For most of us, tikkun olam, repairing the world, is only a small part of our busy, complicated lives. Not so for Marisa Handler. Her memoir, Loyal to the Sky — Notes from an Activist (Berrett-Koehler, $24.95), is a lively and revealing behind-the-scenes look at the global justice movement and Handler’s personal journey toward living a compassionate life.
Handler was born in apartheid South Africa, where she lived until age 11, in 1988, when her progressive parents decided the brutal, repressive system would never end peacefully and left for America. She has since lived, traveled, organized and protested in Israel, Nepal, Peru, Ecuador and in many locations around the U.S. From saying “no” to apartheid in a South African schoolyard to saying “no” to oil companies in the Amazon Basin, to war in Iraq, to free trade and Republican policies, Handler puts a face — many faces — on the global justice movement.
Code Orange (of which she is a member), Code Pink, Food Not Bombs, Veterans for Peace, the Puppetistas, SOA Watch, the anarchists… they and more are all here, but looking very different from the media portrayals. For example, Handler describes militarized response to mostly peaceful demonstrations as “domestic repression.” Committed to tactics of nonviolence, she acknowledges that “nonviolent civil disobedience is apparently as terrifying as ever to the armed-and-uniformed guardians of liberty and democracy.” The book’s last chapter is a moving and sometimes frightening recounting of the cost that can be extracted for standing up against those purported guardians.
Throughout the book, Handler struggles with alienation, as she sees the need not only for connections between people and governments, and between ideas and actions, but also between activism and spirituality. It is not surprising, then, that in her own personal spiritual journey, she is drawn to Buddhism, which supports her dedication to nonviolent change. She declares the time spent on her first Buddhist retreat in India to be “ten days that change my life…I glimpse what I can only call my fundamental goodness. Except it isn’t mine. It belongs, as I had suspected, to all of us. Indeed it is bigger than all of us.” Buddhism increasingly informs her opinions and actions even as she continues to feel connected to the cultural and historic Judaism of her birth. It is not often that someone who has barely finished living the first three decades of her life has the “stuff” of a personal memoir, and Handler can sometimes sound overwritten, self-conscious and even a bit preachy. But her voice is authentic and well-intentioned. At its best, Handler’s story confronts us with the challenge and power of personal moral choice and the possibilities for many individuals together to change the world. “I have come to believe that every one of us is an activist,” she writes, “and… every action that brings us closer to ourselves, to each other, to the planet — births a better world.”
Susan Barocas is a filmmaker, writer and teacher living in Washington, DC. She is currently working on a film about white South Africans who opposed apartheid.