Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Becoming a Warrior

Cover for Catherine's new book:
image used with permission
 If you have childhood memories of reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, or if you saw the movie more recently with Mindy Kaling, Oprah, and Reese Witherspoon, you share a love of the story with multiple generations. Catherine Hand, a courageous, creative, and beautiful person, spent 50 years working to produce the movie and is currently launching her new book, Becoming a Warrior - My Journey to Bring a Wrinkle in Time to the Screen, which tells the story of her hard work and struggle through those decades. In this memoir of joy and grief, she shows us how to make a promise to ourselves that can be kept no matter how difficult the obstacles. I interviewed her about her journey of faith, love, and not letting go of a dream. 

Chloe: A Wrinkle in Time is a story that has been significant to Boomers, Generation X, and now younger generations. You wrote in your memoir that the movie was about giving others a chance to create a new narrative for their generation. As the producer, you chose Jennifer Lee, a Gen Xer, to write the script, and in the movie, the father (played by Chris Pine) stands out as distinctly Gen X because of the pop cultural references he makes. The heroine in the story is Meg, a Generation Z girl (played by Storm Reid) who has a beautiful mind and a big heart. Would you say this is a story that connects generations? 

Catherine: Absolutely! The enduring wisdom of A Wrinkle in Time is that we are all on a journey to discover who we fully are and our place in the universe. I think everyone wants to believe in the power of love and Madeleine reminds us that love is action, not just a feeling. My hope is that Gen Xers will find something familiar in a memoir told from a Boomer's point of view.   

Chloe: My own reference point for Wrinkle is that I remember seeing it on the desks of my elementary school classmates in the mid-1980's. I was intrigued by the way the book seemed to have a mysterious or even mystical presence to it, so I checked it out from my school library and experienced the story for myself. Not only does the story fit into the sci-fantasy genre, it also covers the spiritually esoteric concept of tessering ('wrinkling' space and time). What would you say initially intrigued you most about the book when you first discovered it as a child in the 1960's? 

Catherine: I wasn't a great reader before a I read A Wrinkle in Time. I wanted to be outside climbing trees or playing kickball. I never knew books could inspire in me the desire to find answers to so many questions. Who were Euclid, Michelangelo, and Buddha  all mentioned as fighters in the story – and what did they have in common with Jesus? I was also very excited to discover that a girl – even a girl who was trying to get rid of her faults – could be a hero. Most significantly, the book gave me hope when President Kennedy was assassinated. 

Chloe: Even when we have some of the connections to help us achieve a dream, we still have to work incredibly hard and forge through roadblocks to make our dreams tangible. In your memoir, you write about your journey of becoming a fighter, a warrior, in a way that can help others do the same. Someone with a dream they are working toward could read your book and use it to help them as a sort of roadmap to overcome their own obstacles. Can you share your thoughts on this? 

Catherine: No two journeys are the same, but hopefully reading about how I overcame my obstacles will inspire others to find ways to overcome their own. I found great wisdom in Robert Louis Stevenson's quote, "It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive." My hopefulness was my guide that sustained me, I think one other thing to remember is that a dream is a living idea  it will evolve as you evolve. Mentors and supporters can be found in the most unlikely places  no one achieves a dream on their own. As you build your team, learn from others, and let your dream expand with new insights to make it better!

Chloe: What was the best part about reading A Wrinkle in Time as a child in the 1960's, the best part of producing the movie (2018), and what was the best part about writing your memoir which you are now launching? 

Times Square when the movie was released - and a beautiful moment in
 the heroine's journey of Catherine Hand (Image used with permission)

Catherine: The best part of reading A Wrinkle in Time as a child in the 1960's was the excitement I felt when I discovered that a young girl could do something her father couldn't, and learning that the darkness I felt after President Kennedy's assassination could be overcome. The best part of producing the movie was seeing the Disney logo come up on the screen. It was such a meaningful connection to the promise I made to myself 50 years prior. The best part of writing my memoir was to discover why I spent those 50 years trying to bring my childhood dream to fruition. Why did I do it? I feel very satisfied with what I found and hope readers of my memoir will too. 

Chloe: Because many of the readers of this blog have a strong interest in generational issues and the historical events interconnected with those issues, I wanted to mention how fascinating your life story is. You found yourself right at an intersection of American politics and culture through the decades of your career. Your father worked for LBJ, you met Reagan, and you worked for the Obama administration  you were present for events and conversations that affected history. And because you worked in Hollywood with Norman Lear, helping to shape the sitcoms that became the backdrop of politics and pop culture of both the Boomer and Generation X experience, you have a deep understanding of the fabric of American culture. If you could boil down the wisdom you have gathered from all of these experiences, what would that advice be?

Catherine: Wow  that is a tough question. I would have to say the simplest and best advice I received from Norman Lear, Madeline L'Engle, and my parents  in different words, but the same meaning is this: You can go through life two ways  seeing the glass half empty or the glass half full. I have found seeing the glass half full provides a richer, more meaningful life. We cannot give up on our country  ever. There were many people throughout history who never gave up on a more hopeful future. It's our turn to do that now. Seeing the glass half full gives us the hope we need to find the common threads that can bind us together. 

Chloe: Readers of this blog are primarily Generation X, so it is especially appreciated that you chose a Gen Xer, Ava Duvernay, to direct the film. She has an impressive portfolio including the amazing Selma, and the stunningly beautiful video, Black America Again. What wisdom and perspective did Ava bring to the project that you want to make sure people learn from? 

Catherine: Ava's vision to hire a diverse cast and crew brought the story into the 21st century and it was the absolute right vision for the time in which we live. She brought such passion to the project and really cared about telling this story through the eyes not just of a young Generation Z girl, but one who is also biracial. Her vision matters and will impact young people in ways I can't even imagine. Who knows? Maybe there is a ten-year-old girl  or boy who sees the film and is inspired by Ava's vision as much as I was by Madeleine's in 1963 and creates something remarkable because of it. 

Chloe: In your book, you talk about how the connection between Ava and Oprah was like the one between you and Madeleine L'Engle  can you tell us more about that? 

Catherine: It was wonderful to see how much they admired and respected one another and very apparent how proud Oprah was of Ava. I had the same kind of support and encouragement from Madeleine which made it even more poignant for me to watch them interact with each other. Madeleine was a great mentor in every sense of the word. I feel very grateful to have had her in my corner and I'm sure Ava feels the same about Oprah. 

Chloe: My daughter and I recently watched the movie together and loved it. For Christmas this year, I plan to give her a copy of A Wrinkle in Time and a copy of your memoir along with it. As women, it is so important for us to make promises to ourselves that are kept  to have dreams we commit to. Your book discusses feminism and the ways you experienced the glass ceiling you had to break through to accomplish your dream. As we look at the work that women of your generation did, and continue to do, to lay the groundwork for women in the future, what advice would you say that Gen X moms should give to our Generation Z daughters? 

Catherine: The Boomer Generation had more opportunities, because of the hard work of the women before us. I was amazed at how much had changed and for the better when working with the Gen Xers on the film. There were more women in roles of authority and responsibility. When we were looking to hire a screenwriter for Wrinkle in 1980 there were no women screenwriters with any kind of track record. In 2018, Jennifer Lee, the screenwriter for A Wrinkle in Time, had just come off Frozen, one of the most successful films in Disney's history and she won the Academy Award for her effort! Don't let setbacks set you back. One of my mother's favorite sayings has become mine, too: When God closes a door, he always opens a window. You will have challenges just like the generation before you and when you think a door has closed, look for the window. 

Chloe: Because Madeline L'Engle was from the GI Generation, she had a lot of wisdom from all she experienced throughout the 20th century. She was born in 1918 at the time we last experienced a pandemic, and experienced the Great Depression and lived through multiple wars. She was one of the greatest minds of our time both in science and theology, and she was the person who gave you spiritual direction through the transitions and hardships of your life until she passed in 2007. What advice do you think she might want to give us at this point in history in which we find ourselves? 

Catherine: I can't possibly know what advice Madeleine would give us. However, there are two words she often spoke about that came to mind when thinking about your question: free will. I love something she once said to me and I share it in the book: "God created us with free will so that we do have a say in our own story. It's not taken away from us, we are not manipulated, and it's not pre-ordained. If I have to say what I believe about God, it is that we are called to be co-creators. God didn't make a universe and finish it!". We do live in troubled times and we have the free will to change that. 

Chloe: You have moved through the journey of your life with a calling and a divine spark. What struck me most deeply about your memoir, as you made your way through life-altering loss, is the prayer you prayed: "Help me find the light within." Was this a prayer you created yourself or was it one you learned from someone else?

(c) Tony Powell - image used with permission
Catherine: When I was a very young child I loved the song This Little Light of Mine and the idea of a light within was born! When I read A Wrinkle in Time, I loved reading the description of Jesus, "And the light shineth in the darkness," because it was something I had heard in church. After my husband died, I'd walk or run a mile every day to the place where I had scattered his ashes on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I'd close my eyes and all I could see and feel was darkness and the weight on my heart of a 20-foot-thick steel door that was forever shut. I had three little children and needed to figure out how to open that door to let the light in. It took several years of saying that prayer, "Help me find the light within," until that door finally opened for me to feel the warmth of the love that comes with that light from within.


There is the heroic journey Jennifer Lee took to believe in herself as a screenwriter, the heroic journey that Ava Duvernay took from a journalist to an activist filmmaker. There is the heroic journey of the main character in Wrinkle who finds love as the ultimate answer, and there is the heroic journey of Catherine Hand, who did not give up on a dream through the course of five decades. In the the struggle of those years, and on the journey of staying true to herself, she found an infinite and eternal light. 

Whether you are on a hero's journey, or a heroine's journey, may you find the light within this holiday season and into the new year. 




Catherine's memoir is now on sale on Amazon: 
Becoming a Warrior





____________________________________________

(c) 2022 all rights reserved - interview by Chloe Koffas

All images used with permission from Catherine Hand



"Life at best is a precarious business and we aren't told that difficult or painful things won't happen, just that it matters. It matters not just to us but to the entire universe." 

-Madeleine L'Engle  


Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Stages of Spiral Dynamics

 


photo by Mitul Grover on Unsplash
We all have questions about how some people in our lives see the world from such extraordinarily different perspectives than we do. We question why we are so polarized or why we can't solve problems because we are coming from such deeply different places. Spiral Dynamics is a tool in an especially divisive time like this - it's a model of levels based on the development of people both individually and collectively and why people think and act the way we do. It is the way the human mind creates value systems in response to its environment.

Each level has a color ascribed to it and regardless of which level we are on; we are integrating all the levels below it, so we can approach others who are on a 'lower' level from a place of compassion. 

As generations and history go, there is a consistent pattern of turning and curving back around - a cycle that we can see through the centuries. In nature, we see the Fibonacci Sequence - an emerging spiral pattern in pinecones and seashells. After several decades of research, a model was created in the way human consciousness has emerged over time - and once again, in the beauty of symmetry, this emerges in a spiral pattern. Because each step is integral with the ones before, we recognize this beautiful image once again: 

 

photo by SARAH GRANGER on Unsplash

1st Level: BEIGE - Instinctive Self 

associated age in human development: 0-18 months

This is an instinct-based survival existence that started 100,000 years ago based on finding water, food, warmth, and shelter. 

In our modern world there is a lot of suffering, people can find themselves on this level because of poverty, displacement, or other extreme situations. It can be the level someone is on because of a life full of personal/collective crisis (such as living through a war or pandemic). This can be an existence of just trying to make it through the day - trying to make it to the next hit, or to the next meal. Even if we consider ourselves far beyond this developmental stage, if our lives become threatened, we can find ourselves in this method of existing. All of us function on this level in situations, even if temporarily, like when we are told to shelter in place or when we narrowly miss a car accident. None of us are above even the most basic level of human consciousness or functioning given the most stressful of circumstances, and each level takes the previous one with it as we spiral up. 

On this level there seemed to be a only vague sense of self as differentiated from others. This kind of consciousness can go one of two ways - at its worst, there is a focus on one's own survival above others or even at the expense of everyone else, and at its best, it is a constant focus on helping your tribe as a whole to survive. This spirals us up to the purple level.... 


photo by Ashleigh Yoong on Unsplash
            2nd Level: PURPLE - Animistic Self 
            associated age in human development: 1-3 years

This is a way of life based on tribal order - starting 50,000 years ago 

The purple level is a perspective of seeing the world as a magical or mysterious place, while trying to stay safe in the midst of it. With this comes petitioning to gods/powers, often with obedience and ritual. This level comes with a perception of personal disempowerment and can require keeping the spirits or forces of the universe appeased to avoid problems, or perceived punishment.  

 In taking care of family, tribe, or village, relationships are often in a role-based structure. There is allegiance to elders, clan, and customs. People on the purple level are often self-sacrificial to toward their own group for the greater good, and yet this often comes with the duality of being xenophobic - antagonistic toward those from the outside. At its worst, the purple level can lead to deep narcissism or ethnocentrism. 

Examples of where you see some degree of the tribal aspect of the purple level in modern culture: intense devotion to a specific sports team, deep school ties, or a belief that your own ethnic group, political party or way of thinking is better than the others.  

While someone very locked into the rationalistic 'higher' level might look down on this level, they had to pass through this level to get there.  As one continues up the spiral even past rationalism and materialism, they may actually see this level with much less judgement as they recognize there is a world beyond the material one. 

photo by Sina Katirachi on Unsplash

3rd level: RED  

associated age in human development: 3-6 years

This level has its starting place in Early Mythic times 10,000 years ago and is associated with feudal and exploitive empires. It includes an intrinsic hierarchy. 

Some associated traits of the red level in a healthy form: strength, vitality, setting strong boundaries, empowerment, and setting goals.

Most of what seems to happen on this level however doesn't end up being for the greater good. At its worst, this level is an egocentric one focused on domination, being the winner, and attaining/keeping power. This is rooted in scarcity mentality - the perception that there are not enough resources to go around. Egocentric power for self-gratification, focused on touting personal achievements, critical, lack of guilt, fear-based leadership, being destructive, impulsive, lack of discipline, lack of empathy for others (narcissism), seeing the world only through the lens of your own ethnic or socioeconomic status, and domination that crushes and exploits can be included on the red level. The "Greed is Good" era of the 1980s exemplified this way of thinking. Sometimes this is seen in modern politics. Collectively, this can impede the building of stable nations, and an understanding of this level answers the question of why people start wars. 

Examples of people who function out of a red paradigm: gang leaders, mafia bosses, dictators 

photo by Agnieszka Cymbalak on Unsplash
   
 The key idea used on the red level: Us vs. Them 
 The bridge from the red level to the blue level is a consciousness that shifts from Me to We.
    
    4th Level: BLUE 
    associated age in human development: 7-8 years

 Starting 5,000 years ago and connected with the Later Mythic Era, authoritarian states 

On this level, life has meaning, direction, and purpose with predetermined outcomes. There is structure, purpose, order. The goal is ultimate peace. 

People are expected to have impulse control and even be self-sacrificial. The expectation is to follow the given rules, and this is the first level where the concept of having a conscience or experiencing guilt emerge. People are not supposed to conform, and are given roles/scripts for their lives. The law/text/code has been handed down - people must follow it and divine plan assigns people to their places. Like the red level, this can also be seen in modern politics. 

When blue is at its worst, it can include archetypal role identification, fundamentalism, dogma without grace, hierarchy without love, and patriarchy without space for females to take on leadership roles. There is a hard time taking in outside perspectives, which can cause a belief that others or outsiders are 'wrong/bad', and this is a shadow of purple-level thinking. At its worst, atrocities can happen as the result of too much blue-level thinking, such as the Inquisition. 

When blue is healthy and at its best, this level includes bravery, courage, sacrifice, great love, community, having a strong moral compass, delayed gratification for the greater good. 

5th level: ORANGE 

associated age in human development: 9-14 years

photo by Miguel Orós
Capitalistic Democracies - starting 300 years ago

This level is prosperity-based with a focus on materialistic pleasure - acting in your own self-interest by 'playing the game to win'.

Orange is usually independent, anti-hierarchal and competitive. Truth comes from discovery, reason, logic, data, and statistics. There is a focus on science and tech. 

Orange at its worst includes a scarcity worldview, which can cause identity crisis, consumerism, ecological crisis, workaholism, goal-fixation, various addictions, and over-attachment to successful methods. 

Many say this is the level we are currently in collectively, though hopefully for not too much longer. People feel especially tired of the achievist orange level when they go on social media and see friends posting pictures of showing off a materially successful life: nice cars in front of their nice houses, flaunting their 'power couple' status, or showing off the expensive vacations they have taken.

The realization when you come to the end of your time at this level is that material pleasure doesn't buy happiness, and you don't have to try be better than anyone else, because the reality is that you are not.    

While being stuck in the orange stage could be like being a lifelong adolescent, somewhere within green or yellows stages, human consciousness evolves from a scarcity worldview (a perceived fear that there are not enough resources to go around) to an abundance worldview (the realization there is enough and that we can be generous with others). 



photo by Danist Soh 
6th level: GREEN 'Sensitive Self'- associated age in human development: 15-21 years 

Communitarian/Egalitarian - starting 150 years ago 

This level is about seeking peace within the inner self and working with others to foster genuinely creative and caring community as decisions are reached through reconciliation and consensus. The human spirit must be freed from greed, dogma and divisiveness as feelings and caring supersedes cold rationality (even as rationality is valued) and Earth's resources are no longer hoarded by a limited few. Some of this may be derived from the Transcendentalists like Thoreau. I can picture Millennials, as they gain more life experience and head into elderhood, naturally mentoring younger generations from this level. 

On the green level, spirituality becomes valued once again on a larger, collective scale. There is a deep, residing harmony, and human development is valued while gender equality is expected.

A person can work toward spiraling up to this stage by bringing themselves into open discussions with people who believe differently and do volunteer work to help the less fortunate in their community.


The first tier ends at green (Personal, Subsistence)

The Second tier begins at yellow (Transpersonal Being) 


While no specific age in human development is associated with the following levels, when a person makes a second-half-of-life transition as discussed by Richard Rohr in the two halves of life, I believe this would put them in on a level of consciousness to go up to the next levels on the second tier. 

photo by Cédric Stoeklin on Unsplash
7th Level: YELLOW
integrative - starting 50 years ago

This level has a focus on living fully and responsibly, which naturally leads to a harmonious synthesis with your fellow humans by integrating diversity with discernment to create an interdependent natural flow. Life more fully becomes valued over materialism. There is a flexibility, spontaneity, and functionality even as one accepts that chaos and change are natural. Boomers, as they were mentored by the Silent Generation in the 1960s, laid a foundation for the yellow level in their civil rights work. 

While the lower orange level is anti-hierarchy, on the yellow level one accepts that life is a natural hierarchy of natural hierarchies, systems, and forms. When hierarchy includes both patriarchy and matriarchy as equals, and when it approaches everything and everyone from a place of genuine love and acceptance, there is a harmoniousness to the way people relate to each other. True hierarchal leadership throughout human history has rarely come from a place of self-sacrifice, which is why so much disdain for it has developed, particularly over the last century. Though it could be more commonplace on the yellow level if love is at the center and genuine teaching, care, and mentoring happens as it is supposed to. Self-sacrifice/self-denial is seen on the purple level for one's own tribe, though on this higher yellow level, it would be the opposite of ethnocentric - it goes beyond your tribe - it would be world-centric. This kind of consciousness was taught by some of the greatest spiritual teachers, even while they were functioning on even higher levels, and yellow could be the level of the 'golden rule'.


photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash
8th level: TURQUOISE
Holistic - starting 30 years ago

This level goes deeper into being world-centric. The focus is peace in an incomprehensible world.  Multi-dimensional, trans-rational perceptions take place individually and collectively. There is a consciousness of minimalistic living.

This has its roots starting 30 years ago in an official sense (though I see pieces of ancient Celtic wisdom, Native American tradition, Christ-consciousness, and possibly Hinduism woven through it).

On the turquoise level - the highest level we know any details about so far, there is the opportunity to experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit by seeing the world as a single, dynamic organism, possibly even with its own collective mind. Global networking is seen as routine on this level. Self is both a distinct and blended part of a whole, which could be a shadow of the very first (beige) level here. Beyond seeing yourself as connected to others (as many tribes and villages have throughout history) there is even a seeing of oneself as connected to ecology (as seen in both Celtic and Native American traditions). This creates a bridge to holistic intuitive thinking and cooperative action with others. 

photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash
9th Level: CORAL is the final predicted level and, as of 2022, we can hardly even begin to speculate on what this would look like. 

Each of the levels before come with positive things and with pitfalls. The red level can cause anxiety and depression, and while the yellow level can be all-inclusive, there can be problems with self-actualization and existential angst. As each new era comes and goes, there will be people to fight against the backwards parts of it and wake up the people who are not yet awake. 

With spiral dynamics, we cannot judge someone else if they are on a 'lower' level than we are - we have been on that level ourselves to get where we are. Whatever level someone else is on, if it is lower than ours, it is also a part of ours, as all of this is integrated. First we learn the concept of self so that we can eventually know the concept of other, and first we learn to love our own tribe so that, ideally, we learn how to embrace people from tribes that are not our own. 

photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
A person functioning on the orange level with a lucrative career who uses monetary resources to solve problems is not a 'better' person than someone on the purple level who has limited resources and prays to their ancestors for help. The person on the orange level actually passed through the purple level to get there. As that orange level person continues to evolve, they might understand a larger universe than they did before along with and a fuller sense of the sacred, than when they had once limited themselves to a rationalistic or materialistic perspective.
 
I've been publishing pieces on this blog for more than a decade now about Generation X, and despite life knocking me down pretty hard these past couple of years, I hope to continue. Yet, if I were to only stay limited to my own tribe (in this case, my own generation), I would possibly be stuck on one of the lower levels of consciousness. In my writing, I have tried to avoid building up my own generation while putting other generations down, and now more than ever I see the significance of this as we move forward through the colossal world events in which we all are living through and even suffering through together. 

photo by Mitul Grover on Unsplash

The integrative levels of Spiral Dynamics help us better empathize with others even as it helps us recognize our own blind spots. If the collective loss, grief, stress, and agony of this pandemic has taught me anything, it is that we all need each other to get through this. All the generations need each others' help, perspective, and insight. If we are going to solve the world's problems, every culture and generation will be a part of the solution. The higher levels of human consciousness let go of ethnocentrism and narrow thinking and invite everyone to the table. Humanity is spiraling up quickly, maybe even exponentially, as the centuries and the decades go by. 

The higher we go together, the more space there is for hope, for healing, for light, for love.  

Let's keep spiraling up. 

 

           

(c) 2022 Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved, all images used under the Unsplash free license in 3/2022

_____________________


Sources/articles/podcasts/recommended further research:

The set of colors above are used by some researchers, others use a different set of colors to differentiate between levels. 

There are several variations of Spiral Dynamics. All of the above is taking the research, knowledge and wisdom of others, filtering it through my own perspective and just adding a few thoughts. While this piece is incomplete in some ways, it also adds in a few new ideas to ideally help the conversation on this topic to evolve. I'm not an expert, though these are some of the experts and researchers that have contributed to this model: Don Edward Beck, Christopher Cowen, Clare Graves, Richard Dawkins, Ken Wilbur, Jean Gebser, Stanilav Grof,  Fred Kofman, George Leonard, Michael Murphy, Jenny Wade, Roger Walsh, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Michael E. Zimmerman among others. See more on Spiral Dynamics on Wikipedia.

Mayank Chaturvedi posts a list of many of the models of human development and explains Spiral Dynamics: 

photo by Charles Etoroma on Unsplash
chaturvedimayank.wordpress.com/2018/06/10/levels-of-human-psychological-development-in-integral-spiral-dynamics

Recommended podcasts: 

Rob Bell and his son Trace Bell have a four part podcast series on Spiral Dynamics on 'The Robcast' from 2020 called 'Me, We, Everybody'

robbell.com/podcast

Richard Rohr discusses scarcity vs. abundance perspectives as well as the two halves of life - this can fill in some gaps and answer some of the questions that go with the way the way human consciousness levels up:

cac.org/scarcity-or-abundance-2018-07-05

cac.org/two-halves-life-2015-10-12



Monday, January 25, 2021

Eight Points of Light



Our planet hangs suspended in a cold and elegant universe. Shadowed by sorrow, but aglow with profound beauty, we look out at it with eyes that only see slivers of a fuller picture. Late January is a painful time each year for those of us who experienced an event in 1986 that altered our lives. We may awake somewhere in America with frost on our window panes or we may remember the icicles that had quietly formed on the Challenger in the early morning of January 28th as it sat ready to launch. Either way, we feel that threatening chill from 35 years ago once again.   

Leslie Ebeling Serna, the daughter of Bob Ebeling, the engineer most well known for trying to stop the Challenger disaster, reached out to me last summer in response to a letter I had sent. Leslie's life was very much affected by the disaster, she and her father were working for Morton Thiokol, the company that made the shuttle's rocket boosters in Utah. She remembers the windows in nearby houses shaking as the parts were being tested out on the open land. 

photo credit: Alicia Petresc


From 1970's Starry Skies to 1980's Launches

I lived not so far away from Utah in the late 1970's. My greatest joy was when my father would carry me on his back in our yard from where we would look up to the brilliant Albuquerque night sky. We were in a desert city yet to sprawl, there was still so little glow from the city lights, we could see what seemed like a million stars.

As the 1970's became the 1980's, the NASA shuttle era began and my love for the beauty of the universe grew. I was full of wonder when I heard the Reagan Administration had announced sending a teacher to space as part of the shuttle crew.

The Challenger launch was one of the most impactful experiences for the younger wave of Generation X, and for those of us in mid to late elementary school, we were old enough to grasp the significance of the day and still tender enough to be deeply wounded by it. 

photo credit: NASA


We watched the launch on live TV from a classroom. Seventy-three seconds later, the twisting contrail imprinted itself as an image of horror onto the life-long consciousness of my generation. One moment's excitement led to the next moment's confusion and fear; we found ourselves suspended in a place between life and death. 


For months, as the crew prepared for the launch, we had talked about them constantly on our playgrounds and in our classrooms. Soon enough we held them in our hearts, and then, in one day, we lost all seven. 


photo credit: NASA

 Hundreds of letters to Bob Ebeling

And all of this loss is why, even all of these years later, I needed there to be a hero somewhere in the bigger picture of this story - someone who tried to stop this day from happening. This is why I needed to know about Bob Ebeling. No one worked longer or harder at trying to stop the disaster than he did. He spent an entire year trying to convince the managers at NASA that it wouldn't be safe to launch. He didn't want to see people die or for school children to witness a tragedy. But the president wanted it, the pressure to launch was high given the repeated delays, and the warnings that Bob and other engineers gave about launching in such frigid temperatures were ignored. Bob even went so far as sending out a memo titled "HELP."



Five years ago, an NPR article described how Bob was still carrying the weight of the disaster on his shoulders even 30 years later. While he tried to stop it, he blamed himself and felt he should have done more. A second follow-up article told of the response of empathy and support from people by the hundreds in letters and phone calls. This was mainly to tell Bob that he had done the best he could to avert the disaster, and that he was forgiven because he needed to hear those words, even though there really was nothing to forgive. After carrying this heavy burden he took upon himself, he was finally able to lay it down at the end of his life. Four years later, his daughter Leslie was going through some of her parents' old correspondence, and then emailed me about one of those letters - the one I had mailed to him. Out of those hundreds of letters, it was an extraordinary honor to get a response, and the odds were one-in-a-million that we would connect, as she chose just one letter to respond to. What I didn't mention in the letter was that my father was one of the leads working with NASA in Houston to make sure what led to the Challenger disaster would never happen again -- I didn't realize that until later. 

String Theory and the Way our Lives are Tied Together

Physicists describe things at the most granular level, like atoms, with quantum mechanics, or things at the most macroscopic level, like stars, with general relativity -- but these groups usually work independently of each other. String theory is an attempt to reconcile these vastly different worlds, toward a solution that can provide a fuller understanding of our universe.

photo credit: javardh

 I could not understand the fuller story of how the Challenger disaster affected my life until I understood the way it had affected other people, like Bob and his daughter Leslie, who is now a very dear friend. She was there for him and with him the fateful day this all happened, and as she saw his struggle and his suffering, it brought them closer together. In gaining a better understanding of this, I was able to do the same with my own father more recently. We need each other's stories to understand our own. In taking a look at Bob Ebeling's journey and how he affected NASA, I was doing some reading on this, which, amazingly, led me to the work of my own father. While I knew my dad had worked as a NASA contractor in Houston many years after the disaster, focusing on safety certification, I thought it had more to do with on-the-ground operations. While I knew he had done some work involving the International Space Station, I had missed that he was doing so much for the safety of astronauts. It was the Ebeling family getting in touch with me that led me on a journey of understanding where my own family fit into this bigger picture. 

photo credit: Josh Gordon

I had never connected the dots on any of this until Leslie reached out to me. This was both astonishing and redemptive for me, as the Challenger disaster altered my childhood and overshadowed my outlook on life. It was where my distrust of institutions began, it was when my cynicism began. Five years ago, I had written a piece about how this affected my generation, not realizing my father had worked to make this right. Of all the ways I had wished my father could have been there for me, what I can hold onto is that he did this extraordinary thing for all of us who experienced the disaster that day. And because of this, the story, which is always so much larger than what we initially see, can end well. In writing the words, "I forgive you" to Bob, I was forgiving my own father at the same time. 

Heavy Burdens and Heroism

We carry heavy burdens for decades, often those burdens aren't even our own - they are other people's selfishness and careless decisions. Bob carried the burden of others' choices on himself for 30 years. When I was a child, I thought that heroes were the people who showed up at just the right moment to do something amazing or to stop a catastrophic event from happening. Now I realize heroes are the people who do the right thing in the moment, who speak truth to power, and, regardless of the outcome, are still heroes. I now know they are the people who often carry the heaviest burdens of anyone. 

photo credit: NASA


Lunar Rocks and Stained Glass

We take January to look back on a crisis as we live through an era of enormous crises. A lunar rock brought back on Apollo 11 was gifted to the American National Cathedral and embedded in the stained glass. Today the cathedral's bells ring out in memory of Americans lost to the pandemic. Each peal honors a thousand lost lives. By the end of 2020, the daily death toll from Covid-19 was the equivalent of 16 fully loaded 737 jets falling out of the sky. As we start 2021, the numbers continue to rise. The dean of the cathedral reminds us that we are commanded to love one another, that we are not lone individuals free from responsibility - we are dependent upon one another for our very lives. 


The Way Light Travels 

In previous years in the later part of January, I have lit candles for each of our seven fallen heroes. 

This year, I lit eight, adding one for Bob Ebeling and his courageous effort to stop the disaster, and for the struggle in carrying the burden of the disaster afterward.

I set the eight candles on the brick edging of my pool.  The flames flickered in the night breeze.

And then I noticed the reflection of the moon and stars in the water, so I took a picture of the candles from above. The candles glowed  like planets reflecting the brightness of the sun. 

Light from the other corner of the galaxy will travel for millennia before reaching our eyes. It can take us decades to see the bigger picture of our lives, the redemption, the part in the story where things start to get better. Astrophysics tells us that we are all made of the substance of stars. We can map those elements across the Milky Way. Maybe this means that sooner, if not later, we will all find our way back to love, our oneness with each other. In the wake of a supernova, there is this incredible brightness, not in spite of, but because of a cataclysmic explosion, and this is where new stars are formed. Light fills the universe. As the universe expands relentlessly, so does the human story, so does the light, so does the way each of our stories are connected to each other. 

___________________________________

Afterward:

 
Bob was one of five engineers, including Roger Boisjoly, who warned of the impending disaster. Leslie carpooled with her father to work, and on January 28, 1986, as the disaster happened, she was right by his side. Leslie has done so much to honor her father's memory and integrity. When I asked her what she wants people know about Bob, she said she wants them to know that he was brilliant, and that he was a great father who provided well for his kids. She said that he
 gave them good childhoods full of opportunity and culture, sight-seeing, music lessons, hunting, fishing, skiing, and camping. She said he was very much involved in his kids' lives. 

After the Challenger disaster, Bob retired. He put his efforts and engineering experience into nature conservation. Among the multiple awards he received, President Bush presented him with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Award in 1990 for his work. Bob was also a WWII veteran. He married his kind and generous wife Darlene in 1949 and five children followed. She was the love of his life. 

Bob with family, Leslie at his side - early 1960's




Years back, both Bob and Leslie were interviewed by 60 Minutes - there was a pause for a quick photo that day: 



Leslie (center) with Lesley Stahl (right)
 and her assistant (left)


The recent Netflix series, Challenger: The Final Flight gives a fuller picture of the way this piece of history unfolded in the mid 1980's. 
Leslie is one of the people interviewed in the series.

There are parallels between the 2003 Columbia disaster and Challenger, resulting in the loss of 7 astronauts once again. Employees/contractors gave warnings that NASA refused to acknowledge. Something clearly needed to change. In the years that followed, my father came to NASA initially to do risk management through Futron, a NASA contractor, and then as an Environmental, Safety, and Health Lead with Lockheed Martin. He led the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) certification process at NASA for Astronaut Training and Mission Control. He and others helped create a better system of communication so that employees on any level could be heard, especially when lives are in danger. While the Challenger Disaster cast a long shadow over my childhood, and that of my friends and generation, it is redeeming to know that my father worked to prevent this from happening again. A message I was able to pass on to Leslie and family from my father was this: What Bob did affected the entire culture of NASA going forward.  

Thank you to my dad, Gary Craik, for all of your hard work on this at NASA. 

And thank you to Leslie Ebeling Serna who became like a sister in the process of this extraordinary journey -- I only saw the bigger picture of this story because of you. 


___________________________________


My dad and I when I was at the age when he 
would lift me up to see starry night skies. 



___________________________________________________

Sources

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene

Cathedral.org press room - American Mourns 300,000

Space.com - Humans Really are Made of Stardust and a New Study Proves It

Articles by Howard Berkes: 

NPR.org: 30 Years After Explosion, Challenger Engineer Still Blames Himself

NPR.org: Your Letters Helped Challenger Shuttle Engineer Shed 30 Years of Guilt


Weekly Reader - March 7, 1986



And one more note: while visiting with my friend Louise at her house last summer, her small granddaughter randomly picked up a book from the shelf and shook it, and out onto the front porch fell the Weekly Reader article that had been hidden within for almost 35 years! I'd been hoping to find this for so long - an original copy of one of the same ones that young Gen Xers read in our classrooms in 1985-86. As soon as this emerged, I had a feeling someone would be contacting me soon about the Challenger. Just a few weeks later, Leslie emailed me and this whole journey began.  Thank you, Louise! 


_____________________________

(c) 2021 by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved 


Photo credits:

AP - picture from Weekly Reader above  

NASA photos posted are public domain 

Artistic photos by photographers on Unsplash.com, names credited in photo captions

Family photos posted with permission from the Ebeling family

additional photos my own 









Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Human Family Tree



I see you, I hear you.
photo source: Unsplash
Photographer credit: Luis Morera

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's was the beginning of  change that was needed, both then and now. This was a movement led to a large extent by the GI Generation and Silent Generation, as they mentored Boomers in their youth about nonviolence. C.T. Vivian of the GI Generation, who we just recently lost, was a minister, activist, and author, an MLK aid who shed his own blood on the front lines of the 60's Civil Rights Movement and helped create a culture of moral leadership. John Lewis, of the Silent Generation, who also just passed away, was often called the Conscience of America. Both of these men continued leading with love as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, just before they left this world. Gen Xers read about the Civil Rights Movement in our history books and learned first hand stories from the parents and grandparents. Some first wave Gen Xers witnessed these protests on the streets as toddlers in strollers. Like the civil rights work of the 1960's, the BLM movement points out systematic and institutional injustice, and just like the 1960's, it is still hard to speak truth to power.  

Say Their Names
Photo source: Unsplash
Photographer credit: Clay Banks 

As statues get torn down, along with the oppressive systems they represent and as protests happen in the streets, it is also a time for us to silently search our own hearts, to look at ways we've been conditioned, and to learn better ways as we move forward. Of the most racist people I've known personally, I am no longer in contact, or I keep quite a distance, but I can say they were people who ultimately hated themselves. I wonder if these people had been taught to love themselves if they would have hated others less. When humans have been taught to believe their race is better than another, the problems of history have begun. When people are conditioned to believe another race or ethnicity is inherently "bad," they can justify doing terrible things to them. All humans are 99.9% identical in their genetics. The idea of 'race' was a fabricated concept from very recent history on the timeline of human history. As more and more people get their DNA tested these days, we discover within our own ancestry that the lines of the borders of countries blur and that the very ethnicities some of us had been taught to fear actually are within us. Science traces DNA to a 'Mitochondrial Eve' and you and I have a DNA match to a woman in Africa many generations ago. She is a grandmother to us all. Certain theories say everyone on earth alive today is at most a 50th cousin to anyone else. Other theories say we are at most a 10th cousin to anyone else on the planet. As the family tree of all humanity is built, Gen Xer A.J. Jacobs writes, "Human beings are biased to treat family members with more consideration...By revealing the cliché of "We're all one big family" is true, we hope to provide bad news to bigots who will have to face the important fact that they are related to whatever ethnic group they despise..." 


photo source: Unsplash
photographer credit: Jon Tyson 
If we had any idea how closely related we are to the person behind us in line at the grocery store, to the person on the street corner, or to the person holding up a sign with words we might or might not agree with, biology shows us what was theorized for a long time before there was evidence for it: everyone is related to everyone on the planet. 

As we witness angry conversations happening online and people yelling from their cars at people holding up poster boards, the response is often "all lives matter." Black Lives Matter doesn't mean other lives don't matter, it means they also matter, and for far too long, Black lives have been most vulnerable. 



photo source: Unsplash
Photographer credit: Nathan Dumlao
As the idea of everyone having an equal place in the human family spreads, I'd like to think of the Gen Xers of today, a little older and wiser now, as the mentors in this era, and the Millennials and Gen Z learning from us just as various socially conscious Boomers learned from the Silent Generation and the GIs. Of the founders of the BLM movement, Alicia Garza (b. 1981) is a Gen Xer, Patrice Cullors (b. 1983) and Opal Tometi (b. 1984) are Millennials. One of the defining principles of BLM is intergenerationality - generations coming together to collaborate and mentor from wisdom and experience.  

 "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and power of everlasting love be your guide." 

-John Lewis 
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Gen Xer Don Lemon's podcast: Silence is not an Option
 

Remembering C.T. Vivian (1924-2020) of the GI Generation,
and John Lewis (1940-2020) of the Silent Generation  
Memory Eternal 

 (c) 2020 writing by Chloe Koffas 2020, all rights reserved  

sources: 
Wikipedia