Jane’s Playhouse

IMG_2056My inspiration for this artwork began with an article from City Lab by Richard Florida about Jane Jacobs. (12/20/2016) Jacobs wrote about her pessimism for the United States’ experiment with democracy. Her main question is “how and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?” How do we dissolve to a place where facts have no meaning?

The election of #45 prompted Richard Florida to remember this particular Jacobs book, Dark Age Ahead, her last book written in 2005. This is not about Trump. It’s about all the things we’ve done collectively and individually to create the conditions where a populist backlash could succeed in electing an incompetent to the most important leadership role in our country. Of course, aided by the Russians—hence the spy—but we served up our country on a silver platter even before Putin let loose his computer hackers.


She named the five pillars of society that if we allow to decay or fail to protect from assault will lead to a new dark age. The first is family and community. The replacement of nuclear families from extended families makes housing unaffordable for many people or upset work/life balance. Materialism, market pressures and a brand culture erode community. She takes issues with automobiles as enabling self-interest over community interest.

The denigration of education into something of value only as a means of getting a better job weakens the second pillar. After desegregation, we began defunding public education throughout the United States. At about the same time, fundamental zealots separated themselves through homeschooling and religious schools that applaud an ignorance of science and post-modern ideas. It is also the failure of schools to adapt. Reforms resulted in testing instead of using the new brain science to create better learning environments. Higher education has lost complete touch with their mission by pricing themselves so high as to create an educated class of young people loaded with a debt burden that is becoming a drag on the entire economy.


Science is the third pillar and Jacobs was concerned about science becoming dogma. I find it more like a two-headed dog biting itself. The one head barks to leave it alone to do it’s work without the burden of moral principles or ethics and no accountability for their impact—especially pollution to our planet. All while the other head measures discovery, technology, and the increasing peril to our every existence due to climate change.

The next to last pillar is the “dumbing down of taxes.” The political chant began “no new taxes” then it became “tax cuts,” which mainly benefited the wealthiest people and corporations. Then we are surprised that such selfishness results in the greatest divide between rich and poor since World War II. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our transit systems inadequate, and schools and prisons crowded because the majority of the population no longer understands “public goods.” Anything for the community is seen as waste.

The fifth and final pillar is professionalism and ethics. Jacobs calls it “learned professions,” and includes medicine, law, architecture, engineering and journalism. These professions give us our ethics and professional standards that set behavioral boundaries. These are under attack by “frauds, brutes, and psychopaths.” Not coincidentally immigrants often hold up these values more than other Americans and aspire to these professions, so newcomers also come under attack by native barbarians.

Pick up the roof and look inside. Our citizen is watching tv and he and his daughter are connected to wifi and distracting themselves from the reality of the house falling down around them. In high school history I learned that the Roman Empire fell apart because of the rot from within, and then the barbarians were able to swiftly conquer. It is more complicated but these stories ring true today.

What then shall be done? Jacobs saw cities are bulwarks against the darkness. And she believed in protest. It’s up to those of us who understand the reality, that we are all interconnected and we all benefit from a vital culture, to shore up the pillars of society. We should do it for ourselves, and for humankind.

Art and photos by Julie Pieper.

We Cannot Take Character for Granted

President Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Vice President Joe Biden. 

This week with the president-elect’s lack of self control on full display. President Obama honored Joe Biden for his decades of public service and for his strength of character.

Here is an excerpt from his speech, “And through his life, through trial after trial, he has never once forgotten the values and the moral fiber that made him who he is. That’s what steels his faith in God, in America, and in his friends and in all of us. When Joe talks to auto workers whose livelihood he helped save, we hear the son of a man who once knew the pain of having to tell his kids that he lost his job. When Joe talks about hope and opportunity for our children, we hear the father who rode the rails home every night so he could be there to tuck his kids in bed.

When Joe sticks up for the little guy, we hear the young man standing in front of the mirror reciting Yates or Emerson, studying the muscles in his face, determined to vanquish a debilitating stutter. When Joe talks to Gold Star families who have lost a hero, we hear a kindred spirit. Another father of an American veteran, somebody whose faith has been tested and who has been forced to wander through the darkness himself and knows who to lean on to find the light. So, that’s Joe Biden, a resilient and loyal and humble servant. And a patriot, but most of all a family man.” (Time.com)

Everyday the onslaught of news and social media seems to be saying that character doesn’t matter. That there are no real consequences for selfish choices. So it is up to each of us to remind ourselves that character does matter. The fruits of the Spirit are the ones that we should be honoring: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As Apostle Paul writes in Galatians: There is no law against such things.

Just when you think the pendulum cannot swing any further out on materialism and “I’m number one. Screw you,” it swings further out. The insults lobbed at Congressman John Lewis are another example (link to David Remnick’s article in the New Yorker).

I don’t know what kind of Inauguration is going to take place on January 20, but I hope it is dignified because it represents our country not just the newly elected President. I will not watch because I do not want to reward childish behavior with the thing the president-elect craves most–television ratings. I’ll use the time instead to stay focused on what really matters: community, family, friends, meaningful work and serving God.

If you want to learn more about character or looking for ideas for teaching character to your children or students, check out Tiffany Shlain’s excellent resources at http://www.letitripple.org/films/science-of-character/.

Most Impactful Books of 2016

I am enjoying reading the lists of books, podcasts, and movies that people compile at the end of the year. People’s tastes are idiosyncratic, so I figure if I find one or two things that are new and interest me then it was worth the time reading their list. Whilst reading the New York Times Book Review survey of writers and their favorites of 2016, I found quite a few new things to read in 2017 (more on that at the end).

Three journals from 2016 and my current composition book… on my desk in winter’s light.

The challenge is always remembering what I have read in Q1 or Q2. This is why I write down the titles in my journal. Please allow me a moment to pause and say a word on behalf of journaling. I have been writing in a personal journal for most of my life. Okay, so when I was in third grade I called it a diary and it had a key that I lost somewhere over the years. Sometimes they devolve into a book of lists. Sometimes I take notes on a particularly moving podcast or documentary or copy passages from a book.

I also use composition notebooks for work. I learned this technique from Dr. Henry Vaux at the University of California. It is easier to look for notes based on the timeline of meetings and associations than to keep them in separate files by topic. When I begin a new comp book, I tear out a few of the most important pages from the old one and tuck them in the back. I hang on to the old one for about a month and then shred it because I find I rarely go back to find information. It is more important as a tool in the moment–writing helps me process information and improves my memory. I never understand the people who never write down a single word in a meeting. How can they relinquish so much power?

Back to the book list! I know a book has impacted me greatly when I give it as gifts to one or more people. So while Toni Morrison said that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me was a must read, I couldn’t stop thinking about Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. I gave it to 3 people and I have one more copy to give away.

I participated in the Jane Austen Reading Group that meets at the McClatchy library in Sacramento. I read two books that I shared with others:  Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: a life in small things, and William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education. This almost made up for the other months when I had to read the muck that passes as Jane Austen tributes, mysteries, etc.

Lynne Twist came to Sacramento to speak at our church and to nonprofit leaders about The Soul of Money. I reread her book and gave several copies to others to encourage them to attend her presentations. You have to be ready to hear the message. I know I didn’t cotton to her ideas the first time I read it. I just recently watched the documentary Minimalism on Netflix, and while it touches on a lot of topics shallowly, I still found it compelling.

Thanks to the podcast On Being, I discovered some new writers including David Whyte. I shared chapters of his book with friends and colleagues and used them as the focal points of discussions. One discussion of “boids” in The Heart Aroused led to reading the 1992 book Complexity by M. Mitchell Waldrup. I found so many of the ideas about complexity theory of interest to the challenges of managing a megaproject that I shared copies with our team before we went on holiday break.

One of the books that moved me most profoundly was Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink about the modern Muslim faith. It really helped me fill in a giant gap in my knowledge and to see similarities to my faith in Jesus. I want to know more.

What is in my pile to read in 2017? Waking Up White by Debby Irving; Lit by Mary Karr; Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Tribe by Sebastian Junger; Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell. There are more on my wish list: Ann Pachett’s Commonwealth, and Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

One final note, Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong had a real impact on me at the time I read it. And then the nastiness of the election overwhelmed the public space and now the world just doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable except among friends and trusted colleagues. I still believe that Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is hugely important in our world today. So if you haven’t read it yet: give yourself a New Year treat and download or pick it up today.

Christmas Morn Lesson: Open letter to Krista Tippett

Part of our family tradition is singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus with cake and candles. Someone always invariably says, “and many more”, which cracks us all up because of course He is eternal.

Dear Krista:

As a descendent of Norseman, our family celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve. This has been handy as divorce and distance has challenged gatherings. It also means that Christmas is a quiet day of reflection for me. Worship at St John’s Lutheran wasn’t until 10 a.m. so I listened to your On Being podcast interview with Eugene Peterson. It was such a blessing and I felt such peace and love. I still had time and I was waiting for scones to come out of the oven. I searched for something similar on your website and found April 16, 2016 interview with MIT physicist Frank Wilczek. Wow!

The interview was over just as I needed to leave for church. I came home and listened to the unedited version. And I am inspired to write this open letter to you.

First, thank you for providing a place for profound conversations about such widely varied topics as physics, poetry, faith, and life in the public space. Where else would I learn that Eugene Peterson loves Wallace Stegner’s books as much as I do? Every week I am invariably challenged or inspired or made to think or all of these at once.

In the Frank Wilczek interview you spent much time conversing with him about beauty. As he said, “There’s a remarkable intersection I think, a remarkable overlap between the concepts of beauty that you find in art and literature and music and things that you find as the deepest themes of our understanding of the physical world.” You shared your discoveries in discussing beauty with Islam and Jewish scholars of the deep shared value for beauty.

In 2017 as we all struggle to make sense of what is going on with our world–with the poles melting, Aleppo burning, and many other pressing needs–it may seem frivolous to focus on beauty. Yet I am writing today to ask you to host a conference across all of the disciplines that you feature on your show to discuss beauty and help us all learn more about what beauty can tell us about the deepest meaning in the universe. Ask the powerful questions of these deep thinkers that we listeners only have access through you. Ask them what beauty can tell us about how we should then live in 2017.

St John’s gave each worshipper a gift as we departed: a tangerine, a small candy cane and a birthday cake candle. My heart smiled. I remembered my grandpa’s stories about simpler, less materialistic Christmases. It is afterall a story about a babe in a manger, young parents, and shepherds agog from seeing angels. 

This is my Christmas wish for On Being. Thank you for listening so well to your guests and modeling meaningful conversation.

Merry Christmas,

Julie Pieper Spezia

This Moral Moment

What world are we creating for my grandson Calvin?

I have been trying to process how anyone can justify voting for the Republican presidential nominee. This became even more mysterioso after the Friday tape drop. I try to “build an empathy bridge” to my Republican friends. I imagine if the Democrats had a candidate who was truly unqualified, who regularly insulted groups of people, and acted like a petulant child, and now likely committed sexual assault. Would I still vote for him/her out of party loyalty? Or because I thought the future of the supreme court was more important than the deficiencies of the candidate? It gets me part of the way (Bill Clinton springs to mind–especially the second time around) and still there is a chasm.

I marvel at both the Republicans who since Friday have claimed that are now so outraged they unendorse him, and those who, even with this latest garbage spew from the candidate, say that at least he doesn’t support abortion. (Does he or doesn’t he? Really, you believe that?) To the former I guess you can see where they might have given Trump’s public pronouncements a pass before, thinking he’s just trying to mobilize a segment of angry voters, and then once you hear that even 11 years ago (at age 59 past the point of “maturity”) he was saying vile things in private. This is a direct window into his heart. It’s ugly and it becomes the final straw.

And now I have a whole new understanding of how Germany ended up with Hitler (no I am not called the Republican nominee a Hitler–the comparison is more to their shared deep narcissism and willingness to race bait to win elections).  Especially my fellow Christians: How can you give his behavior such a complete pass just to have access to Presidential power or to maintain Anglo-Christian privilege? I continue to read on Facebook posts from Christian friends who say Trump is the only true Christian. (I guess Methodists aren’t followers of Christ??)

This is why I believe we are living in a moral moment. In her article,  “Derailed” by Kathryn Schultz in The New Yorker August 22, 2016, she suggests we do not usually recognize moral moments.

“It is to our credit if these are the Americans [Underground Railroad engineers] to whom we want to trace our moral genealogy.  But we should not confuse the fact that they took extraordinary actions with the notion that they lived in extraordinary times. One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own–that, had we been alive, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes from without but from within.”

I like to think that when there is a critical moment to make a choice with heavy moral portent that I will recognize it and make the right decision. It might be hard or come at a great cost personally or professionally, but I would be on the right side of history. I believe this election will shape our society’s moral compass for years to come.

Dan Rather agrees with me. As he said on the evening of the second Presidential debate:

For those of us who have lived long and eventful lives, we often are able to find calm in the crisis of the moment by invoking the perspective of time. You understand that history is always rough in the early making and the years and decades that follow will often smooth these jagged peaks into the gentle contours of a rolling landscape where big themes and movements hold sway over the details that overwhelm us in the here and now. But this is not always the case. There are some inflection points that explode with such violence and monstrous effect that any semblance of continuity is hopelessly disjointed.

Most often these moments are ones of violence – wars, civil unrest and assassinations. But make no mistake, what we have seen in the past few days is proof that we are living through such an instance. And the violence here has been in ripping asunder our self-confidence in our system of government and in the unity we share with our fellow Americans.

We have serious problems facing our nation, and our world. Our ship of state must be prepared to navigate the perilous shoals of our complicated world – and yet I feel tonight as if we have been hijacked into an alternate universe. This national nightmare will end one way or another and we will awaken to the same world from which we have been so disengaged. That is our challenge and it is a challenge from which none of us can opt out.

As citizens we must repudiate the hate, the bigotry, the vile character we have seen eating up the public space for the last year and VOTE for Hillary Clinton so there is no way the Republican nominee is allowed to win by any measure.

Why is truth so unpopular?


Al Gore called his mega-PowerPoint presentation on climate change An Inconvenient Truth. Seems like in this ugly season leading up to the national election that truth is more unpopular than ever.

Case in point, a family member and Facebook friend posted a picture of a baby born at 36 weeks with a caption that said “Bernie and Hillary support abortions as late as 36 weeks…” This struck me as particularly horrifying if this were true as that is considered a near term birth (full term is 39-40 weeks).  So I went to Google and Snopes.com and this story is false. At first I wrote not true, but that is not strong enough. It is misrepresenting their positions at best and I would even call it a lie.

So I messaged my relative privately instead of calling her out on Facebook. I provided her the Snopes.com link and this was her response, “I know—you don’t know what is true, I just wanted to show what a 36 week baby looked like didn’t care if either or neither said that. Be so glad when election is over!”


If she were a friend I might hide all of her posts from now on, but I want to see the grandkid photos and know when they are seeing other family members, so I will let it go. How many of us are having to do this with family or friends during this ugly election season?

It is easy to blame the media or the internet, but if you go back to Alexander Hamilton’s day and truth and elections were allergic to each other even then. Only then it was a printed pamphlet. And if we are honest with ourselves, truth is never popular. When it finally wins out people rewrite history and say they always knew or they are glad it came out. In fact, most of us spent energy avoiding the truth or actively denying it.

This is why it is one of The Four Agreements. All of the agreements seem simple, almost facile. Until you try to live them.

Finding the Courage to Welcome Refugees

Source: aljazeera.com
Why families are fleeing. Source: aljazeera.com

During today’s lunch hour  I watched Global Immersion Project’s webinar, “Confronting the Refugee Myths.” If you missed it, you can watch it here. After catching up on a few tasks I realized that it was after 2 and I scooted over to Plates2Go to get a sandwich.

I mentioned to the woman serving me that I was running late because I listened to a webinar on welcoming refugees. Her response summed up the challenge in a nutshell: overcoming fear. She said she is afraid that by letting in refugees we are letting in terrorists. I replied that I understand it takes courage but that our screening process makes it almost impossible for a terrorist to infiltrate. (I could have mentioned that Jeremy from Preemptive Love Coalition says we should be more worried about homegrown radicals, but I wanted to dial down the fear not amplify it.) Then she told me about a friend in law enforcement that told her about the theft of over $39,000 worth of UPS uniforms. She is concerned that this is the prelude to a terrorist attack. I pointed out that this sounds like a plan for old-fashioned crime at holiday time.

After a little more conversation she said that as a Christian she knows she is supposed to trust in God, and that she is supposed to help others. She said that she will probably do the right thing but she is still afraid. I agreed that it can be hard and that courage is acting especially when we are afraid.

bombed syria
Would you stay here?  Source: timeslive.co.za

Sometimes leadership is having these conversations over and over. Calling people forth to their better selves in spite of the fear. These conversations can be like lights that chase out the darkness. It is easier to be brave when we know other people share our concerns and our resolve. Right now the media is amplifying the fear. So those of us who want the end of the story to be different must step up our courageous actions. Counteract the Governor of Georgia who is trying to discourage churches in Atlanta from sponsoring Syrian refugee families. The Governor is proposing legislation to cut off all benefits to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. One church already responded that they will meet whatever needs a family presents. How do we create a welcoming place for them in the midst of this kind of hostility?

This is the challenge posed by the Global Immersion Project. They invited Global Relief to give an overview of the facts. In the 1970s the United States welcomed over 200,000 refugees a year–mostly from Southeast Asia. Last year we let 85,000 refugees in and only a fraction are from Iraq and only 1,682 from Syria. We can do more.

Our screening process is already extremely thorough. First the applicants have to pass the security vetting, then complete the cultural orientation. Then they are matched with a refugee organization. Refugee organizations depend on their local partners who are mainly churches and other volunteer organizations.

The refugees do not get much aid. They have to pay for their own plane tickets via a loan. Then they receive a stipend for 6 months. Generally the refugees–mostly families–are integrated enough to make it on their own. European governments are much more generous and they begin the screening process once you are in country.

The challenge we face is creating a welcome environment for refugees arriving today. With 30 Governors publicly saying that they are not welcome, it is important that people of faith who believe that God calls us to a different kind of hospitality Write and Go.

Vicki from We Welcome Refugees encourages people to make their voice heard either by using the automated system on their website to write to their elected officials or by calling congressional representatives while they are home for Thanksgiving. The electeds’ staff keep a tally and right now voices of compassion are outnumbered by people calling in fear and anger.

The other call is to go: donate coats and household goods or money to refugee organizations, partner with churches in Europe to help refugees, participate with your place of worship to sponsor a family, or be a friend to a refugee. Remember they have left everything they know for life in the United States. Sometimes they are still overwhelmed with concern for the safety of loved ones left behind. Sometimes they are grieving other losses of career or the life that might have been. Or they are just plain homesick.

bomb in Syria
Source: telegraph.co.uk

As a follower of Christ I welcome refugees as an act of obedience to Jesus’ direction (Matthew 25: 35-39), and because it is the right thing to do. The Golden Rule is not unique to American Christians afterall. And if bombs were turning Sacramento into rubble and I had to flee I would hope that others would welcome me and help me to begin the slow process of rebuilding my life.

I have already sent letters to my Governor, Senators and Congresswoman. I am seeking ways to do more. My congregation is preparing to sponsor families. Wherever they are from I intend to do my utmost to make them feel welcome. Please join me.





Modern Day Samaritan Moral Dilemma

Van Gogh's art
What comes up when you Google images of mental illness?

I was riding my bike on the American River Parkway, just after the bike/pedestrian bridge crosses the river near C Street. I saw that someone had ripped open full trash bags from the public garbage cans and strewn them across the trail. As I wove my way through the trash I could smell feces and I realized there was a man in full mental breakdown talking to himself about 20 feet off the trail. When he saw me he started swearing the usual derogatory terms for women.

I kept riding, not because I felt at risk, but because I am not equipped to handle his crisis. In the last few years I know mental illness is not a character flaw or demon possession. For the first time I thought of it in the same terms as someone having a heart attack. I would not just keep pedaling. But, who do you call in such a situation?

The Sacramento papers have had too many stories about police responding to a call and shooting unarmed mentally ill persons. I did not want this person to come to harm. And he is not a criminal. Yet, I could not pass by without calling someone because I did worry he might hurt himself.

So I called my two friends who advocate for the mentally ill. I reached Stephanie and she had a couple of suggestions to try before calling 9-1-1.  Unfortunately, Loaves and Fishes that is located closest to the person in crisis is open from 8-3 Monday through Friday and not on a Saturday of a three-day weekend. I called 2-1-1, which is the 9-1-1 line for social services. From the menu choices I could tell that this is a great place to call for housing or food for your child under 5, but not for a full-blown meltdown. Then I called the mental health crisis hotline and the woman said she could only help if she could speak to the person directly and get their permission to offer services.

I believe this is the way the law is written to protect the rights of the mentally ill from being locked up in an asylum or forced into treatment. If you have lived in any urban center for long you know when there is someone who is talking incoherently and hitting themselves and walking around nonsensically, that this person is not in a position to talk into a phone to someone who is trying to find them the correct program. Clearly our system is effed up.

My only option remaining was to call 9-1-1. When I called the first operator established the reason for my call and the man’s location and then patched me through to Sacramento Police Department. I found myself holding my breath. I really was not sure I was doing the right thing for the man. I had a hard time explaining his location since the dispatcher was clearly unfamiliar with the bike trail. Ultimately she said she had the information she needed. I was a few miles away by now. Coincidentally I heard sirens immediately and it gave me chills. I would hope the responders who took the call would not use their sirens. I would like to think they have some kind of training for dealing with someone with mental illness.

Why is it that if someone on the trail was having a heart attack and I called 9-1-1 they would send an ambulance, but with mental illness they sent the police. And the police most often take the person to jail. This man, caucasian early 30s, was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother. And even if he is completely alone in the world, he is a child of God.

What is a good Samaritan to do?

P.S. I wrote this 5 months ago and waited to publish it. I wanted to be able to offer some kind of solution. Then today The Sacramento Bee started a series by Cynthia Hubert on homelessness and mental illness. I am going to move back some of my posts to focus on the issues brought up by this series.