about her life's journey ~ from being rejected at birth and left for death to becoming an author and a presidential candidate ~ or what life in Afghanistan is really like, as seen through this remarkable woman's eyes, should read Koofi's book.

In a review of The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight to Lead Afghanistan into the Future, which Koofi wrote with Nadene Ghouri, an award-winning journalist and former Al Jazeera and BBC broadcaster, the Kirkus Reviews wrote: "An affecting inside look at the making of an Afghan woman leader, in spite of the repression by traditional Islamic society and the Taliban ... With moving letters to her daughters opening each chapter, Koofi delivers an important message."

The Globe and Mail wrote: "A powerful and moving book, not just for Koofi's daughters, but for all the daughters of the world."

Indeed, Koofi's message is an important one that needs to be shared and passed along from one generation to the next. And while her letters to her two teenage daughters focus on life in Afghanistan, I think it is a message that is germane to us all no matter where in the world we reside, and it's one we can all appreciate reading and learning from.

Koofi continues in her letter to her daughters about the importance of loyalty: 
"You must be loyal to the true and good nature of your Islamic faith, helping and loving those around you even when you might feel you cannot.
 "It is important to be loyal to your family, both those alive and dead. Our bonds of family do not cease at the grave, but we must also be careful not to remember the dead at the expense of the living.
"You must be loyal to your friends, because it is the action of a true friend. And if they are true friends then they will also be loyal to you, and ready to act when you need their help.
"You must be loyal to your fellow Afghans. There are many of us and we are not all the same. But you must be able to see past those ethnic and cultural differences and remember the thing that unites us together ~ Afghanistan.
"And you must be loyal to your country. Without loyalty to our country we have nothing as a nation. We must work hard and wisely to improve our country for your children and their children."
Loyalty can be a hard lesson to learn sometimes, as Koofi has reminded us. Yet, there are few lessons more valuable.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The many lovely faces of our calla lilies

We are blessed to have beautiful flowers growing in our garden, including roses, fuchsia, rhododendrons and camellias. Every year at this time, thanks to the Bay Area's moderate winter climate, our lovely calla lilies come alive, too.

Quietly, these majestic perennial flowers go about their business of blooming on the quiet, east side of our house. As February reached its midway point last week on Valentine's Day, we had four calla lilies in bloom. By spring, that figure will quadruple. Our thriving calla lilies will be with us until the start of summer.

What we commonly know as a calla lily ~ its more formal name is zantedeschia aethiopica ~ is a species in the family Araceae, which is native to southern Africa in Lesotho, South Africa and Swaziland. In the language of Afrikaans, a calla lily is known as "varkoor" meaning pig's ear.

The calla lily is the national flower of the island nation of Saint Helena, and its showy pure white spathe and yellow spadix have been cultivated for the Easter floral trade over the past century. In Britain and Ireland, it is known as the "Easter lily" and, since the Easter uprising of 1916, it became an important symbol of Irish Republicanism.

Over the years, I have enjoyed photographing our calla lilies; each flower seems to have its own individual shape and personality. Because calla lilies can represent both happy and sad occasions, I've used my photographs of them to represent not only the purity of a wedding but also as a condolence to a friend who just lost a parent. The beauty and attractiveness of calla lilies enable them to be used both in wedding bouquets and in funeral arrangements.

The American artist Georgia O'Keeffe brought the calla lily to life through her close-up paintings of single calla lily flowers in the 1920s and 1930s that were both sensual and geometric. Well known as the "lady of the lilies," she once remarked, "What is my experience of the flower if not color?"

Indeed, the calla lilies are in bloom, again.

All photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

In St. Peter's chair: The Good, the Bad and the Holy uncertainty as 600 years of tradition is broken with resignation of Pope Benedict XVI

On Monday morning, I woke up to the stunning development that Pope Benedict XVI, the spiritual leader and world face of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church, had announced his resignation effective at the end of this month.

It is historic news which shocked the Vatican, stunned the world and broke with 600 years of tradition.

Consider this: A pope has not resigned since the Middle Ages -- the last one being Pope Gregory XII in 1415. So, it's not something we've ever witnessed in our lifetime.

Could the pope even resign? Pope is a lifetime appointment and successors are usually chosen after a pope has died, like in 2005, when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II.

"The former Joseph Ratzinger came to the highest office in the Roman Catholic church with a reputation as a challenging, conservative intellectual," wrote the London-based The Guardian on its website following Monday's announcement. "But the messages he sought to convey were all but drowned out, first by a string of controversies that were largely of his own making, and subsequently by the outcry -- particularly in Europe -- over sexual abuse of young people by Catholic clerics."

The Guardian continued: "Ratzinger had spent almost a quarter of a century in the Vatican, so it was reasonable for the cardinals who elected him to assume he understood it inside out, and would be keen to improve its workings. But, although he had been an influential and trusted lieutenant of John Paul II, the new German pope was a paradox.

"On the one hand, he was intellectually remorseless. Not for nothing had he attracted the nickname 'God's rottweiler'. Yet, like many scholars, he was timid -- wholly lacking in that desk-thumping vigour needed to foist reforms on clerics whose resistance to change is the stuff of legend."

While Pope Benedict XVI made headlines last December by being the first pope with a Twitter account, when it came time for the Holy Pontiff to deliver the news of his impending resignation, he opted for a much slower moving (and more character-filled) method of delivery. Looking frail, he delivered his resignation in that most ancient of languages originally spoken in ancient Rome, Latin.


Here is an English translation:

Dear Brothers, I have convoked you to this Consistory, not only for the three canonizations, but also to communicate to you a decision of great importance for the life of the Church. After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.
I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today's world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours, the See of Rome, the See of Saint Peter, will be vacant and a Conclave to elect the new Supreme Pontiff will have to be convoked by those whose competence it is. 
Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects. And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff. With regard to myself, I wish to also devotedly serve the Holy Church of Gold in the future through a life dedicated to prayer.

The Vatican was quick to say that Pope Benedict, 85, was not resigning because of the "difficulties in his papacy," but rather due to his health and advanced age. The news reverberated globally and was met with shock, sadness and disbelief. World leaders shared their thoughts about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

President Obama issued this statement:
"On behalf of Americans everywhere, Michelle and I wish to extend our appreciation and prayers to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. Michelle and I warmly remember our meeting with the Holy Father in 2009, and I have appreciated our work together over these last four years. The church plays a critical role in the United States and the world, and I wish the best to those who will soon gather to choose His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI's successor."
Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti: "I am greatly shaken by this unexpected news."

British Prime Minister David Cameron: "He has worked tirelessly to strengthen Britain's relations with the Holy See. His visit to Britain in 2010 is remembered with great respect and affection. He will be missed as a spiritual leader to millions."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "If the pope himself, after thorough reflection, has come to the conclusion that he doesn't have the strength anymore to carry out his duties, then this has my utmost respect. He had to make a difficult decision."

The Catholic College of Cardinals will meet in conclave at the Sistine Chapel after taking a vow of secrecy to choose Benedict's successor in the near future, after his official resignation at 8 p.m. on February 28, according to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman.

"Before Easter, we will have the new pope," Father Lombardi said. The start of the Catholic Church's Lenten season begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. Easter Sunday is March 31.

While Benedict won't be involved in the decision to elect a new pope, according to Father Lombardi, his influence will be felt. After all, Benedict appointed 67 of the 118 cardinals who will make the decision. It takes at least two-thirds plus one of the 118 voting cardinals to elect a new leader for the church.

There is no obvious successor, but the leadership of the Catholic Church has a unique opportunity -- a chance for a rebirth -- when they meet to select a new leader. Will it come from outside the usual Italian/western European mold? I hope so. This is a great opportunity for both inclusion and to select someone who is much younger than Benedict.

Remember the energy and excitement when a young (age 58) and charismatic cardinal from Poland, Karol Józef Wojtyla, emerged to begin his reign as Pope John Paul II in 1978? His legacy included becoming the second-longest serving pope in history and the first non-Italian since 1523.

Is there another charismatic cardinal waiting in the wings? I don't know. I can only wish that whoever it is does a better job than Benedict in uniting together Jews, Muslims and Christians with Catholics.

Among those whose names surfaced Monday as possible successors, according to The New York Times, include: Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada; Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana; Cardinal Leonardo Sandri of Argentina; and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.

According to CNN Senior Vatican Analyst John Allen, regardless of where the next pontiff is from -- whether it be from Italy, Europe, Asia, Latin America or North America -- he will probably continue Benedict's conservative tradition as conservative vision likely will trump geography. So much for a chance to re-examine the Catholic Church's stance on hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, the loosening of restrictions on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS and the ordination of women priests.

During Benedict's tenure, the Catholic Church has taken a firm line on issues such as abortion, birth control and divorce. It has also been clouded by a series of sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests, which started in Europe and spread across the Atlantic to the United States. Many church critics believe the church's ship has become adrift.

"So when the pope stunned the world on Monday with his resignation announcement, his supporters and detractors alike almost universally hailed the move as a movement of grace, sounding almost relieved to see the end of what has been a very turbulent journey," wrote Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times, in a front-page news analysis published in today's print edition.

While the new pope undoubtedly will have big shoes to fill, one thing is certain as the soon-to-be old pope leaves St. Peter's chair for emeritus status: Pope Benedict XVI leaves the papacy looking and feeling frail, his legacy clouded by scandal and declining faith.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Form + function + green technology = meeting the aesthetic and environmental needs of a city

"Seismic Wave" / Waiting for the Muni
Metro N Judah train at the corner
of Carl and Cole in San Francisco. 

The city of San Francisco has enjoyed a history of environmental sustainability and it prides itself on being a city of inclusion, too.

Reflecting these values are the colorful and artistic "Seismic Wave" Muni transit shelters that have sprouted up all around the City since the first one debuted on Geary and Arguello Boulevards in 2009. By the end of this year, there will be about 1,000 transit shelters that are making use of innovative solar technology and design.

In the words of former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who oversaw the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the first of the new transit shelters nearly four years ago, they "will make getting around this beautiful city easier and greener."

On a recent visit to the City, I rode the Muni Metro train from Embarcadero Station to Golden Gate Park to see the Rudolf Nureyev exhibit at the de Young Fine Arts Museum. During my nearly half-hour ride, I noticed several of these aesthetically-pleasing transit shelters dotting the N Judah route.

On my return trip downtown, I encountered one of the hip, "seismic wave" shelters up close at the corner of Carl and Cole Streets, across from the Crepes on Cole cafe where I had stopped for lunch, in the heart of the City's Cole Valley neighborhood.

I didn't mind that my wait for the next N Judah train would be eight minutes because it gave me time to study and admire the "Seismic Wave's" design and function.

A poster inside one of the shelter's display panels caught my attention: "Form and function combine with green technology to create a compelling, iconic structure designed to meet the aesthetic and environmental needs of a City at the forefront of new age technology."

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) touts its new "Seismic Wave" transit shelters as "the most sustainable shelter under the sun."

It's easy to see how and why.

Among the shelter's many "green" features" according to the SFMTA are:

  • Solar-powered photovoltaic cells can generate up to 100 watts of electricity -- enough to power high efficiency fluorescent backlit information panels, super efficient rooftop lighting and NextBus and Push to Talk technologies.
  • Up to 40 percent of all energy captured can be recycled back into the power grid.
  • Wave-shaped plastic canopy composed of 40 percent post-industrial recycled content.
  • Galvanized steel beams created with 60 to 70 percent reclaimed product.

Other features include: ergonomically-designed seats for up to six customers and steel support columns that can vary in length to accommodate San Francisco's hilly terrain.

In a 2009 interview with sf.streetsblog.org., project designer designer Olle Lundberg said it's been fun leaving his signature on the city. Lundberg Design, a local architect, was selected in a competition to design the civic project.

"We've done some really beautiful buildings in the city, but honestly nothing will have the same impact as (1000) of these will," said Lundberg. "These are going to be everywhere and are going to be this kind of icon. I do hope that they become part of the street vocabulary of San Francisco."

Indeed, form + function + green technology = meeting the aesthetic and environmental needs of a city -- the City.

"Seismic Wave" photograph by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. All rights reserved.