Who Lives, Who Dies

I am sort of obsessed with all things Hamilton. This refrain from the musical has been running through my head: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

What kind of country and world do we want to create: One where Black people disproportionately die at the hands of police and from the effects of COVID-19? Where the life expectancy of Black men is consistently shorter than that of white men? 

What story will be told when we look back at this time, and by whom? The people whose stories have not been heard or respected no matter how they try to tell them… are demanding to be heard NOW.

The next American revolution, civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs writes, is about “creating a new society in the places and spaces left vacant by the disintegration of the old.” (More on building a new world in the Resource of the Day below.) We see societal disintegration unfolding in real time now, even as some of us have been pointing to it for a while.

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Photo by Victoria Pickering, via Flickr Creative Commons

The young people taking to the streets to express their grief and rage? They are the revolutionaries moving this country closer to the”radically different form of living” Boggs writes about. And revolutions are messy, chaotic deals. Violent acts are going to be part of the picture. Though I myself identify with a pacifist tradition, I can’t say anything against any form of protest, especially when the simple nonviolent act of “taking a knee” was so vilified, especially when, year after year, we see little change in the ongoing twin outrages of police brutality and escaping accountability.

When 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones talks about Black Americans being the ones perfecting America’s democracy, I get it. The people taking to the streets are working, at great personal peril, to make this country live up to its promise.

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers—and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

—Frederick Douglass

A major contradiction lives at the heart of our national history: our American ideals of “we the people” and “freedom” began as falsehoods that continue to this day. (Thanks to Hannah-Jones for making this plain.)

I have what I have largely because of white privilege. My parents bought their first home in Indianapolis in the early 1960s, benefiting from lending practices that excluded African American homebuyers. I still benefit from that legacy and a host of other exclusionary policies that preferenced white people over Black and brown people.

And even leaving policy aside, I live in a body that is seen as relatively “standard”—white, thin, currently able-bodied, cisgender, feminine in appearance (can pass for straight). Listening to Black voices tells me that my experience of moving through the world with relative ease (even as a woman, even as a close descendant of the culturally marginalized Amish, even as a lesbian, even as a socially awkward “weird kid,” even as I age) is not one Black people share.

My professional and educational status contribute to this ease as well. I’m about as close to the power structure as you can get without being hetero and male.

And the natural world that I so love, that soothes me? Can be a dangerous place for Black people. It’s heartbreaking to listen to stories of Black nature-lovers who just want to have a little breathing room, but feel unsafe (for good reason) even gassing up a vehicle on the way to some of the places I love. Let alone exploring a nature preserve alone as I sometimes do.

My sense of entitlement has not been plain to me over the course of my life, because it is the water I swim. But it is past time for the last of the blinders to come off.

I can’t change the fact of my privilege, but I can work within it to realign things in some way. Writer Eula Biss calls it the White Debt. I feel especially indebted to the protesters who are trying to turn the tide in this country, and that is why I support reparations, assist the Indy Bail Project, call the mayor, write my city council, contribute to Black-led changemaking orgs, etc. It isn’t enough. And it also isn’t about me. I know I have so much to learn.

But I do believe this quote attributed to a Queensland Aboriginal activists group applies to me:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Gratitude: This is an incredible time to be alive. Every day brings new learning, new chances to contribute.

Tip of the Day: Moment-to-moment choices define a life, and as Grace Lee Boggs says, “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be, and you do choose how you want to think.” Choose with heartfelt mindfulness, as you can.

Resource of the Day: Join civil rights attorney/Revolutionary Love founder Valarie Kaur and progressive activist Van Jones for a Dream Corps session on Reimagining and Remaking America Thursday, June 18 (or catch the replay). I have been a fan of Mr. Jones for quite some time and was blown away by Valarie Kaur’s TED talk. 

Virus

You’re scared, because you don’t feel safe. Maybe if you do all the right things, you’ll avoid it. Maybe there’s a way to keep your children safe, your elders protected, your mentally challenged family member from putting himself at risk. Maybe extreme vigilance will keep everyone you love from harm.

You’re angry, because you have to alter plans, take extra precautions, work around rules that you had no part in setting. And still you may not escape it.

You’re exhausted, because the threat seems unending. Maybe you’re not even safe at home.

You’re grieving, because every day more and more people–folks who look like you–suffer and die needlessly.

Coronavirus? No, I’m talking about another public health crisis–a pattern of police using deadly force against Black people.

After George Floyd suffocated to death under a white cop’s knee on his neck, how can we white people continue to look away from the insidious virus that has infected this country from its inception–that of white supremacy? 

The loss of humanity that would enable someone to kneel on another human being’s neck while he gasps for air? I can’t fathom it. It’s sickening. But that doesn’t mean I should look away.

Notice: The people gasping for air because of COVID-19 are disproportionately people of color. They must daily deal with the stress of racism, which takes a very real physiological and psychological toll. Meanwhile access to resources is inordinately skewed in favor of people who look like me. The deck is stacked, and COVID-19 only reveals the disparities more. (Here’s data about coronavirus and the Black community in my county.)

Frans de Waal, a biologist, has said that empathy is an essential part of the survival package of any species, and that includes humans. Will we survive this time in our history? Can we expand our understanding and empathy rapidly, or will we close our personal borders, shut down all gateways to the truth of our interconnectedness?

Yes, we are all in this together, but people who have been shortchanged all along are being hit harder. May our collective experience of facing down COVID-19 unify us, enlarge our empathy for each other, and make us see more clearly how to create a future where all are valued, respected, and offered the same access to resources, healthcare, jobs, education, housing, etc. etc. etc.

Gratitude: I’m grateful for cogent voices calling for change, like How to be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi, local organizer Imhotep Adisa, 1619 Project journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Me and White Supremacy author Layla Saad.

Tip of the Day: Support local Black-led changemaking groups in your community (Kheprw Institute is a standout here).

Resource of the Day: Anti-racism resources for white people.

Season of Renewal

I’m sure I’m not alone in how much I live for signs of spring right now. We’ve had several freeze warnings this past week, prompting me to go out and snap some flower photos for posterity (though the flowers actually did make it through for the most part).

Serviceberry blooms last week (they’re browning now, right on time)

Even through the windiest, shittiest weather (snow? really?), I’m amazed that the blossoms on my little serviceberry still cling on. Well, until it’s their turn to fall.

I had in mind to write something about how the magnolia blooms turned brown and fell, and how the little tree next to it took up the mantle of holding beauty, but I don’t think that’s quite it. Though I do like the idea of taking turns—sometimes I’m shining, sometimes you are, sometimes we take a turn down in the dumps.

That doesn’t seem quite right though. Not the correct metaphorical use of a cycle that renews itself every year, fallen blossoms spreading seed, feeding soil. Just doing what they do.

I’m more thinking in terms of resurrection, redemption, rebirth. I started to noodle on this last Sunday, which was Easter in many traditions. Orthodox religions will mark the day tomorrow. Passover takes the theme of renewal as well. Whatever the faith tradition, this time of year fairly screams resurrection.

Vibrant.

Easter and Passover are not my holy days (though I have fond memories of pancake breakfasts and Easter dresses). But of course people began celebrating the season of renewal long before these traditions.

As a half-assed gardener and a sometime forager of spring greens, I feel more in tune with nature’s awakening than the religious rites that have been overlaid on those ancient rituals.

Quick funny aside: When my young cousin, raised on a green and vibrant Caribbean island, came to Indiana one winter on a visit, she couldn’t help but notice all the bare trees. She finally asked my dad: “Why don’t you cut all those dead trees down?”

Having never experienced that cycle of apparent death and rebirth, she had no concept of waiting for the greening.

The yearly miracle

Maybe it takes a bit of faith, or simple experience, to know that renewal is just beyond the horizon of darkness. To understand that what looks like a death might be, instead, a state of deep rest.

What’s more of a resurrection than the annual opening of a bulb left seemingly lifeless in the ground?

The thing about renewal: It only comes after a deep, dark place of quiet that can feel so deadly to a culture accustomed to going/doing/racing/running/grabbing/shouting.

Even while spring bursts forth all around us, many of us are curling inward to that space of quiet, being asked (or ordered) to stay in one place, curtail our social impulse, limit contact. In a time when our forebears gathered in celebration of surviving another winter, we can’t join hands and sing, or pass the glass between us.

My Virginia bluebells look delicate but they’re hardy.

Recently I’ve had a recurring dream of a street fair, neighbors pouring out onto their sidewalks laughing, talking, feeding each other. There’s music, light streaming from windows, kids on tricycles. A feeling of joyous conviviality.

I do feel that some sort of resurrection is on its way, and it could well be a massive reordering of all that we think we know. We have been so impoverished by a culture built on acquisition, greed, exploitation. Even those of us who live comfortably have a hard time finding peace in a world marked by massive injustice. And for the people and places that get squashed by such a system, there’s no question that the dominant societal narrative isn’t working.

The writing’s been on the wall for a while now: Business as usual is not a viable prospect.

How long will we need to gestate before the (re)birth? And what will emerge out of this inward-coiled time?

Gratitude: I’m grateful for the generosity of nature this time of year. For our salads I’m picking pea shoots from a bed sown last fall, baby lettuce I set in earlier this spring, plus accoutrements from my perennial chives, salad burnet and sorrel plants. Not to mention wild ingredients foraged from my yard and nearby: basswood leaves, trout lily leaves, violets, dandelions, chickweed, and redbud blooms. Everything but the olive oil-lemon dressing coming from within 100 feet or so of where I sit right now.

My “100-foot salads”

Tip of the Day: Uh, go outside, if you can. Spring is poppin’.

Resource of the Day: Local folks, check out this offer from local herbalist/forager Thea Newnum, who will accompany you into your yard for a social-distanced foraging lesson. She’ll help you know what to safely harvest from the undiscovered wild edibles growing there. You will never look at a weed the same way again.

The Wound

A parable for our times?

A few years ago I had a wound that wouldn’t heal. It started as a tiny boil on my shin. I assumed the eruption was a spider bite, covered it with a band-aid and tried to forget it.

Then the little “bite” darkened, started to hurt worse.

Next it swelled up and turned angry-red. By now I had a quarter-sized wound that was hot to the touch, excruciating.

At this point I finally went to the doctor and discovered I had contracted MRSA, a bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics. (I’ll spare you the visual. You’re welcome.)

I fought any suggestion of draining that wound, though everyone who looked at it told me it was the only way it would ever heal. The idea of a blade touching that thing sent me into the stratosphere.

Instead I tried everything else. Antibiotics. Hot compresses. Charcoal. Essential oils. Chewed-up plantain leaves! I spoke to the wound, asked it to please please please just let that infection go.

I began to think I would have to live with a grotesque open wound forever.

Needless to say, it did not drain on its own. After almost a month, I finally went to a wound specialist who briskly prepped the area for lancing.

It was as I thought: Lancing a wound hurts.

Yeah it really, really hurt. Blood and pus rolled down my shin. Awful.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The wound was deep. Necrotic tissue had to be cleaned out in a process called debridement, which amounts to vigorously rubbing a Brillo pad over the wound (or that’s what it felt like anyway).

But that open wound could even not begin to heal until the nastiness and dead junk could come out. The wound had to be expressed. Only then could my flesh begin to rebuild.

Maybe it’s like this with the body politic. I don’t know if this is a good parable, but what if… ?

What if … in this time which I like to call the Last Gasp of the Dinosaurs, we are at the very early stage of expressing the wound, readying for some deep inside-out healing?

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Photo by Jordan Small, via Flickr Creative Commons

Our country was founded on some fine ideals, but it was also founded on slavery and genocide. Horrific wounds.

The infection has always run under the surface of this country. Those of us who live with a measure of privilege, because of our race and/or class and/or gender status etc., have been able to ignore it.

Or maybe we think that covering it with band-aids will be enough.

Or maybe, like some in power, we actively move to put salt in the wound while simultaneously denying its existence.

Meanwhile people of color have never been protected from the ugliness that festers.

It’s painful to see that ugliness brought to the surface in racist words and deeds. Is it possible that this dangerous deterioration of public discourse is (at least partially?) about facing up to our collective past? That we are on the cusp of finally cleaning this wound out so our collective body can heal?

Of course, I’m not at all sure this “last gasp” isn’t the start of horrors beyond belief. But I imagine that is largely up to us. A wound can get reinfected if it isn’t properly tended to. The growth of new tissue happens slowly, in raw and tender layers.

A metaphor that only goes so far, but perhaps has some usefulness.

Healers for the Culture

After yesterday’s proceedings, I passed a bad night, my body tensed as if against physical blows. To be a woman in this culture is to know that at any moment your body might be violated, and your voice dismissed.

Back in college, I remember a women’s studies professor saying something like: “If you take a man and a woman and strip them of all status, till they’re homeless on the street, the man will still be in a more privileged and protected position than the woman, just by virtue of his gender. He’d have to wear a sign that says, ‘Don’t take anything I say seriously,’ to even come close to her experience, and even then….”

Angry? Yes. Scared and sad too. A bad night.

I realize that this is nothing new to people who are less insulated by the things that usually cushion me from our culture’s violence. My race and class, my monogamy, my savings account—all these mitigate the full impact, even as a lesbian woman, of hatred of the “other.” So when I dip into this space, I know that I am just tasting a hint of the animosity that others swim in every day.

A woman-hating culture is a racist culture. Is a transphobic, ecocidal, xenophobic, heterosexist culture.

I write these words and stop to read them. I am part of the culture. People create the culture. I create the culture. My actions, thoughts, words form the story we live by. What do I choose? I choose otherwise.

In search of sustenance I take my dog for our usual morning walk on the golf course. I am one of the privileged who can walk at dawn in relative safety—my skin color (if not my gender) ensuring that I won’t be targeted for being in the wrong place, potentially risking my life.

The sun comes up and lights steam rising from the creek. A heron flies through my field of vision. My bleary eyes open to the beauty of a sycamore.

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A few clover plants bloom at my feet despite the groundskeepers’ daily efforts to maintain a monoculture of turf.

I’m looking at you, clover. They try to cut you down, chemicalize you out of existence. They say you don’t belong in this white-boys’ club. Yet you persist. And I see your sisters there with you. You’re not alone.

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Further on a small colony of mushrooms pushes up, also defying the chemical onslaught and furious mowing that are business as usual here. This fruiting body is just the part of the organism that we see. The mycelium under the earth may be in mysterious communication with nearby trees, according to Michael Pollan. Trading nutrients.

shroom

I see you, fungi, and I thank you.

Leaning against a big hackberry tree, I can finally take in a deep breath, and think about what I want to create.

Let us find ways to nourish each other, recognizing that we are not alone in the pain being wrought these days. Let us seek underground communicative pathways inaccessible to those rolling along on the surface, blithely reaping the benefits of inequity and exploitation.

Let our outrage/fear/grief lend itself to deep listening and empathy, as we imagine ourselves as each other—whether that be a different race, immigrant experience, or a different life path altogether. Or even a different species. We are not alone on this planet, threatened by destructive rules made by men drunk with greed.

Let us be healers for each other, through our listening, and healers for our fractured culture, through our words and deeds. Because a culture built on other-hatred cannot stand. Its failure is assured, one way or another. How it fails is ultimately up to us.

More Tips for the Anxiety-Prone

A few weeks ago I gave a rundown of some hardwon lessons in the anxiety arena. Then a friend messaged me her experience, and I realized I left some things out of the picture. So: some more tips below.

  • Try a beta blocker. “If you find yourself too overwhelmed to practice those natural self-care techniques, you might benefit from a beta blocker such as propranolol, a drug that reduces the physical symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety. It lowers your blood pressure and slows your racing heart. Finding relief from those physical symptoms can give you the space you need to recover your energy and focus on more healthful habits.” —tip from a friend
  • Go the supplement route. 5-HTP, a naturally occurring amino acid, is a serotonin precursor. B vitamins also are my go-to (I favor a high-quality combo called Thera-B). I have just restarted these myself due to some situational stress in my life.
  • Calm your nervous system down using energy work. This is so foundational for me that apparently I completely forgot to note it down last time. Here is a good video showing several ways to calm the Triple Warmer meridian, which governs fight/flight/freeze. Most of us walk around in a state of overstimulation, with our nervous systems on overdrive. Even if we don’t think we’re in fight-or-flight, chances are our Triple Warmer wants calming.
  • Take a news fast. I mentioned limiting social media and online media, but sometimes we need a break from all of it to restore our resilience. Remember that the corporate media machine is geared toward hooking you. I favor media like Yes magazine to help me see broader trends. I might not be on top of the latest tweets and twaddles, but I maintain my balance, and stay informed in my own way.
  • Speak truth to power. I mentioned taking action last time, but leaned toward the feelgood stuff. Yet sometimes the most challenging thing, the action that seems to spike our anxiety, might be exactly what we need to do to reclaim ourselves.
  • Make space for discomfort. (Only if it isn’t overwhelming.) As transformation guide Lee Harris puts it in this video:

    “We are stronger when we allow ourselves to sit with hopelessness and helplessness from time to time. As it is often our energetic undercurrents (grief, sadness, frustration) that are the very energies we need to sit and be with (or learn how to support), in order to rise into the next place we want to go…”

  • Finally, consider anxiety a call. I don’t think this perspective from novelist Walter Percy makes light of the pain of living with a mood disorder, but recognizes it as a possible gateway:

    “Anxiety is, under one frame of reference, a symptom to be gotten rid of; under the other, it may be a summons to an authentic existence, to be heeded at any cost.”

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More tips from the 14-year-old daughter of a friend who attended my Sheroes in Everywoman workshop this week.

As always, please add your thoughts and any tips of your own in the comments!

The Truth About Ease

I’ve been both attracted and repelled by an idea that’s gained traction in our culture: that whatever we are supposed to do should feel easy, as in ease-filled. There should be an ease about our choices, and if something is hard, it might not be the right thing for us.

I’ve always thought: What about the Civil Rights movement, and all the hard stuff people did to gain voting rights, to take their rightful place as full citizens? What about every social movement involving people making choices that revealed the truth and pressed for change? What if they’d espoused this philosophy of “ease”—where would our planet be now?

On the other hand, I love the idea of ease! I love the idea that our choices can fit us so thoroughly that our actions and expressions just flow.

Maybe that’s because it’s taken me so long to get over the notion that whatever’s easy for me must not be worth doing. Must not be a gift at all.

Earlier this year a much-admired community organizer stunned me by cluing me in to my impact. Apparently all the stuff I do that comes naturally—reading, thinking deeply, caring, listening, offering insight and concern, connecting people—has helped his organization in ways I couldn’t even imagine.

Here I thought I was just sitting there being thinky/feely, not really “doing” anything.

It’s so easy to discount our native gifts and think we should do more or be different. As Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz counseled a young writer asking how to find her audience: Do You.

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Photo by Walt Stoneburner, via Flickr Creative Commons

So I am learning to follow ease in that regard, and not think that I must work against the grain to offer something of value. After all, the very things that come easy for me might be the hardest things for someone else. Why not play to our strengths?

However, I don’t believe that nothing we attempt should ever be difficult, or that we’re “doing it wrong” if we run into difficulties. I know that writing a book is hard. I know that showing up and being vulnerable is hard. I know that holding people accountable is really damn hard.

Some of these things, at various times and for various people, might be the exact next right thing, no matter how hard. We can tell if they are by keying into a sense of rightness deep in the marrow of our bones.

My new barometer is less about ease and more about alignment. So if something seems hard but still feels right? That’s the direction I need to go.

From “Me too” to “We All”

Last week a flood of “Me too” posts dominated Facebook as women (and a few men) declared ourselves among the recipients of sexual violence.

If some were surprised at the numbers, I’m betting they were men. My guess is that few women have never been sexually harassed, and if we haven’t ourselves been sexually assaulted, someone dear to us has.

One of the heartening and difficult things of this time in our history is the unveiling of the ugly sickness at the core of western industrial society. What’s revealed is the shadow side of the masculine principle—so far out of balance that it assumes ownership of women’s bodies.

We women know what it’s like to feel unsafe just because we walk around in these bodies. At any moment we could be humiliated, coerced, split open.

I wanted to write about a time in my life when this was not the case. The first time I went to a women’s music festival in the woods of western Michigan, where men were not allowed to enter, I walked at night alone for the first time feeling absolutely safe. The sense of freedom and relief overwhelmed me and contrasted sharply with the way I had lived my life up to that day.

Constantly warned by my mother to watch my back—even on the short walk from garage to house. Constantly aware that I could be interfered with on the street. Monitoring where I put my eyes, how I moved my body. Making myself small so as not to be noticed, or faking badassery so as not to be targeted.

Is this how we want our daughters to grow up?

What is the psychic toll?

And, can we white women translate our experience into empathy for people of color? who also by dint of their bodies move through the world imperiled, subject to daily humiliations and threat of violence?

(The leader of a local African-American grassroots group, questioned by security while waiting for his wife outside a public restroom. The young black man who told me he and his friends hear car locks ka-chunking when they walk past a white-driven car. The teenager at the park who left his bike in the bushes because he had no bike lock, prompting white passersby to report him for suspicious activity. The rampant police brutality, and continuing lack of justice in a stacked-deck system.)

My big question is: Can we take our painful experiences and use them as a way to feel into the lives of others we might think of as different from ourselves—the Muslim immigrant, the transgender person, the poor family?

What if we could also feel into the lives of the terrorist, the abuser, the white supremacist, the greedy corporate titan? Is this a bridge too far? I think of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writing of his anger, many decades ago, on hearing how pirates victimized Vietnamese refugees escaping their country by flimsy boat. The pirates had raped a young girl and brutalized entire families.

Sitting with his anger, Thich Nhat Hanh eventually imagined his way into the life of a boy growing up in a country with no opportunity. He imagined the circumstances that might lead up to the teenager joining a pirate band where for the first time he felt a sense of belonging. And so on…until through his imaginings, Thich Nhat Hanh felt his heart open again.

Of course, this is a Buddhist monk we’re talking about, but I wonder how we regular mortals could broaden our sense of compassion to include more than we ever thought possible.

Compassion might be like a muscle that gets worked, gradually getting stronger.

It might be like a tree that grows where such a thing seems impossible.

20170928_095742 (768x1024)I believe that there is no separation between us. That I am you and you are me. That everything in me mirrors you and everything in you reflects me.

And as more of the darkness is revealed, it’s just more opportunity to heal.