This post is courtesy of my blogging for Nimrod Literary Journal — a wonderful journal of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography, & more. I’ve been associated with Nimrod almost all my writing life, with short hiatuses when I moved away from Tulsa. I adore it. This post began as I tried to get some input from numerous academics, poets, writers, and other literati types on my FB page about what makes a poem great, and who gets to decide. From there, it went to a spirited discussion of the whole literary canon. So here you go, a confusing discussion of an exceptionally confusing topic ~
In an earlier post, I mentioned I was going to revisit the topic of white people & living with/among racists. I’m trying to get my head around how we — those people who fight for social justice, who try to live our lives grounded in Buddhist (&, to be honest, most religions’) principles — can work against the systemic white privilege & overt racism in today’s America. All without falling captive to the hatred so prevalent in today’s discourse.
As a Buddhist — as a humanist, as a progressive, as just a person in the world with kids & grandkids & nieces & nephews coming after me — I want to be a force for peace. I don’t want to be eaten up with the anger & hate that consumed me for more than a year after the elections. To hold on to anger, as the Buddhist saying goes, is “like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” So I actually stopped reading FB for several weeks, since it just ‘fanned the coals.’
But I’ve slowly returned to reading friends & family. And just the other day my sister posted an update on the renaming of the Tulsa school that triggered Caleb Gayle’s post in The Guardian. Robert E. Lee Elementary, which was changed to Lee Elementary (I have nooo idea why that supposed to placate concerned citizens!), is now Council Oak Elementary. Which is wonderful — definitely a praise-worthy name. The Council Oak is a wonderful piece of Tulsa history.
However, this change (posted, again, on my sis’s FB) initiated a vocal & lengthy thread calling the decision costly (??), politically correct (as an insult), an erasure of history, and more. The lament was that we were denouncing family members who might have owned slaves, and rewriting history.
At this point I joined the conversation, noting that my paternal grandmother was a class A racist: wouldn’t watch the news if there was a black or brown newscaster on it. I still love her. I just don’t want that part of her to be my children’s legacy from her. The conversation wasn’t loving, but it wasn’t hateful, either. No insults. Just folks exchanging comments on what this decision by Tulsa Public Schools’ board meant to them.
I felt pretty good at this point. We were talking! And I was hearing what folks really thought! Since I have muted most of the FB ‘friends’ who insist on fighting me (literally — complete with insulting my dearest friends & colleagues) about such political issues, it felt like a huge step to be able to hear folks who disagree with me, how they feel and what they have to say. Without insults, rancor, or hostility. How else will I learn? And surely there is some place we can still meet…?
And then the guys joined in…
I must digress here. Far too often a disagreement is seen as a red flag to assert dominance. People can be sooo certain they’re correct that they don’t listen. Especially if you’re disagreeing on something they a) hold fundamental to their beliefs, and/or b) think they’re an expert on. Insults flew (liberal BS, ‘butthurt’ Hillary, a few more for good measure). My carefully nurtured sense of communication, of return from the hot coals of anger, was beginning to burn…
And I realised: I WAS under attack. No wonder I felt so defensive, so angry! These 2 men were saying that my carefully couched comments, framed to be non-confrontational & respectful, were just BS. And had no basis in reality. They were dragging in total non sequiturs to derail a conversation. To assert dominance. To win.
That wasn’t what I was looking for, nor — I so hope! — were the original folks on the thread, who were trying hard to be respectful. These guys? Not so much…
My takeaway is this: I have to remember (to learn!) how to let go of my darn sureties. I need to listen (although maybe not to those 2 yahoos!). I need to NOT be ‘those guys.’ And I need to try every single day to breathe. After all, tea & breath, right? And engaged Buddhism is fed nicely by both.
In a much-needed break from all the pain of the current national tragedy of government, let’s take tea together. Virtually speaking, of course. Because in the UK, it’s Afternoon Tea Week!
That means we need to talk tea, for at least a little bit. Almost as good as drinking tea is talking (or reading) about it. Just Saturday, I had a nice visit with Jack, who is opening Tea & Jam here in Blacksburg, later this month. I saw his van parking as I walked up to the Farmer’s Market Saturday, and stopped to congratulate him on a great article, about his upcoming opening, in the Roanoke paper. We got to visiting about the health benefits of tea (numerous!), and Jack introduced me to a book I just ordered: Cancer Hates Tea. A family member is fighting cancer, and the book seemed timely.
But tea’s healing qualities aren’t just about polyphenols (one of the health-benefiting elements of tea). The magic is also, as tea drinkers know, about quiet. About the ritual of filling the pot (or cup) with boiling water, and taking a moment to let it steep. It’s also about spoiling yourself just a bit, and taking a moment ‘off’ from your daily grind, whatever that may be.
It’s about savouring the fragrance of peach matcha as you stir it, or watching milk cloud a cup of Earl Grey. It’s about a moment when the world stops whirling & settles, for a warm comfy moment, into focus. You, the cup, the tea. The old be here now thing. Almost impossible to achieve with even the best cup of coffee (which I also like, just fyi). Coffee lacks the magic of tea, I confess. And don’t we all need magic these days?
Sometimes folks ask me to ‘recommend’ teas. Unlike Jack, I don’t own a tea shop. More like a tea way station, where I try to bring order to fractious days. At my house, if you’re invited to tea, there will be a black tea (if you’re a newbie tea drinker, probably just a good China black or maybe Earl Grey). And if you’ve told me you don’t drink caffeine, there will be one of the tisanes or fruit teas I often sip in the late afternoon or evening. I’m partial to lemon verbena, or a fruit tea made with mango pieces.
But if you do drink caffeine, I might go with a flavoured or blended black tea. My favourites — especially if you’re adventurous — are Lapsang Souchong, and a blend from Harney’s tea, Victorian London Fog. Despite my younger son’s dismissal of any tea using vanilla, I adore the London Fog tea, which is basically Earl Grey with lavender & a tiny soupçon of vanilla. And of course Lapsang Souchong is smoky & a bit wild. Good for days when it feels you’re being smothered in everyday minutiæ!
There will be a tea tray w/ a tea cloth. Matching cups & tea pot, drawn from the far too many I own (and use!). A complementary creamer & sugar, as I like my black teas w/ both. And a little honey jar, one of 2-3 I have for various tea sets. And of COURSE there will be cookies! Maybe scones, too, if it’s a mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea, where we need more sustenance. Probably ginger scones, unless I made ginger shortbread. (Can you tell how much I love ginger?)
The whole point of shared afternoon tea is just that: sharing. And the nurturing comfort that comes from someone baking something tasty just for you. Of, as M.F.K.Fisher said,
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
Tea’s like that. A way to feed people on so many levels. And here’s the best part of this open secret: you can do it for yourself! You can buy a package of tea bags or sachets (it doesn’t have to be loose tea, if that intimidates you, although the ritual of scooping and filling a tea strainer is pleasant!), in whatever flavour you like, and pour boiling water into a cup where the tea bag nestles. Let it brew for a minute or two, and then add what you like. Or nothing at all!
Now: take a deep breath of the healing steam. Let it out. And enjoy your moment of peace & comfort.
As we continue to settle in to our home in Virginia, people will sometimes ask ~ Wasn’t it hard to leave your home of 20+ years in Oklahoma? Don’t you miss it?
I don’t really know how to respond, truthfully. Of course I miss people I love, who remain in that proudly scarlet state. I miss prairie skies, and a July abloom with crape myrtles. Not to mention scissortailed flycatchers, and even the occasional road runner down by my inlaws’ farm. The land itself? Sure.
But as a white woman who tries verrry hard to be a voice for engaged Buddhism, for the social justice so painfully absent in today’s government, I’m glad to be out of there. I used to have a bumper sticker: Bright Blue Dot in a Very Red State. Which grew increasingly hard to live with. And today I read an article that said, far more articulately than I’m able to, just how Tulsa in particular is such a racist mess. And why I don’t have faith it will change much, despite the many wonderful progressives I know there.
I don’t personally know the author of the article, Caleb Gayle. His piece in the Guardian, “How America’s heartland loses black people” might not seem relevant to a very white woman, aging nicely into her Gigi-hood. But it resonated with me on so many levels.
I would guess Mr. Gayle is younger than the close friends from Oklahoma I’m so grateful for. The ones I’m thinking of specifically are the African American scholars & teachers who have helped me understand the impact of racism on their daily lives. Who, through their very presence at a restaurant with me (I’m looking at you, Ben & Dewayne), have made Tulsa’s racism manifest and tangible. It’s so very different to go to a nice restaurant in midtown (old money Tulsa) with Ben and/or Dewayne than it is to go with a white male friend. Service is cooler, more distant. No one sits by us, even if that choice inconveniences them. And the glances from the other restaurant patrons? Beyond ‘just curious.’ Seeing is definitely believing.
Perhaps because I grew up the odd person out — a blonde white girl in ViệtNam, a blonde white girl in Thailand, a blonde white woman in Algeria & Saudi Arabia, and the many places we traveled — I didn’t grow up thinking white was better. In Algiers, men tried to fondle me daily. The little boys threw rocks at me. As a young girl in ViệtNam, I grew accustomed to people tugging at my pale blonde ponytail, so rare in those days. I never understood why anyone would think ‘we’ were superior. We certainly weren’t as pretty as the Việtnamese girls, nor do we have the lengthy culture of Arab science. And we are no better, morally, than either Muslims or Buddhists.
In fact, I know American history well, and it’s rife with thousands of horrific racist actions. By white people. By Christian white people (full disclosure here: I don’t know that I was ever a Christian after 9th grade, when my youth group refused to let me bring in friends who weren’t ‘like us’). And given the stats on how white American males are our most likely ‘terrorists’? We certainly have nor legitimate moral high ground on criminal terrorism.
At 18 I fell in love with a young man whose father was from Sierra Leone, and whose mother was African American. It netted me a deportation. My father saw that official act as the only way to be certain I didn’t return to ‘engage’ with the enemy.
This is all by way of trying to answer a question a new FB acquaintance asked me recently, referencing my passionate rejection of this administration & government: Why would a middle aged white woman care so much about all this? Even if my background hadn’t influenced me so profoundly, my two beautiful brown grandsons surely would. I will never, thankfully, share the sleep-shattering fears black mothers I know have told me they suffer. But as my grandsons grow to school-age, I worry. Will someone say something hurtful? When they’re older, will someone hurt them?
Caleb Gayle has, I’m sure, hundreds of stories of such experiences. The young man I loved at 18 had one leg 2 inches shorter than the other, from being run off the road on his motorcycle. A laughing white driver of a car, he told me. In Philadelphia, the land of brotherly love. My friends Ben, Dewayne, Sylvia, Shanedra, Deborah, & others could chill your blood with what they encounter daily
My beloved of 40+ years is white. Or at least Oklahoma white, meaning he’s part Native American, but has no tribal knowledge. Forefather kicked off the Indian rolls for beating up the agent, according to family lore. Which the agent probably deserved, my readings in history tell me. So racism doesn’t ‘overtly’ affect him or us. And yet…
How can white people pretend that racism doesn’t diminish us, the whites who benefit from it? And how can they pretend it’s a ‘post-racial’ society, as I heard knee-jerk liberals assert following Obama’s first election? Really? If so, why would the same judge sentence a black teenager to 26 years for the same offense he sentenced a white man to 2 years??? There are so very many instances of these racist judgements that I just don’t understand how white people DON”T SEE THEM. They don’t want to…?\
We moved from Oklahoma to be by our children, and our grandchildren. It wasn’t simply that the political climate had grown so awful. It was all the ‘side issues’ common to neo-con politics: funding for public schools put Oklahoma at the bottom of the nation. Crime is high, as it usually is when poverty is rampant. And yes: politics are as deeply red as the spilled blood of Jeremy Lake (an unarmed black teen killed by his white girlfriend’s policeman father), or Terence Crutcher, another unarmed black man killed by another Tulsa policeman. Or Joshua Barre, also shot by Tulsa police in a hotly disputed case. And that’s just in the last couple of years. But Tulsans will assure that race was no issue.
My religion is one of peace & non-violence. In my next post, I’m hoping to move forward to how to deal with all of today’s overt hate, and increasingly systemic racism (which is, by definition, a system for those whites who put it in power). Maybe you have some ideas to contribute?
I watched the most amazing half-hour series yesterday — Poetry in America’s 1st episode in this spring’s offerings. Centred on the iconic Emily Dickinson, and her poem “I cannot dance upon my toes,” it’s one of the few poetry specials I remember to make manifest the links poetry has to other fine arts. Specifically, music & dance.
Yo-Yo Ma ably represents the music side of things, playing the cello as if it was a voice reading. His incredible fingering & bowing turn the simplest rill of notes into something astonishing, much as Dickinson takes ordinary words & creates an image that stuns.
Dancer Jill Johnson, poet Marie Howe, and actress Cynthia Nixon (who plays Emily Dickinson in film) join host Elisa New in unfolding the layered origami of Dickinson’s poetry. It’s astonishing, and so worth watching!
In other poetic business, NaPoWriMo’s prompt today is magick! Seriously — use magic(k) in your poem. It’s good practice! And here’s mine — a fusion of yesterday’s prompt (which I missed!) & today’s:
She finds herself dividing like a cell
Is it mitosis or meiosis ~ she doesn’t
quite remember. Perhaps the brain
is what does not cross over.
Perhaps the cells cannot communicate.
It was never easy.
This cell this one she lives in now
neatly divided borders clean-edged
is the mother the wife the sister/daughter
she from whom the other cells draw energy
That cell the one of brilliant colours
as formless as internal music
pleochroic emerald ruby citrine
is who she might have been
who she is sometimes
in her dreams. Messily bordered
without shape or form.
And somewhere in the middle
is the space that neither one inhabits
that void of becoming
before the words begin.