Knowing What It Was to Bleed

Money dictates everything in politics & government today.  If I were starting out now, I doubt I would have the same opportunity for public service Mario Cuomo gave me 30 years ago in a simpler, more direct, much more personal time when heart, and a passion for justice, were more important than wealth.

Fresh out of law school, I was buried in debt, had two jobs evaporate—one in the private sector, one at a public college– within 6 months of each other because of budget cuts and local politics.   On the brink of despair with two advanced degrees, a nine-year old son and a mortgage to pay, I sat down late on a warm, July night after Mario Cuomo’s keynote address to the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, and began to write:

“Dear Governor Cuomo:

Having just finished reading your new book and the complete text of your keynote speech, I felt compelled to write. Your words and deeds have served as a great inspiration during a particularly difficult period in my life…The reference in your speech to young families who can scarcely afford a mortgage is poignant and very real to me.

I believe that my personal testimony to unemployment and how it ravages those with ample professional skills as well as those without, can serve a useful purpose for the benefit of others. I would very much like to join your administration during this period of your reorganization and put my professional skills and personal experience to work on behalf of the “family” of New York State. Having lived that message, I believe I can articulate it well…

This has not been an easy letter to write. Yet, I believe that if the lessons I have learned from this extremely difficult period in my life can be used to benefit others, than good will have come out of adversity.”


Stephen Villano

 I mailed the letter the following morning (decades before email), and had no expectation of any response. My correspondence with Mario Cuomo was a long-shot; a desperate, radical move made by someone with nothing to lose.

Less than one week later, I received a letter on State of New York Executive Chamber stationary, with one name listed as the inside address: “Mario M. Cuomo, Governor.” I rubbed my thumb over the raised seal of the State of New York at the top of the page, to prove to myself that the letter was authentic.   My eyes darted down to the bottom of the letter, to a bold black signature by Mario Cuomo. Then, I read the three simple paragraphs which helped turn my professional life around:

“Dear Mr. Villano: 

Your letter describing how unemployment “ravages those with professional skills as well as those without” is as eloquent as your resume and published work are impressive.

I am sending your application to my Appointments Office. I don’t know if there is any position appropriate to your skills right now. I do know that if we don’t find something quickly, a man with your talent and credentials will not be available long. 

Thank you for the kind words about the “ Diaries” and my Keynote Speech. I am glad you established contact.


Mario M. Cuomo (signature)

I read and re-read one simple sentence: “I do know that if we don’t find something quickly, a man with your talent and credentials will not be available long.” That one line hooked me–especially coming from Mario Cuomo. I was 35 years old, out of work with a law degree, and my carefully calibrated professional life —so different from the always-chaotic experience of the struggling working-class Italian-American family in which I was raised—was collapsing.

Doubt dirtied my confidence in my “talent and credentials” and I was beginning to drift into darkness. I stared into the abyss that ate many I knew, some in my own family, and fought the pull to jump. Mario Cuomo’s words were a life-line to me, and I seized them. My correspondence with Cuomo, although I later discovered it was crafted by, Dick Starkey, a kind and generous journalist working with the Governor, captivated me. Here was a different kind of public person: he read, he wrote, he responded; he knew what it was to bleed.

I few months later, I was on “Mario’s Team,” and willing to sacrifice my life ,and my career, for this good man on more than one occasion. He read, he wrote, he listened very carefully to what you had to say. He was present in every moment. He thought and felt deeply. He knew what it was to bleed, and cared enough to do something about it in the days before money and influence replaced humanity.




ZaZen: Finding Peace with Pain


Steve:   Hello, Buddha….

Anatta:   I prefer to be called Anatta. It means, a “Not-Self” being.

S: Ahhh….a “Not-Self” being….A-NOT-A

A: Like a tree.

S: Beautifully expressive…

A: A Not-Self can’t have a God. If there is no God, there is no war; the absence of ego and ego-derivatives…A bliss.

S: How often do you meditate? 

A: Everyday, every breath. One needs a clear mind to observe all things.

S: I agree. I find some of my best meditation and thinking and observation comes on long walks, listening to music….

A: You mean by listening to the sounds of nature. We are nature. 

S: I love how you practice your philosophy…what are some of your favorite readings?

A:  History, science of the human mind, and Buddhism. I love reading about plants as well.

S: How have you arrived at your philosophy/way of living?

A: I sat for a very long period of time. In it, I see my life clearly. I work, eat, exercise, and I meditate. My life and my practice are one: one habit.

 S: How did you achieve that?

A: I have to meditate just like I have to eat. Sleeping is a break for the modern body.

S: I sleep well….but I have yet to integrate all so well….

A: Meditating is a break for your mind.

S: How long was your “long” meditation to put your life in perspective?….Frequently, my meditation will lead me to sleep….Sometimes, I use my mantra to help me fall asleep….

 A: There is no such thing as life “in perspective.” You see your life clearly. There is no “perspective.”

S: Isn’t seeing your life clearly putting it “in perspective?”

A: You sleep because your body needs a break. Your noisy mind also exhausts your body. One must “sit meditation”, to give your mind a break…

S: But as a writer I need to plumb the depths of my mind and my heart….

A: When you write you write; When you rest you rest.

S: Sometimes when I mediate, my mind wants to create….haiku, poems, chapters, scenes in plays….

A: Let it be.

S: But, if all is one, why do we differentiate the processes?

A:   It will go away.

S: What will go away?

A: Any thoughts, perceptions.

S: How long do you meditate for each day, when you sit to meditate?

A:   In the morning, and at night for 30,45 minutes.

S: Immediately upon awakening?

A: Yes. When you dream, your mind was at work.

S: I always dream, and I dream frequently each night, and in many colors….

A:   Then you must wake up and rest your mind. It needs a break; we have a very noisy mind.

S: You’re telling me! Mine is like a symphony!

A:   Yes, but even in a symphony there exists silence; rests.  Maybe more silent notes than we can hear.

S: I agree. Rest notes are a key part of music…

 A: When I fall asleep during meditation, I stop and go to sleep immediately

S:  Sometimes, I meditate myself to sleep.

 A:  No. When one practices ZaZen, one is already awakened.

S:  What is ZaZen?

 A:  “Sit” meditation.

S:  So you don’t practice meditation laying down?

A: I find ZaZen most difficult yet most natural. Lots of pains when practicing ZaZen. That is why I do it.

 S: What kind of pains? 

A: Back pain, leg pain, body pains of all kinds.

S: Do you sit cross-legged on the floor?

A: Burmese style; not cross-legged.  Sit evenly on 3 points. Middle point located right in the middle of your body, on your tailbone. Search for half-lotus “sit meditation” techniques on-line.

S: I will. But I don’t understand why one would willingly want to be in pain during meditation?

 A: Ahhhhh. Bingo! Now you understand it.

S: What? That pain must accompany true meditation? 

A: Yes.

S: But why?

A: Why not?

S: That is not an answer…

A:  Pain exists, right?

S: So does lack of pain…

A: Yes; both exist. It comes and goes uninvited.

S: Why not choose lack of pain as the preferred state of existence?

A: Don’t we do that everyday already?

S: Not always, although preferably.

A: Why?

S: Isn’t lack of pain less stressful? Shouldn’t meditation be designed to reduce stress?

A: Why do we attach to something that does not belong to be us?

S: What? The body?

A: Comforts and discomforts come and go by themselves.

S: So then why encourage discomfort by meditating in an uncomfortable, sometimes painful pose? Why can we not choose lack of pain?

A: You sit and watch them kindly, no judgment intended.

S: My mother lived with pain most of her life–from polio, from arthritis…

A: Ahhh…She had great powers of concentration to overcome her pain…Why suffer twice?

S: But, isn’t it part of the human condition to avoid suffering? Is it humane to choose to suffer? Is it rational?

A: That is why we suffer twice as much.

S: Why?

A: Clearly, there is pain in our body from time to time.

S: Yes.

A: So why encourage it? There is pain in the mind, created by the pain of the body.

S: But doesn’t the mind seek to be pain free, and doesn’t the mind seek for the body to be pain free? Isn’t that rational?

A: If we don’t judge the pain in the body, there is no pain in the mind. So we can only suffer once, which is pain in the body

S: I’m not talking about judging it; I’m talking about feeling it….

A: Yes, bodily senses. 

S: Do you mean to train the mind NOT to feel the pain your body feels? Here’s how I look at it: 1. there is pain; 2. the body feels the pain. 3. the mind is sensing the pain the body feels; So, are you saying that the  more you live with the bodily pain, the more your mind gets used to it?

A: Find peace with it.

S: And you find peace with pain by willingly enduring it during meditation?

A: Next time try this: when an itch arises, don’t scratch it.  Pay attention to it as if it is a masterpiece in a museum. Feel it.

S: Mind conquering matter?

A:   No

S: Mind coping with matter?

A: The point is to pay attention to our discomforts, as you would pay attention to everything…See it as impermanence…

S: But, if you want to integrate your meditation into every part of your life, to give your mind a rest, then why add another variable–pain–into the mix?

A: We are trained to dislike discomforts.

S: Yes. Isn’t that a natural condition? To seek to be pain free?

A: Why does one hate?

S: Difference. Fear.

A: It is all the same. We hate and fear pain because it is different.

S: So, we should seek out pain the way we should seek out people of different cultures and backgrounds?

A: All that is discomfort…

S: Embrace what makes you uncomfortable?

A: If you are trained to find peace with your own discomforts, yes;  you can find peace with all discomforts that you encounter externally. Because the discomforts are not yours…

S: The discomforts are not yours?

A: Discomforts come and go.

S: So you don’t own them?

A: No. So why judge them? Just watch your discomforts..the Non-Self. That is what I do during my meditation. I observe my discomforts…very kindly and politely. Detachment.



Thriving Communities: Focusing on Something Bigger than Ourselves.


The great French Jesuit Theologian, Teilhard de Chardin, framed the concept of community best: “All that matters, is devotion to something bigger than ourselves.”

If he were alive today, Teilhard might tailor his truth to better fit a more self-centered culture.   It would read: “Do something good for yourself AND good for the community.” If so, he would be describing the fundamental mission behind Napa’s Thriving Communities (

Yet,  Thriving Communities, with it’s prototypes of two different affordable and sustainable communities— the pocket neighborhood of Harvest Village, and the 48-unit multi-family development called Napa Creek Village—is itself part of something far bigger than a few local developments of sustainable workforce housing—although the need for such housing is acute throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

It’s part of a growing movement in the United States and around the world toward “innovative, small, replicable, grassroots projects,” which honor the essential elements of community: dignity, respect, trust and a sense of belonging. Born, several years ago, out of the Whidbey Institute’s Thriving Communities Initiative, the inspiration for Napa’s Thriving Communities comes from the goal of “creating small scale communities in a large scale world.”

Recently, the Whidbey Institute, convened a special three-day conference entitled, “Thriving Communities 2015: Lens on Shelter.” Some 85 community leaders, including Napa’s own Thriving Communities Founder Bonny Meyer, participated in work-meetings which took place on magnificent Whidbey Island out in Puget Sound, off the coast of Everett, Washington.

The Institute’s location itself symbolizes interconnection and environmental sensitivity.  It is situated on the first of a series of Islands that lays out a geological pathway from the Northwestern United States, up through the San Juan Islands, and iinto British Columbia, across one of the most pristine land and sea routes in the Western Hemisphere. Over the years, the Whidbey Institute has been home to “bold seekers of positive change, connecting people doing uncommon work, for the common good.”   This was the greenhouse which nurtured the early “seed-thought” of Thriving Communities into the reality of affordable/sustainable housing, now taking shape in the Napa Valley.

These “uncommon leaders”, asked some very common questions about housing:

  • Is it affordable?
  • Are homes safe and healthy for all?
  • How does our specific community face the challenges of shelter?
  • What is our community’s responsibility to provide housing?

At the end of the 3-day conference , community leaders from around the globe focused the “Lens on Shelter,” even more precisely by asking “What if everyone had”…a few essentials for living:

  • Access to housing
  • A safe place to sleep every night;
  • The ability to stay in their homes as they age;
  • Choices for sustainable and healthy living;
  • The opportunity to own a home, even without qualifying for traditional financing;
  • An end to the cycle of homelessness.

The extra-ordinarily talented and dedicated group or architects, builders, and community leaders underscored their commitment to building communities with dignity, respect for the individual, trust and a strong sense of belonging. They agreed to pursue those very real goals by focusing on:

  • “Pocket Neighborhoods”, or small “intentional” communities;
  • “Community Rooms and Resources,” or an abundance of common areas and shared things, like tools, books, gardening materials;
  • Affordable housing with land stewardship in mind through home ownership, rent-to-buy programs & resident approval;
  • Implementing the latest healthy buildings technology—beyond “Green.”

That last goal was not written by Napa’s Thriving Communities building partner Healthy Buildings USA ( , which has been leading the way in California for decades with such “beyond Green,” technologies under its visionary CEO Bob Massaro. It was arrived at by consensus by housing leaders, builders and designers from around the world, focusing their collective “lens” on the best kind of shelter, and communities to build.

Fortunately for all of us, there are thought leaders and housing activists in local communities and worldwide turning these dreams into reality, and marshalling attention and resources on affordable housing as the focal point of social change.








Kent State & the Radicalization of My Mother

This week marked the 45th anniversary of the Kent State killings, when four college students were gunned down for protesting the War in Vietnam.

A photo, forever burned into memory, electrified the nation. A distraught young woman, her mouth open in a silent scream of terror, knelt over the dead body of a college student from Long Island, 20-year old Jeffrey Miller who was shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. It could have been me.

My mother, a diminutive, chunky Italian women became radicalized by the killings of “ those kids” at Kent State, as she called them.   I was one year older than Jeffrey Miller, and in my junior year of college at a State University in upstate New York.   I was active in local anti-war rallies, demonstrations and marches on Washington. My mother looked at the photos of Jeffrey Miller on TV and in the newspapers, and all she saw was me.

She knew I stood face to face with a National Guardsman’s bayonet during one of those “Moratorium” marches. She knew I was tear-gassed. Each time I embarked upon a new crusade, my mother warned me to “be careful”, gnawing what was left of her finger-nails.

My mother was no stranger to hardship and struggle. Born during the polio epidemic of 1915, she was paralyzed on one side of her body. She was carted off to a “Crippled Children’s Home,” (the actual name of the place), where, as a young child, she saw children her own age living in an iron-lung, fighting for each breath. She considered herself fortunate that only her right arm was paralyzed.

Kept out of public swimming pools in NYC and summer camps in the Catskills because she was a “Polio Kid,” my mother developed a determination to overcome all odds, and a natural empathy with outsiders. She found her public champion and life-long hero in fellow-polio battler Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, as Mario Cuomo eloquently said, “lifted himself out of his wheelchair while lifting a nation from its knees.”

Kent State radicalized her, despite the growing conservatism of most suburban Italians, and the Catholic Church’s unconscionable support for the war. Every college student, demonstrating against the war, was her child. Every act of protest, was an act of courage. She saw herself defying the odds; she saw her son defying a war which she did not want to see him fight.

Each Christmastime at our modest split-level suburban home on Noble Street in North Babylon, New York, it was my job to put up the Christmas lights. I enjoyed the task because I enjoyed the season. But that year, Christmas 1970, as the war in Vietnam raged on, I decided to use our lights to make a political statement in our conservative, working-class neighborhood.

I shaped the Christmas lights into a huge Peace Sign, taking up the entire height and width of the big Bow Window at the front of our house. My father, more politically conservative than my mother and a WWII Veteran, was not comfortable with my Holiday handiwork, but my Mother, with visions of Kent State still dancing in her head, defended it proudly as a symbol of peace, during a season of peace.

A few nights before Christmas, my mother’s brother Angelo “Eddie” Desimone, a big bruiser of a man with the largest hands I had ever seen, came for a visit. As soon as he pulled up in front of our house, he spotted “Stephen’s Peace Sign.” He entered the house and before saying hello to my mother, demanded to know why she allowed such a “Communist” sign to deface our house. Uncle Eddie towered over my mother. When he was younger he had knocked out half the patrons of a bar in a brawl. He was menacing. He was ranting about “communists” like me, bringing America down.

My mother was wearing a housedress and a flour-covered apron with her paralyzed right arm hanging limply by her side.  She was at least a full-foot shorter than her brother.   She raised her voice to match my uncle’s, and told him that it was a “peace” sign. Without yielding an inch, she argued that her youngest son was no communist but a lover of peace, and that if he didn’t like it, he could leave. My uncle left.

Uncle Eddie had committed the original sin with my mother: he attacked the character of her son. He knew Margaret Julia Villano would not back down. Yet, what he could never understand, was how much Kent State had radicalized my mother, and how she now considered all students protesting the war to be her children.