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.
Today’s the 6th day of one of my favorite months — National Poetry Month. Which is also National Poetry WRITING Month, NaPoWriMo. AND…my birthday month! How filled w/ great stuff can a month get?
The NaPoWriMo prompt for today is about the line — about changing it up, about playing with it. But since I didn’t write yesterday, or do yesterday’s prompt, I’m combining them. A word in a language not my own — riffing on what it looks & sounds like it means — and line change-ups. You can let me know how that works for you. Here you go:
how our frantic panic
burned like a torch
incinerated any good
whatever we once knew
of any middle path
how lust too was a torch
an incandescent inferno
in which both our bodies
burned to cinders
the cooling of lava
the way the embers bank
how they glow
beneath the black ash
of what we lost
 Torschlusspanik is a combination of three German words, and literally translated means “gate-shut-panic.” Apparently the term dates back to the Middle Ages in reference to the panic medieval peasants might have experienced as they rushed to make it back inside the city gates before they closed at nightfall.
I also want to offer another poem I love, one I read at my first public reading (where I was asked to choose a poem to read). It’s by one of my favourite mentor poets — Denise Levertov. An anti-war poem, it looks at the people of my childhood home, ViệtNam. And the ways in which we forget that the real victims of real wars are real people.
I hope that’s not too much food for poetic thought!
Here’s today’s NaPoWriMo post (still playing catch-up!):
I can taste it: the airy mouthfeel of eh
the whisper plosive of pē
how the round liquidity of ol fills
the back of my throat like thick honey
and then the crisp wafer of trēē
breaks between the teeth.
It is my secret delight
my hidden pleasure
that I take out in solitary hours
and eat gluttonously
fondling the buttery syllables.
 epeolatry: the worship of words
I see the word epeolatry and I feel obliged to confess: I’m a total word nerd. I was that kid you hated in 4th grade, who begged for spelling words, and won the spelling bee, and had her nose in a book so often that even my grandmother – an old teacher – yelled at me: Girl! Get your nose out of that book! I didn’t invite you to read all weekend!
Recently I learned a new word: ‘squeg.’ It means to ‘oscillate between max and zero, as in an electronic current.’ But the student who brought the word to class (she had it played against her in Scrabble) thought it meant the apogee of a conversation. I thought when I heard her definition: hmmm… who knew conversations had apogees?
Still, it’s a new word, however discordant it sounds. It’s hard to make melody from a ‘q’. I used to love the word queer, until it began to be used to beat up dear friends and family. I liked the way the mouth pursed to make the qu dipthong, and then almost smiled to make the ee. It’s noticing (and caring about) things like this that confirm my complete word nerdiness.
All of this makes me quite odd, if you think about it: ‘squeg’ is an unlikeable word. Says me. But how can you like or dislike a word, you ask? Now a sentence – that’s different. It may be poorly written, unclear, etc. We all remember THOSE classes. But an orphan word? Unattached to its parents subject and predicate? Naked of modifiers? Ungendered in its lack of pronouns? What’s to hate about that??
I give you… music. There is no music in ‘squeg.’ It even lacks the onomatopoiea of ‘squelch.’ Or the whispery dead finality of ‘squish.’ It’s the ‘g.’ The whole word becomes guttural. And for word nerds? That’s enough.
Except actually, according to this Venn diagram, it’s word ‘geek’: if you’re obsessed w/ words (guilty), and reasonably intelligent (debatable), then you’re a word geek. No rhyme, unfortunately, but accurate. Which should be worth at least as much as rhyme, even if it doesn’t sound as good.
Which leads us (oh so meanderingly) to National Poetry Month. And my charge to you this month to post a poem to social media. Maybe even daily! It should be one that’s somehow special, or at least one you have strong feelings about (I may post one I HATE!).
Today’s poem from me to you is one that’s as awesomely ridiculous as possible: Ogden Nash’s The Tale of Custard the Dragon. He’s one of my favourite poets — there’s not a pretentious bone in his devilishly funny body of work. I just remembered this one, so here it is. Enjoy! And remember: a worship of words is a necessary evil in a world that values poetry!
 The worship of words.