Cinderella Sits In the United Nations
Like Cinderella, on October 6, 2002, I find myself at the ball. The palace is Le Warwick, sitting prettily on a quaint boulevard in Switzerland – a swelegant hotel with just the right amount of understatement to keep it humble. The guests arriving are like children about to open presents at a birthday party.
I enter the ballroom, my pockets bulging with tape recorders, notebooks and a camera. Start snapping pictures as the seats are filling. I have to reign myself in when I realize I’m shooting everybody with a shaved head. Bald doesn’t necessarily beget holy, I chide myself. Flashbulbs shoot all over the few people sitting next to the dais. I’m surprised. Here we are, preparing for the opening moments of the first Global Women’s Peace Initiative of Religious and Spiritual Leaders and a holy man is attracting all the attention. I assume he’s holy. He wears a white gown and his long gray hair is streaked with black, just like his moustache.
I take his picture.
The room becomes hushed. The first words are finally spoken. “We’re looking for Lindsay Wagner.” Uh, did somebody just switch channels? I grab a seat, praying that I sit next to “the right person,” and find myself next to Margaret Wolfe from Colorado. I experience a moment of regret that she’s not a refugee. But when, as an explanation for the tape recorder and notebook I set up around me, she learns that I’m covering the Initiative for The Toronto Star, she pulls out her newly launched book “In Sweet Company” and gives it to me. We become friends.
Lindsey Wagner has been found. She addresses us in a quiet voice with the hope that we may be able to maintain the equanimity, peace and compassion within ourselves that we expect of the rest of the world. And the Summit opens.
The little old man with the long gray hair is guided to the podium by his angelic looking assistant. He’s introduced as Her Holiness Dadi Janki, the Spiritual Head of the Brahma Kumaris, India/ United Kingdom. Oops. Mental check to add moustaches to the you-never-know-list along with shaved heads.
I fall in love with Dadi Janki. She says things like “the only way to peace is through our own practice of truth, love and compassion” and she says it in a language and a voice that sounds like birds singing. I will repeat these words many times in the weeks to follow, most notably to a room full of moneyed and perhaps powerful men. And get away with it. This first day is a day of prayer. We pray in several languages. We pray in silence. We pray until the energy in the room is lifting the roof off its hinges.
Since I’m acting as Secretary for the Business Roundtable Luncheon and must meet with the facilitator, Anne Glauber, I have to slip out of the room. The lobby is surprisingly lively. I find Anne in the middle of the mayhem. She’s thin, taut, 40ish and wearing the first of a series of little Chanel suits, just an inch long of a miniskirt, with matching spike heels. A bit of a lolly after the white gowns and brown nun garb in the ballroom. You’ve gotta hand it to the Americans. She’s a crackerjack.
The first pre-meeting of the Business Roundtable assembles in one of the back rooms. My little tape recorder sits in the middle of the large table and I scratch furiously in my cramped handwriting, trying to capture their offerings to this historic opportunity. They’re all business leaders, here to support Religious and Government leaders in the call to action for peace. Many are from the States, but Israel, Taiwan, Palestine, Bombay, Bosnia, Bangkok and London are all represented. Me, I’m the one recording history. I don’t have to be a leader.
Some of these women wear many hats and have been working tirelessly for peace for years. But I experience one over the next few days as being especially productive within the context of what our group is trying to achieve. Toni Maloney from the U.S. She confesses to having had a blessed life. She daydreams at Mass on Sundays. And she wants to give back to the world. Before arriving in Geneva, she had managed to co-ordinate nine other women business executives to brainstorm together so she could bring their suggestions to this conference. One of their many inspired ideas is to create a web site to act as a reverse e-bay. Women of post-war regions will be able to post their needs on this site and have them met by women in the West.
I slip back to the ballroom to soak up more of the prayers. I get there in time for a meditation during which we hold hands. I position myself next to a man who appears to be holy because he’s in an orange robe with long hair and a beard that looks legitimate up close. I’m hoping that if I hold his hand some of his holiness will zap into me. The prayer comes to rest, the hands drop. He winks at me. I’m not sure it worked.
That night is the gala dinner. I slip through the dark night in my high heels and am startled by a tree full of birds rising up in an excited chorus as I pass under them. They should be asleep. I stand beneath their shower of blessing and say a prayer of thanks yet again for this unbelievable gift. I am in Geneva, amongst some of the most powerful women in the world, taking action toward Peace. It had started with the honour of being invited to participate in this Summit. But it would cost a few thousand dollars to pull it off and, though seemingly impossible, I prayed my heart out to find the money. I pushed hard to sell an exclusive story to one of our newspapers or magazines in exchange for the expenses, but nobody was interested. At the 11th hour, my company, Linda Lundstrom Inc, offered to pay half. This was all my boyfriend needed to go into action. Unbeknownst to me, he contacted my friends. Told them what was happening. Mere days before the summit was to begin, time enough only to have my security passed by the United Nations, I was handed a plane ticket, my hotel reservation and enough cash in my pocket to get by.
It was a 50th birthday gift from the people who have seen me through the last few years of terror and hardship and believe me to be a woman who should be here. Knew it was the perfect turning point. Knew it would change my life. And it has.
The ballroom has been transformed into a dining room. Guests have been asked to come dressed in their ceremonial garb. An imposing group of Indigenous people, men and women, enter and command a table in silence. One of the women has penciled in a beard on her chin. I come to the conclusion that facial hair is like a secret handshake with God. I take her picture.
Sitting on my right is Lily. She spent two nights without sleep in her escape from Palestine. She collapsed when she arrived. The hotel doctor prescribed Valium, which she tells me she would never take under any other circumstances. She’s glad she did. I interview her into the smaller of my two recorders with the excited thrum of voices drowning us out. Her country has been under curfew for over 120 days. They can’t leave their homes. Bombs are going off all around them. Even if you could slip out to shop, there’s nothing to buy. Supplies can’t make it into the city past the Israeli checkpoints. Their economy is paralyzed.
On my left is the Honorable Leticia Shahani, Co-Chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders, Presidential Advisor on Culture to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines and Former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. She’s dignified and quiet. I have no idea how to strike up a conversation. So I sit with my hearing impairment instead. I can’t make out a word anyone is saying under these conditions and resort to feeling the energy of the room. Which explodes with the thunderous performance of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. These drummers are using the instruments that were traditionally used to heat up warriors before entering battle, to align our energy toward peace. It’s powerful, sexual and many of the women have to leave the room. I can’t get enough of it. It pounds through me like the roar of the earth.
Day two begins with a 6 am wakeup call. It’s critical we are in the lobby on time for the bus to take us to the United Nations. I knew we’d be down there agonizingly tired and the bus would be ridiculously late and I was right. It gives me an opportunity to talk further with a young woman who intrigues me. Senada was 16 when the war started in her homeland of Bosnia. It ended 5 years later. She holds herself tightly, her skin stretched across her agony like a strait jacket.
I catch up with Lily when we disembark at the U.N. It’s gray and if dawn has broken it hasn’t managed to break through the gloom. We pass security, so immersed in our conversation a line backs up behind us as the officials patiently watch us. Her family’s history of having been forced to leave their home, their property, their wealth and business behind a generation before her is the driving force of her conversation. Their import/export business has collapsed under the duress of the Israeli occupation. She is a special Advisor for the Palestinian National Authority Commission for NGO’s Affairs in Ramallah. I never get a chance to find out what that means.
We sit together in the Palais des Nations. This is when it hits me. We’re in the hallowed halls of the United Nations! This is one powerful room, my friends. The gravity and enormity of why we are here settles on us like a majestic cloak.
I press record on my tape recorder, open my book and start writing at a furious pace and keep going for hours. I ache to replay to you everything I hear. I will try to satisfy myself with sound bites …
It falls to us as mothers to bring our voices for action for the sake of the young. Political diplomacy is not working. We have been given spiritual resources so we can survive as a human community. Compassion, mercy and truth must begin with me. We mustn’t allow ourselves to get unhappy, it makes us weak. Peace is something we must commit our lives to. This is like birthing, raising children out of the crucible of pain.
Why the world is so full of hatred, competition and violence is because it reflects that which we hold within our own hearts, unless we really do something about it. The whole world revolves around me and mine and grasps for pleasure. We try to avoid that which will cause displeasure and pain. This sense of inner conflict and greed reflects outward.
Hatred never ceases by hatred. Hatred only ceases by love.
There has not been equal progress in technological development and the development of prayer. If more of us draw on the limitless power of prayer, we will change the world. It is a privilege to be in this world. We are not here as tourists, we have work to do. War is social annihilation.
We must insist on equal education for girls and women, equal status for girls and women, equal roles in religion and politics … we have to use our vote. We must begin by educating our children.
We are required to speak the truth.
Palestinian and Israeli educators report that their children have lost all hope. We need to give them tools to deal with despair. Peace education is critical. Teachers must be trained to infuse tolerance into the inbred teachings of intolerance and hatred.
Spirituality is our currency for transformation.
The speeches are passionate, vital, the call to action, powerful. We pose for a picture on the steps of the United Nations after being hurried out, our allotted time in the halls of power aborted by a few hours, reasons undisclosed. The flags of the United Nations that should be hanging above us have been covered up.
The sun has come out and beats down on us like a bear hug.
Shortly after, the Business Council meets again, this time in the lobby of Le Warwick. Only a handful of us show up. Surrounded by noise and bustle, we work with an intensity that burns. So much to do, so little time to do it. UNIFEM needs a higher profile. It needs to speak the language of business. We need a star CEO to approach other CEO’s for money and resources. Noeleen insists that until these ravaged countries are functioning economically, forget the micro loans. They need grants. Lily tells us that her whole country has been deconstructed and destroyed. Unemployment is up to 75%. She has her MBA from Cairo. We need to assist more women in getting that degree. She tells us that the beautiful embroidery work of Palestinians should be sold out in the world. They need to be partnered with Israeli businesswomen to get the goods out of the country.
Business for Peace means business helping ethical business. We need to go after the multi nationals. The Europeans are much more socially responsible than the North Americans.
Noeleen introduces us to the Widows of Rwanda. My little tape recorder is thrust up to the words of a woman wrapped in scarves. These women are struggling to revitalize their communities after the genocide killed 70% of their men. Even as they carry the anguish of their murdered children, they adopt babies born of rape, tend their sisters and daughters suffering from intentionally induced HIV Aids, care for children who have been sexually mutilated. They make beautiful baskets. We name them Peace Baskets. Anne teams Eziba, “Hearts and Crafts” up with Noeleen to import the baskets into North America where she will market them through catalogue, internet and retail.
We agree to assist Noeleen in raising the funds to build and support 30 women’s shelters across Afghanistan to serve as safe places for women where they can learn basic life skills such as cooking, sewing, reading. Anne pairs Noeleen up with a woman who is setting up a hairdressing school in Afghanistan as a means to build the first of these centers.
Lily tells us hundreds of men and women and children have been killed and direct intervention is needed in her country. She asks for help in getting neutral groups together. It needs to be done very discreetly. Noeleen informs us that there is an annual budget of $3 billion from the U.S. going directly into the Israeli military. We part ways to go back into the workshop sessions buzzing.
I don’t stop in time for dinner that night. I am desperate for sleep but have to start transposing my notes or I’ll never have an article written by Wednesday. I’m thrilled The Star asked for the piece. I’ve written several front-page Entertainment features for them in the past and, in regards to this unprecedented Peace conference, they were the only publication that came through. As a journalist covering wars for 30 years had passionately informed us from the stage of the United Nations that morning, it’s the hardest thing in the world to get the media to pick up the real stories of war – the stories of women.
I know I have so much to do and yet it’s impossible to keep my eyes open. I say a prayer … “I’ll go to sleep and if I don’t wake up I’ll know it’s okay and somehow I’ll get all this work done by Wednesday. If, on the other hand, you wake me up in a couple of hours, I’ll believe you and get up and work.” I am awakened in an hour. I say, “No, you’re just kidding” and turn over. An hour later I am awakened again. This time I don’t argue. I realize that I’m meant to transpose the notes of our Business power meeting in the lobby of Le Warwick. I spend until breakfast working on that, putting it into a format that reflects the action to be taken to accomplish our goals so I can deliver it to my committee teammates.
Dadi Janki opens the day again. “Respect yourself,” she smiles sweetly. “Have patience, perseverance. Don’t give away. Be happy with yourself.” Another morning of remarkable speakers. Another round of sound bites for you:
There are only two energies, love and fear. For the next ten years many things are going to happen on this planet. Much is going to shift. The time to be in a cave is over. It’s not about walking on water. It’s about being responsible for our own thoughts, our own actions. It’s a matter of choice.
We have raised our sons not to show emotion. Men don’t know how to behave. We don’t support each other as women. United by sisterhood, there is nothing we cannot achieve. We are to rejoice with the widow, the needy, no matter how taxing it is on us.
Whatever the theologians say, Jesus didn’t do it. Jesus walked with women, worked with women. Jesus will eventually prevail, even in the Church!
India is famous for discriminating against women, but what is being reflected is not Islamic, not religion, it is culture. Spiritual leaders in India are doing things the government is not able to do – putting up schools and hospitals, touching millions of people.
The UN reports that women do 2/3 of the world’s work and receive 1/3 of the income. 90% of the world’s refugees are Muslim. 80% are women and children.
Why has the Secretary General of the United Nations never been a woman? Why are we not represented on the Security Council?
We need to teach children to meditate. Teach children quantum physics so they will learn balance.
Energy shifts in one meeting when one person speaks truth from a place of quiet.
The Minister for Women of Afghanistan asks for help to teach women their basic rights. Help in establishing businesses of raising poultry, raising animals, the honey industry, the leather industry for handbags, briefcases, shoes. In order to bring her country’s women into the modern world they need our help to teach them business, accounting, computer expertise.
Our Business Roundtable Luncheon is attended by a couple of hundred women. The results of our hard work behind the scenes are presented. It’s very positive. Afterward, I’m invited to join a faction of American women who want to continue the discussion. I agree, but reluctantly because I want to benefit from other areas of the conference, which are continuing on, but I feel obligated to support them. The group becomes contentious toward Anne and UNIFEM. I become distraught with the shift in our positive energy to one of divisiveness that seems to reflect self-interest. I leave the meeting abruptly, feeling ill. The negative aspects of human behaviour have infiltrated even this sacred space.
So much is going on around me it’s hard to leave even though my fatigue is felling me. My need to cover the summit for the Star precludes any opportunity to go out to dinner with anyone and to meet any of these remarkable women on a personal level. I go back late to my room again, this time I’ve brought take-out, and get back to work, trying to begin the task of winnowing an entire book of notes into a 900 word article that tells “what happened”. I am daunted. And know I cannot even begin to try until the end of the conference, when the results of all of the workshops are presented. I settle in to transpose the notes into cohesive thoughts so I am prepared to write tomorrow night, my deadline.
I am by now sick with exhaustion. But I remind myself that the women trapped in violence do not get to sleep, and I push on into the early morning. When I finally can’t take it anymore, I crawl under the covers. I am awakened two hours later at dawn by a dream that pulls me into consciousness… I am swimming in a huge body of water, the temperature of the water is perfect and although I am happily making all the motions of swimming, I do not have to make any effort to move. The current below me washes me to shore.
I take this as a message not to worry about getting the article done on time. I will be washed to shore without effort.
Our final day begins, as they all do, with prayer. Today’s sound bites:
We are receiving an electric shock to awaken our minds. The more we live with our deepest self, the more we are guided. When we don’t take the time for meditation or contemplation we allow a buildup of dust to clog our inner pipeline. If we don’t have access to the deepest God given energies within, we cannot take action to heal the world.
As one’s consciousness becomes absorbed by God, the universe is more apt to give us what we need, when we need it, if we need it. We’ve forgotten it’s God’s world … we’ve filled it in part with massive distraction and in part with massive destruction. Suffering is the vehicle that brings us to our knees in supplication.
Our spiritual evolution is calling to us to unite in the only reality we all share.
Most politicians are engaged in the arena of opposition and will not serve the leap in consciousness we are being asked to take.
How do some cities avoid violence more than others? Those with business associations, trade unions, sports clubs, organizations that help city officials to quash uprisings, to mentor youth … in other words, cities that act as communities.
Before we preach to the world, we have to show we are capable of healing violence. Share common values, cultivate respect for differences, create forums to discuss the humanizing of others.
Women from Rwanda, the Congo, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan have cried out to us, “I have lost a daughter, son, husband, sister, mother. Please do something out of this that will enable us to call on the women of the world in times of conflict. Don’t forget us. End abject poverty as an essential element of peacemaking.”
Don’t wait for funding. Open our hearts and do something for our sisters in their grief now. Allow sons to cry so they can feel, so they will not rape girls and mothers.
A mother from Israel, the Jew, recounts the story of her 14-year-old Coby, her eldest child of four, not coming home one day. He and a friend had skipped school to go hiking. They’d had their heads bashed in with a rock by Palestinian terrorists. Dead. My friend Senada, the Muslim, tells us of the day she and her mother and cousins were rounded up and put into a prison. They laughed until the doors closed. That night, screaming pierced the silence of their tombs. The boys and young men were being tortured in the rooms next to them. Her brother was among them.
This is when I break.
I rush out around noon to email the Star’s Life editor who had asked me to let her know what was going on before I file the piece in case she wants to change her mind about my writing only “what happened.” I flee to a grotty, cave-like internet joint that I had found on my first night here. It’s smoky and filled with men. This is going to be where I type out and send my article that night. I give Lesley a few details of my experience and mention that I had finally started crying that morning. Said, if you have any suggestions let me know. I’ll check in before finalizing the piece.
I go back to my hotel room to sleep for an hour because the emotional wrench has taken the last ounce of strength from my body. Hurry back and sidle up to a woman being interviewed by somebody else. Hold my little recorder up to the interview while I eye the last of the luncheon sitting on the table beside me. Darn, the waiters clear it just as I’m trying to get close enough to grab a bite. Another meal lost.
I sit outside along the lake, hurriedly writing up a draft of my article while the rest of the participants join in for an aerial shot of them spelling out the word Peace.
It’s time for the Closing Reports. The Next Generation, a group of youth including my friend Senada, thank the mothers of the world for nurturing them by announcing the birth of the Global Youth Peace and Sustainable Environment Initiative, Oct. 24 – 27, 2004 in Nairobi.
A young woman, a firefighter from New York City involved in the 911 events and who had arrived at the Initiative full of anger toward the terrorists, announces her plan to launch a youth magazine for young people around the world to tell their stories. Funding has already been fully committed by one of the Summit’s participants.
Anne recounts all the initiatives taken by our Business Council including our intention to set up a Peace Fund and endeavor to recruit more businesswomen for our Business Council for Peace.
A Women’s Negotiating Corps of international women will go in solidarity to the war zones to engage in fact finding to provide political leaders with insights into everyday realities, help catalyze peace building and open channels for diplomacy.
The Declaration for Peace is presented. Prayers are said by a dozen people.
It’s an emotional ending to a remarkable achievement. Linda Evans announces that she is sponsoring hor d’oeurves and cocktails at her hotel along with a documentary she has produced about Peace. I wish.
I spend my last precious moments trying to track down a photographer’s contact information to give to the Star in case they want a picture. There hasn’t been any media coverage to speak of, but a documentary is being made of the entire event and I finally find one of the producers to get the information I need. Then it’s off to write the piece.
I’ve got ‘till 1:oo a.m. which is when the internet joint closes. At 12:45 I race down the dark streets to desperately file on time, only to find the doors locked and the lights out. I am reduced to begging the concierge of my hotel to let me use their one and only computer. He gives me half an hour. There’s no internet access available, as his boss is the only one with the password. I stand behind the front desk of Le Warwick at 2 a.m. typing my piece at a speed I hadn’t known I was capable of. Then it’s frantic calls to my boyfriend in Toronto to get him to find out the Star editor’s fax number, and two phone messages to the editor herself to tell her what’s going on at my end. By 3 a.m. I’m toast in a lobby chair and the fax affirmation sheet is in my hand.
By 5 a.m. I’m showered, packed and in a cab on my way to the airport.
I give the editor two days before I leave her a message asking her to let me know what’s up. I’m getting concerned. There hasn’t been a word of the Global Women’s Peace Initiative of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in any of the papers, not even picked up from the wires.
I leave her another message. In fact I’ve not even heard back from her since I left her my email from my grotty little internet joint in Geneva.
She finally responds, leaving me a curt message informing me that she’ll not be using the piece. It was exactly what she asked me not to write. After allowing myself five stunned minutes of horror, I call her back and wonder of wonders, reach her. Ask her to tell me just where it was I went wrong. “You said you cried”, she replies.
By some staggering stretch of the imagination she has mistaken my chatty email from my grotty cave computer as my professional article. She hasn’t received my fax. Nor my phone messages telling her to look out for the fax? I tell her I’ll refax it to her so she may read the real thing. And I offer to rewrite it since it’s no longer news and would require a more story-like approach.
I never hear from her again.
Two weeks later I receive an email from the Religion Editor, informing me that the Life Editor has passed it on to her. Unfortunately, writes the Religion Editor, since no real action has resulted from the Peace Initiative she doesn’t consider it newsworthy, but thanks for thinking of the Star.
Compassion is required to sit in the corner for a few minutes while I fire off my response to that.
The only coverage the Initiative receives, as far as I hear, is a light, 600 word article on the front page of the Religion section of The Washington Post, accompanied by the picture of the word Peace spelled out by the women’s bodies. As one of the nuns comments, ”If we’d been spelling out War it would have been on the front pages of all the papers.”
Women’s work and Peace work are not considered newsworthy. It’s War that will be reported on. And so it is that fear continues to be fuelled and fanned. But we will not be daunted. We will not be denied. Media may be the most powerful weapon in the world next to weapons of war, but neither of them holds a candle to prayer.
As for me, on my 50th birthday, I became a Peacemaker. The people who know me for who I really am are the givers of this gift to me, and that, too, is a gift. My heart’s longing has finally come home.