This most recent horrific tragedy — the mass murder of congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — hits very close to home: it’s the home synagogue of one of my cousins and her family. I learned about the terrible event because her daughter ‘checked in’ to say she was okay. The victims and the survivors were attending a bris, celebrating the birth of a baby boy in the congregation. Reading her simple text, I reeled from despair at this country’s love affair with hate.
In my not-too extended family, we have Jews, Muslims, pagans, Wiccans (not the same thing, fyi), Buddhists, spiritualists, agnostics, atheists, and Christians ranging from liberation theologians to hard-core, right-wing evangelicals. I fall in with the Buddhist of that belief web. Two of my dear cousins went to Indonesia with a deep commitment to liberation theology (Presbyterian). My uncle was a Catholic, also committed to working with ‘those less unfortunate.’ I spent a summer working for him at Upward Bound. His love for others was unfailing, tempered always with a nicely sick sense of humour.
We also have, however, as I noted, über right-wing evangelicals. Who honestly believe that the hatred fomented by our new administration isn’t that at all. They are, of course, white. And spout the usual privileged position of ‘I have black/ Jewish/ Indian/ etc. friends.’ Seriously? I’m betting they don’t find you as friendly as you think…
All this is by way of explaining why I find it so difficult to understand racism and hatred predicated upon difference. Almost everything about my childhood was different from my peers. I spent a period from about 6 to about 8 pretty poor. My father had retired from the military on 1/2 pay, probably about $400/ monthly back then. With 3 kids, that wasn’t much. Less than $1200 in today’s dollars, or about $14,000. I remember a LOT of beans, chili, & cornbread. We certainly didn’t feel rich. In fact, my old ladies (grandmothers & great-aunts) often fed us.
Then my father joined the civil service, & we went to ViệtNam. Where my white-blonde ponytail was such an anomaly that people in the market le grand marché would stop me and reach out to touch it, pulling it as if it might be fake. In the early time of police advisors,ViệtNam and its citizens were unfamiliar with little blonde white girls. Later, when my husband & I moved to the Middle East, small boys would throw rocks at me as I walked to yet another marché, this one in Algiers. In that city of troubled colonialism, prostitutes wore their hair like mine, blonde.
You can see that even if I hadn’t been exposed from an early age to the abyss separating my privileged life from those of people around me, even if I hadn’t been singled out (often unpleasantly) for my race & gender, even without my early grounding in a non-denominational Christianity that stressed the Beatitudes (not the10 Commandments, which Jesus himself says are superseded by HIS teachings, l as is ALL of the Old Testament), juxtaposed w/ a deeply Buddhist & animist sensibility of the respect due all living beings, I’d be hard-pressed to ignore my childhood roots.
Please note: to varying degrees, all four of us sisters (myself & my 3 sisters) are beyond liberal. Beyond progressive, some might say. We not only believe in ‘equality,’ we believe in ‘equity.’ We know that often to be ‘equal’ folks need a helping hand. And we’re OKAY with that. We aren’t threatened, nor do we feel diminished. Nor do we think it’s a handout, because we are aware of all the privileges that accrue even to the children of GED earners like us. Just by virtue of our race, among other things.
So I have divorced FB, for the duration. Maybe long-term, who knows? To see people I grew up with standing up for an administration that calls Nazis ‘nice people,’ an administration that has fomented hate so that hate crimes have risen for the past 2+ years… Despair, again.
At first, confronted by this unbelievable fact — that my own family supports caging children, supports a wall, supports the racial profiling of victims, and are apologists for racially targeted police killings, I was dumbfounded. So I attempted — good researcher & scholar that I am — to offer evidence & support: studies, refutations of the many lies coming out of the establishment. No use. Whatever multiple sources I provided were dismissed as ‘biased.’ Only Fox News & Breitbart (Breitbartt!!!), or rabid evangelical websites qualify as ‘reliable.’ In other words? No interest in real conversation, just conversion…
So, no. I could never live with racists or anti-Semites or the folks who support them. I can’t even communicate w/ them. And here’s the truth — I have no answer to this. I’ve mostly cut myself off from folks who support this administration. I can’t handle it. I wish I could say I’m tolerant of other’s beliefs, but no, NOT when said beliefs result in children being caged. And when we become apologists for getting a FIVE-YEAR-OLD to sign away her rights. Nor when we begin to talk about ‘executive orders’ to change Constitutional rights. I’m not okay. And unlike two of my sisters who manage to disregard these differences, I can’t.
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.
I want to be more like Mr. Rogers. I want to be able to move beyond anger, my personal Buddhist mind poison. Known as kleshas to learned practitioners (and mind poisons to the rest of us), anger is what I’m both best at (wrathful compassion, addressed here & here, among other posts), and worst at (need I explain?).
Anger is like fire, my birth sign in both Eastern & Western zodiacs. I’m a fire sign, and a double fire dragon, for those of you who care about these things. As a child I wasn’t a fire starter, but I did (& still do) love a bonfire. Or embers in a fireplace. Fire is so very seductive: it warms us, and it’s so very beautiful, as well.
It’s useful, too. If controlled. Lately, as I cruise FB reading the heinous actions of our government, mine rages like a California wildfire. It certainly lacks control. I want to lash out, say hurtful things to people hurting those I love, tearing down things I love.
And so the universe (and sometimes my younger son) sends me reminders: a comic (my younger son), an article in a blog (the universe), other salient notes that rage really isn’t helpful. Again, think of the difference between boiling water for tea, and burning the entire field of tea leaves to ash. One comforts. One destroys. Some of the reminders are gentle — the lovely comic. Others? Well, let’s just say it’s payback when your FB thread erupts into hurtful rhetoric at someone you care about. You have to believe it’s (at the very least, partially) your responsibility.
I don’t have any easy fixes. I’m trying to remember to take healing breaths. I”m trying to exercise, to use up nervous energy. But I’m also sick, and dealing w/ the usual day2day minutiae: a beloved recovering from a serious bout of illness, a family member worried about insurance in this new travesty of assistance, a grandson battling the germs of learned immunity. Nothing so very out of the ordinary, but none of it pleasant.
Somewhere, I read that willpower is, like $$, something that can be wasted, or at least used up. I’ve been using mine to do things like eat more vegetables (admirable, but not soul-threatening!). Perhaps it’s time to turn from broccoli to Buddhist thought. Maybe, instead of focusing on what I eat, I should give more thought to what I say, and how I react. Meeting the hate of this current political wildfire with the soothing cool of tonglen. Breathing in the anger I feel, and holding it in my mind with all the anger of the dispossessed Americans — and others around the world. Then breathing out healing peace for all of us.
That’s my new plan, at least — one I have to recommit to at least several times a month!! So: here’s to a diet of less fire, and more of the fibre of life, what connects us and makes us human. Our fallible, lacerated, loving and lovable, human hearts.
Today I’m trying to juggle the despair I feel for the island of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands (which evacuated to Puerto Rico – did you know that?), with the happiness I felt all day yesterday as I sat w/ a dear friend & my family over a lovely brunch.
I have known since I was a very young child (8? 9?) that I’m privileged. Standing on one side of an iron gate to our villa, only blocks from the ambassador’s residence, I watched a young ViệtNamese woman – certainly not twice my age – tell me in the unmistakeable language of hands & eyes that her infant held close to her flat breasts was hungry. And she had no food. That was my first encounter w/ my own privilege.
These days, as friends & family from around the country drive or fly to visit us in our beautiful new home, w/wages they earn at secure jobs, I remember almost daily how rare this is for most of the world. Two of my three sisters have come to visit – one has come twice! The third is coming in two weeks. I live blocks from my healthy, well-fed grandsons & their parents. Tomorrow I will get in the car w/ my beloved daughter-in-law and go to a nearby pumpkin patch to gather pumpkins w/the four-year-old in our family. We have plenty of gas for such luxuries.
In Puerto Rico, there is no electricity. As a friend of a friend noted, this isn’t because the power is ‘out’: it’s because the lines are shredded. There won’t be power again until the infrastructure is rebuilt. Such an innocuous word, infrastructure: EVERY POWER LINE. EVERY water facility. Dams, and roads, and…
I can’t get my heart around what my head knows. In my everyday life, I’m looking forward to my sister’s visit. Basking in the time I spent w/ a dear friend who was here for the weekend. Figuring out what I’ll fix for dinner tonight. Anticipating an elective medical procedure fully covered by (admittedly crappy, but still extant) insurance.
But in this time of far too prevalent American refusal to care about our fellow Americans, I’m heartbroken for mothers, grandmothers, sisters. Women (& men) who have only the spectre of cholera to anticipate. The end of paychecks, because FEMA has commandeered all island fuel for hospitals. Meaning: noooo offices can open if they could otherwise. Hence, no $$. (You did realise that the currency of an American territory is dollars…??)
In this time of ‘fake news’ – so often perpetrated on us by our own government – I can’t forget that these other Americans, whose only ‘crime’ is being where a massive hurricane hit, are without food. Without water. Days away from a cholera epidemic. Living among the decaying remains of a thousand thousand drowned animals. A million million pieces of trash. Fecal matter floating in the water.
I hope that totally disgusted you. Because I know of no way, other than the words I’ve practiced using for decades, to wake America up. To outrage the status quo, so that we INSIST our government do something more. And please: don’t insult my intelligence w/ the ‘big ocean’ crap. EUROPE is significantly farther away, but they’re already rebuilding. Us? Who cares about brown folks who REALLY probably aren’t even Americans. Well,l French president Macron does. In the ravaged Caribbean, he was there less than a week after the hurricane hit. Our inglorious leader (I can barely manage to think his name…)? More than two weeks LATER: 3+ weeks AFTER THE HURRICANE STRUCK.
The population of Puerto Rico is about the same as my home state, Oklahoma. And let me assure you: the majority of that state where I’ve lived for decades, where I was born, could care less about sending their $$ to a place almost half of them don’t even realise is American. After all, that’s true at the national level. And I don’t think Oklahoma is any better.
I can also assure you that Oklahoma (& its legislators, please note) would NOT be ‘okay’ with the treatment Puerto Rico is receiving if the state was devasted by a category 5 tornado, a phenomenon much like Hurricane Irma. If the entire state of Oklahoma lacked any hope of electricity for the next several months, and cholera was in the water, and the children of the state were doing w/out asthma inhalers, food, medical treatment, et al…? The state would be in arms. Quite literally, I assure you. Like the guys in Florida who shot at the incoming hurricane…
I’m trying to moderate my visceral anger with my Buddhist tonglen. But truthfully? It’s almost impossible to breathe in my anger and breathe out peace. When (& if…) I succeed, it’s when I’m able to think of my anger as only a fraction — an infinitesimal nano-fraction of the 3.5 MILLION Americans — of the anger & fear felt by a thousand thousand parents, grandparents, siblings: … I breathe for them, hoping I can somehow take on their rage & grief.
What about you? How do you reconcile our privilege with the heart-shattering plight of Puerto Rico? I’d love to hear something I can actually do, besides just throw my privileged $$ at this horrific tragedy…
One of my sisters left her long-time FB account at least a month, maybe longer. She’s been on FB for years. A 2nd has muted several ‘friends’ & even family (as have I). While a third is cast-iron, and seems able to keep her sanity. Me? I recently unfriended — then refriended — my cousin. And yes: it was political: I unfriended him after he insulted one of my friends one too many times, ‘citing’ spurious ‘evidence’ from sources like Agent Orange (my current fave name for our ersatz president), Breitbart, and the worst of the alt-right idiots. Please note: my friend wasn’t blameless, but she didn’t start the ruckus. She simply took it to the next level.
And I can’t handle it.
It didn’t make me feel good to unfriend him; he’s family. But it did make me less angry than when he was constantly popping up in my feed saying crap that’s flat (verifiably) untrue.
Still, I felt like I’d failed as a Buddhist. I know we’re supposed to ‘listen’ to each other. But what if what someone is spouting is pure poison? Do I have to listen to Agent Orange (my beloved’s name for president #45) spew vitriol about the Women’s March I was so proud to walk in, with my niece & grand-niece? Do I have to accept it? What about his clueless ‘tariff’ on Mexican imports?? Or the Republican Congressman who said folks could pay for the prohibitively expensive Repub alternative to Affordable Care if they just didn’t buy iPhones?? I don’t have a simple Buddhist answer for this one…
I wish I had a nearby Buddhist teacher. The pagans & Wiccans have a word for me: solitary practitioner. I read Buddhist books, websites. Talk about Buddhism to anyone who will listen (some would probably rather not!). And bumble along, trying to live by this truth, and that precept. Mostly I couple tonglen with a sincere effort to be kind & practice compassion. It’s probably not enough, but it’s what I’m able to do at this point. And breathe, of course…
If someone reading this has useful insights, I’d love to hear them. Because I can’t believe it’s okay to ‘accept’ the hate masquerading these days as ‘give him a chance.’ I will NEVER give hate, intolerance, and evil pretending it’s ‘for our own good’ a chance. I don’t think THAT is good Buddhism, either. If you espouse hate, you don’t get my cooperation. Period. If racism is your way to ‘unite’ people — against someone different from you — I will call you on it. The very Buddhism that counsels me to be compassionate also grounds my social justice work.
I did, however, refriend my cousin. After all, he’s family. Besides — I’m off FB for Lent. I can deal with it in April, right? In the meantime, I’m serious: how are you dealing with these virulently polarised times? Any tips?
I’m of a generation that has seen much ‘owning’ of formerly negative names. My sons’ generation — those unfairly bashed MIllenials — used to say, that’s so gay. Not at our house, though. Now? It’s gay pride. And ‘queer’ used to be another homophobic slur. Now we have entire departments of queer studies at universities across the globe.
Same w/the motivation behind the current administration’s supporters trying to ‘own’ the term ‘deplorables.’ But you know what? It’s not the same thing. Not by a verrry long shot. To be gay, or queer, or is a descriptor. The judgment is attached by the insulter, not explicit in the word itself.
But deplorable is an intrinsically, BY DEFINITION, negative label. There can be nothing good inherent in the term. Sure, you can wear it as a badge of honour, as you can white privilege (yes, there are such folks). So let’s talk about what I mean when I say the current administration is deplorable.
We have a candidate for Secretary of Commerce who hired an undocumented immigrant for 7 years, then fired her when he was tapped for the position. In other words? We may well have a SoC who KNOWINGLY broke the law. And doesn’t care who knows it, as long as he gets his position.
We have a candidate for Secretary of Education who hates public education. Did you really hear that? The backbone of American democracy is public education. And she not only doesn’t support it, she doesn’t think disabled students are entitled to it, if it’s inconvenient for the school/state/whatever. REALLY? Either that, or (worse in my horrified opinion) she doesn’t even understand what the federal law says. She also doesn’t think all federal laws should be enforced…. Wow.
We have a head of the Environmental Protection Agency candidate who has sued it multiple times, as Attorney General for poor benighted Oklahoma. This one I know well. He’s not only not particularly smart, he HATES public lands, and wants to dismantle all federal protections. Talk about fox and henhouse: Scott Pruitt is about as deplorable as a non-criminal gets.
Secretary of HUD? Ben Carson, whose only qualification for the position seems to be he’s black & lived in an urban neighbourhood?? Attorney General? Jeff Sessions, whose longstanding racism & lack of support for women in domestic abuse situations is legendary.
The list is long. It doesn’t matter what I think of the President Elect (not much). The proof of his active dislike for American government is in his selection of appointees. What is even more deplorable, however, is that many of these men & women have, at the very least, significant conflicts of interest (as does the POE, just in case no one’s told you).
So yes, I think that’s all deplorable. It makes me angry at the same time it breaks my heart, to see this country so happy to disenfranchise its citizens, sell out our public lands, give free license to polluters, and all the rest of the varied anti-government agendas of these deplorable ersatz leaders. As for you wearing a Tshirt that says you’re proud to be part of this trainwreck? I don’t think that’s deplorable. I think it’s just incredibly sad. Right now, I’m spinning between incendiary anger (bad for a Buddhist!) and heartbreak. Trying to draw on lessons of compassion — even wrathful compassion! — that will get me through this dark dark period. I won’t be watching the inauguration.