It’s been a hard year, this election year… And it gets harder. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is an election that has set family members against one another. In some cases — I’m thinking of a colleague at a conference last weekend — husband against wife. That, on top of so many almost daily occurrences of police murdering innocent people of colour, on top of Hurricane Matthew, on top of…
It’s all just too much. So I got sick.
Now, please note: I didn’t get sick on purpose. ???? But I do believe that illness has its own reasons, and often you’re sick because of something in your life. In my case? I’m just bloody exhausted & overwhelmed. So I got sick enough (baby flu, for what it’s worth — I’m not dying here, but I’ve been pretty punk) to require long naps & not much more activity than opening a can of soup & reading an e-book (no pages to turn!).
And I stayed off of most social media, preferring to look at the floor plan of a house we’re buying only FOUR BLOCKS (!) from my beloved grandson, or dreaming of a new garden and bird habitat. Or beginning to say goodbye to this life I love, right here in the messed up heartland. The red, red heartland…
The universe, thinking I needed something to leaven my days, sent me this song. And I remembered: remembered how we came together to feed a continent riven by drought, starving to death. Remembered how music became a rallying cry for generousity that saved thousands & thousands of lives. Remembered how it felt when I first heard that mantra ~ we are the world, we are the people…
Because we STILL ARE. All of us — and we need to get back to saving our own lives, together. We need to somehow move beyond the miasma of hate that’s masquerading as a political campaign for so many, and reach out. TAKE CHANCES. Get to know that ‘other.’ You know: ‘the’ African American; ‘the’ Muslim.’ The autistic kid in your kid’s class, or the guy on the spectrum at work.
We need to look around and see PEOPLE, not terrorists or thieves or whatever political BS is trying to separate us.
I’m verrry lucky to have lived over much of the world. So that when other people are able to talk of Muslims hatefully, lumping that vastly diverse group of nationalities & ethnicities together as if Baptist were Catholics, I see Salina from Algiers, who lived across the apartment hall from me. Who taught me how to make mint tea, & was my friend. Or Yousuf, my husband’s friend, who had us over for dinner, and served us lamb on platters of silvered brass, shouting with laughter at bad jokes. Or Soha, whom took her doctorate in TESOL Education at OSU, in her 2nd language. And who is a better person than almost anyone I know: funny, kind, compassionate, a grateful mother, and a dear dear friend.
“Mexicans” to me are my beloved daughter-in-law’s family, who actually are Hispanic Americans, multiple generations of land-grant & Pueblo land owners in New Mexico. They are her mother, who has two Masters. Her grandmother, one of the most devout Catholics I can imagine.
Or a nurse who stayed with my husband when he was in the hospital, who was putting herself through nursing school. Or dear sweet Fannie, a professor at the university where my son & DIL teach, who came from Mexico to study math education, and stayed to teach and marry.
These ‘others’ are US, America. They are my friends, my family. They are the people I visit with on FB & Twitter, the people I ask for recommendations on LinkedIn. “They” are not ‘them.’ Each of the people in the world has a name. Had a mother, a father. A place of birth. A story that began with a birth. How have we forgotten that???
So today? Please — listen to the swell of the music. And remember: WE ~ each of us, every one of us ~ are the world. And we need to get busy. We need to be saving our own lives, folks. And let me tell you: hate will not do it.
What we need is a lot more love. More compassion. And a lot more music. Otherwise? We’re going to be very sick. For a very long time ~
I’m good at believing. The White Queen’s ‘six impossible things before breakfast’ is nothing to me. I believe in world peace. In faeries (really). In other universes. In public education. And a few more things I forget. Daily.
There was, at one time, a national movement, inspired by the sainted Edward Murrow: This I Believe. It asked Americans to submit a short essay on what each one believed. These ranged from a quilt made from old saris, to helping the homeless, to getting together w/ sisters. I absolutely believe that each of these is important.
My father believed in the government. Although a Southern Democrat, he believed strongly in the implicit goodness of the American government. When Nixon was in power, and Watergate was breaking, my father refused to hear anything against the man. I remember a yelling, food-throwing dinner (yup: a regular food fight, at least on my side of the table), w/ Daddy yelling & pounding the table and me hollering back at him. I know I flung my food at him in utter frustration. I don’t think he threw it back. But he certainly was mad enough to, and thumping the table hard enough it might have just flown my way! My mother was crying, my sisters were bawling, even the cook (this was overseas, in a villa on a Thai soi long ago…) was whimpering in fear.
Not me & Daddy. Each of us was certain we were right, and if we just yelled a little louder the other would finally LISTEN. So we kept fighting. Need I say that neither of us was arguing from even a FEW scraps of evidence, but rather from beliefs & individual (in my case limited) experiences? Sometimes the ways I am like my father can we say bull-headed? opinionated? weird sense of humour? unnerve even me. I don’t know how we’d do today, in this contentious political danse macabre. I hope we’d be able to talk more reasonably, citing…well, evidence.
In a related (but not clearly so) incident recently, I was told on a FB thread, by a friend of a family member, that I was not welcome. That I didn’t ‘belong’ in the conversation. I had cited a Snopes link to refute a lie about the upcoming election that my family member & friends were determined to believe. My family member praised the woman who insulted me, and applauded her friend’s patriotism. This, she crowed, was about AMERICA. And Snopes (which always disagrees with untruths) was a leftist conspiracy; didn’t I KNOW that???
So, I must be about something other than truth & America, apparently. And I’m obviously crazy because I don’t ‘believe’ that belief makes something true. It just means you think it’s true — in fact, that’s exactly what belief does mean. But again: believing that aliens are the reason my cat sheds doesn’t mean that’s true. No matter how much I believe it. There’s just noooo evidence. Even if your belief system derives from your spiritual tradition(s): I don’t believe what you believe, most likely. So no, I won’t accept that as ‘evidence.’ Any more than these folks who booted me off their FB belief wall would accept the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The same family member who sees me as an interloper armed w/ liberal conspiracies also deleted one of my sister’s posts, for the same reason: it gave solid evidence that a claim being made was, at best, erroneous. I’d call it a malicious lie, but then, I’m not really a particularly good person. Just a hard-headed Buddhist realist.
Both of these incidents remind me that I often offend folks. I’m unabashedly liberal. Beyond liberal, apparently: maybe a flaming crazy progressive. Each separate encounter alerted me that folks often aren’t the least interested in hearing both sides of a story. My son — the one who sent me the difficult essay discussed in a previous post — has reminded me that liberals used to be better than the kind of people who delete posts on their wall that disagreed w/ their own politics. And we didn’t smear folks, either, or accuse them of treachery.
We do, these days. And I’m guilty of it just like the people I decry. But I’m NOT guilty of refusing to look at solid evidence. I’ve changed my opinion(s) on so many things I can’t begin to enumerate them all. Suffice to say that if you can come up w/ strong evidentiary support, I’ll listen. Because like the Venn diagram demonstrates, the intersection of truth & belief is knowledge. Which — for a lifelong learner, a person as nerdy as they come — is better than gold or chocolate. However, tell me it’s your ‘opinion’ & you’re entitled to it, & I’ll discount it. While that’s true — you’re certainly entitled to believe what you want — if you consistently buttress yourself in a safe hidey hole free from troubling contradictions of your careful beliefs, you’re not worth talking with about anything important.
I know this is a character flaw — one I struggle mightily with. And I wish someone could tell me: why I have to work so hard against hate? Because I HATE (list follows):
- intolerance (my own included)
- child abuse
- animal abuse
- greed (especially when it wears the sanctimonious mask of ‘helping others’)
- sanctimoniousness (see above)
- people (and political figures — who don’t seem to always be human) who say they’re being ‘responsible,’ but it always seems to be at the expense of other people, not $$
- placing more importance on profit than people
- mean people
- bad coffee, bad tea
- ugly gardens
And sooo much more! ????
But ironically, I believe in the government, too. Like Daddy did. Also like Daddy, I believe we can help people help themselves — create jobs (remember the WPA?) and folks can pay taxes. But somehow, when I hear people talking, I don’t hear true belief. I hear a chorus of sea gulls in Finding Nemo: mine mine mine mine mine… And that’s not something I ever want to believe in. Any more than I want to delete folks’ posts.
I confess, though: I’ve pruned my social media to reflect less politics & more science. Fewer political action groups and more poetry. My battered heart can’t bear the ugliness that this election has brought roiling up from some dark pit within America. I can’t handle when people I care about — on even the smallest level — refuse to consider verifiable, independent facts. You know: evidence? That stuff that exists outside of you & your belief system(s): science, for instance. It doesn’t matter if you believe you can fly. Jump off the roof, & you’ll fall. It’s called gravity (even if it is only a theory). And gravity (like Zika virus, like whooping cough & total eclipses of the sun) don’t care whether you ‘believe’ in them or not.
So I apologise if I offend people I care about, but I’m learning to be myself. Even at this ripe old age. I’m learning to juggle what I believe with… well, what I believe. Social justice w/ compassion & tolerance, even for those who deny both those things to me & others. Belief with evidence. Truth with… well, truth with truth. Because surely that’s enough.
I’m getting better, though: I’m learning not to throw food. And actually? I think my Dad would be proud of me. I really do.
When I was a very young woman, I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Really. It was during the 70s, and the Neo-Nazi party was demonstrating (or trying to) in Skokie, IL. There was a huge outcry, because (you probably don’t know this) more than 1/2 of Skokie’s population was Jewish. In addition, a large number of the Jews who did live in Skokie were Holocaust survivors. In other words? A tragically incendiary situation.
I was a journalist for years. And as a radical liberal — if there is such a thing! — I defend freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly. They are building blocks to a liberal democracy. So I sent money to a financially strapped ACLU; liberals weren’t happy to see ‘their’ organisation defend Nazis, and there weren’t many donations coming in. My friends were horrified.
But I remembered someone had told me, in a class I had once on ethics in media, that freedom of speech wasn’t about defending the things we agree with. It’s about making sure that even the things we HATE are also given the right to air. Even things that make us crazy angry.
I still believe that.
However, it’s just not that simple anymore. There are, of course, limits to free speech: you can’t yell fire, as we know. And you can’t incite riot. And yet… Surely this political season, we have seen many ‘leaders’ fomenting hate: saying that entire groups of people should be deported, even (possibly) executed, if ‘necessary.’ We have seen jokes made (in verrry poor taste) about guns and various candidates, followed w/ ‘wink/nudge’ that ostensibly excuses the ‘joke.’
We’ve seen people with, ostensibly, the same political goals make accusations without any basis. Families (once safe from mud-slinging) are fair game, and spouses are attacked w/ impunity. A man’s father has been impugned as an accomplice to murder, a woman’s husband’s affairs alleged to be ‘her own fault.’ Debates have disintegrated into finger shaking and eye-rolling.
And it’s not just ‘them.’ It’s all of us. We’re all angry.
Yesterday, my younger son sent me a link to an article I’m posting here. It talks about ‘in-groups’ & ‘out-groups,’ & how we range ourselves against the ‘out-groups’ of our choosing. It’s not a new (or even overly recent) article: Scott Alexander, the author, posted it back in 2014, almost exactly 2 years ago. But it’s never been more relevant. For the next week or so, I’ll be referring to it more than once. Alexander so neatly articulates the tension these days: liberals are just as apt to forget freedom of speech as someone from the ‘other’ side.
As a Buddhist, I know about ‘attachment.’ Upādāna (it literally means ‘fuel’) is the fire that arises when we cling fiercely to a longing, a wish for things to be different. Maybe it’s a desire for $$, or freedom from pain. In my case? It’s a visceral ache for justice for all: equity (which is NOT the same as equal treatment, per se: equity is levelling the playing field — quite different). I want that kind of ideal fairness to EVERYONE. And so those who work towards that goal are my ‘in-group.’ If you’re not working for equity? You’re in my ‘out-group.’ And I’m almost certainly angry about it.
Equity also means that you can’t be a racist, or a homophobe. You can’t be a misogynist, or indifferent to your own privileges, racial or class or gender derived. I don’t think I’m any of those. But as Scott Alexander notes, I get no ‘virtue points’ for being ‘tolerant’ of differences like race, gender, class, religion. Unfortunately, I also get no virtue points for being tolerant of my out-groups(s), because I’m not. Instead, I’m angry. Almost all the time.
I”m leaving this here for now. Next blog? More on trying to live a Buddhist life of non-clinging while remaining socially engaged, and activist.
In my hometown, many of us — I hope thousands of us — are grieving. We’re grieving for a murdered father of four. For a man returning from a music appreciation class, who had car trouble. Who was shot FOR NO GOOD REASON (although that’s not the story the accused cop is telling, of course), after he was tased.
Did mention he was tased FIRST? Oh: and he was black. That’s the REAL important fact these days…
I’m linking to two other pieces — one the heart-breaking post of a teacher at Mr. Crutcher’s daughter’s school. Please read it. Imagine how to explain that this little girl’s daddy won’t be coming home because a cop killed him. If you can, imagine the faces of the black children to whom the teacher is speaking: sons & daughters of black men. Black boys who will grow up to be big black guys who may look scary. And tell me it’s going to be fine. Because I don’t believe it.
The 2nd piece is one I wrote, for my other blog — a more Buddhist one — at Beliefnet. In it, I spent more time than my breaking heart will allow today exploring what happened. And how it’s part of a tragic historical trajectory. America is not interested in justice, when it comes to black men. It’s more afraid of them than for them.
The Buddhist in me has no idea what to do. I’m writing and writing and writing more, wondering how to help. I’m tackling family who believe that an unarmed man is a threat. I’m railing at a system where black is the wrong colour, at least in any tense situation. I’m caught in a kind of death spiral of anger & pain and more anger, and rage that this keeps happening.
And I don’t have a clue — not a single Buddhist text — to help me figure out. All I can do is breathe in, breathe out. Breathe through the heartbreak and anger. And try, HARD, to remember that the pain I feel is not a drop compared to the tsunami of sorrow Terence Crutcher’s four children feel…
When I was a little girl — about 8 years old? — I remember thinking all I was very good at was love. It sounds more profound now than it was then. Mostly I just wished there were jobs for lovers (the legal kind ????). I loved everything, passionately: my grandmother, my great-aunt. My sisters, my teddy bear, my dog. The trees I climbed, the room I slept in. The way the wind lifted my hair when I held my head out the window of the old blue Buick. The fragrance of rain on hot grass. I swam in love, like a fish breathing water.
As I’ve grown older, I believe even more firmly that my assets aren’t material, although I can cook. And garden. And ‘m good w/ most animals and small children. Parrots and snakes love me. So do bees.
But none of the above ~ or even reading & writing, both of which I’m also pretty good at ~ bring in bucks. If you’re fortunate (and I have been), you can make a modest living. Nor are such talents easily ‘quantifiable.’ Look at the huge hoopla over how to evaluate teachers! We pay lip service to how valuable the non-material things in life are, but as Doc & Steinbeck note in Steinbeck’s masterpiece The Log from the Sea of Cortez:
We have definitions of good qualities and of bad …. [a]nd yet … the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man … while he will love the abstract good qualities and detest the abstract bad, will nevertheless envy and admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure. (p 80, SoC)
It doesn’t matter to most Americans how ‘good’ you are if you make $$. This is just the cultural mindset, identified decades ago by a scientist and a writer. The recent controversial ad from Wells Fargo is an example of this attitudet: actors & ballerinas are inferior to botanists & engineers, it implies not very subtly. Even though (kudos to @DLChamplin for pointing this out) the highest paid actor in 2016 made $64 million, and the highest paid botanist only $165,000-ish. But there we go again, reducing things to $$ and ¢¢. Who is to say what is more important, ultimately? Some days I want botany — the names of flowers & trees, details on what to grow where. Other days? I want refuge for my weary mind: a farce, a comedy, two hours away from now, in the hands of master craftsmen. But I will confess: most days? I want ART. I want beauty, even if it terrifies; writing that may break my heart; dance that makes me catch my breath. Still — I can’t live w/out engineering ~ the structural soundness of my deck enables me to watch the birds that bring me such joy. The botany explicit in the successful farming of the CSA I buy my tomatoes from is why they taste so very fine. The water that sluices from my shower is the result of advanced schooling, to make it all work.
In other words — like most of life, binaries are pretty damn reductive. Which leads me back to love… We say we respect it, admire it, wish to emulate it. But one of our candidates for president belittles it, rolls his eyes at the idea of political respect for other nations & backgrounds, and foments the very opposite of love. Or even respect. And millions of American admire & follow this man. Because he’s ‘successful,’ he says. And because you cannot measure good, or kindness, or love. You certainly can feel them, but it’s like trying to count the wind, or hold sunlight in a bottle. You can tell how fast the wind blows, but you can’t really count IT. You can tell how hot the air is, but you can’t hold sunlight in your hands. Money? That you can count. Success in material goods? Those you can measure (but not realistically, if you don’t include the ‘collateral damages’ of unfair practices, theft, cheating…). And those you can aspire to. There is, we believe, no ‘luck’ about them. They are achievable by all.
Except, of course, they’re not. More on that another time. Suffice to say that the deck is loaded against many Americans.
When the world breaks your heart — as it does mine at least twice a day, chipping away at the my thin candy shell — you have two choices. Love or removal. A temporary bridge into love for me is anger — I am quick to anger. Because of love, paradoxically. All I can do when I don’t know how to take the next breath is try to return to love. And while I”m still good at the easy kind of love ~ the sturdy delicacy of a fly landing on my page as I write outside, laughing as the dogs chase each other ~ the ‘returning to’ part of it, coming back from the incandescent rage I feel at injustice? That’s verrry hard! Still, I believe in it, love. Fiercely. The child of a mother who believed, literally, in the power of love. If you just love enough, she would say. Love can do anything. And so it can, I still believe, as my mother did before me. I just have to practice, that lovely Buddhist word that says I can keep trying; it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, there is only the expectation of continuing, not perfection. So I just have to learn how to return to love, to employ it even when the objects of the exercise are sooo very unloveable!
I’d like to think that I can calm myself. I know how ~ breathe in, hold, breathe out. Repeat. But these days it’s so hard. People I know, even like, are filled with fear and loathing. They aim it at my beliefs, at my core values, as we seem fond of saying these days. Leaders of our country ~ MY country ~ spew vitriol at women, at people of colour, at Muslims and others. All in the name of ‘safety.’ Read: fear.
I try to meet people in their good intentions (years of teaching teaches the teacher). I understand that hate emanates from fear. I am taught daily ~ it used to be student by student; now it’s mistake by mistake ~ that no one gets up in the morning wanting to hate, wanting to mess up, wanting to ruin someone else’s day. Or life. The difference between my intentions not to hate, mess up, or ruin someone’s day (or life), and what I see as other people’s intentions, is who we see as ‘someone.’ And what ‘hate’ means to each of us.
It’s not hate if your minister tells you it’s okay. After all, s/he would know, right? So if the church says that my gay niece and my many dear gay friends are hell-bent sinners, it’s not ‘hate’ to taunt them, goad them, drive them to suicide. Is it? Because after all, this representative of God urged that we punish these ‘wicked,’ right?
So people who are ‘different’ from us ~ by skin colour, religion, dress, sexual preference, whatever ~ aren’t really ‘someone.’ Instead, they are wicked, or terrorists, or somehow ‘other.’ Not the wonderful, lovely people I know. My niece Mary, my friend Soha, my friends Ben & Dewayne…these people I love dearly, they aren’t ‘someone’ to many many Americans. Soha makes people uncomfortable with her hijab; dining out w/ Dewayne or Ben (tall, elegant black guys) is rife w/ studied inattention from waitstaff and other customers. Mary’s wonderful partner, whom I love like another niece? She is a bad person, too.
This makes it so hard for me to breathe. I mean that literally: I catch myself w/ breath held, sometimes, and have to breathe out, then in. Yet I’ve been working for a very long time ~ years & years ~ to balance the dragon warrior in me (speaker for the voiceless) and the novice seeker. I know so very little about how things work, about why we are the ways we are… I’m both the speaker and the infant, the child who has just hatched.
My son had asthma as a child. Still does, but as a baby, it almost killed him. Coupled with severe croup, he was turning blue from lack of oxygen on late night. I held him in my arms as my mother drove at lightening speeds to our hospital. She made the 6-mile trip in right at 7+ minutes — through the dark streets glistening with rain, as I crooned to the baby I held carefully.
At the hospital, there were miracle drugs they could administer. Drugs that cleared my son’s lungs, and let the bright air fill him with life. I lay beside his crib that night, listening to his breathing, and thought of what a miracle it is, just to breathe.
These days, I feel as tight and starved for light and air as that infant, struggling for each breath. I’m once again driving down dark streets, it seems ~ looking for a way to breathe. And I know there is no magic medicine to ‘cure’ this ugliness, this lack of breathing space. In fact, I’m the only one who can get me through this. I understand that this is my own tight place through which I must somehow pass. Somehow, I have to figure out how to see beyond the hatred and the fear that tears me up to the human hearts beneath that darkness. I don’t believe that any of us is innately dark, even those of us roiled with violence and spilling ugliness and hatred. No child is born with hate in heart. And somewhere, there is love — there must be love, within these dark dark hearts.
So I’m trying to breathe again. Catching myself as I slouch at my desk, sitting straighter. Remembering to throw my shoulders back, remembering that the imperial dragons once were humans (hence their five toes…:)). So the anger of my inner dragon can be turned to light, as fire lights darkness. I just have to figure out how.