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.
So much poetry! So little time! I have a couple of links for you to start off National Poetry Month, and an assignment (😏). First, here’s a short post I did recently for the wonderful literary journal Nimrod. It looks at the differences between poets & prose writers. And maybe, too, the differences between the readers of each. The post is this poet’s own experiences, bolstered by a few comments from far more famous writers, who agree: the two are very different. Duh, huh?
The second link is in the same vein — it’s a more researched look at those differences (there’s that word again) — between reading poetry and even ‘literary’ prose. And you know what? It’s even better for writers to read poetry — even if they write prose! (Which may be why some of the better prose writers in my creative writing program were the poets…)
Finally? Your assignment: find a poem you love & post it to social media — FB, Twitter, Reddit, whatever. I’ll start you off w/ a couple of mine, beginning with one I used as a model for a ‘golden shovel poem’ that was published recently in an online residency. (Thanks, Soft Cartel!) The poem is an old one, and possibly the first poem that really made me think HARD about social justice. It was 1972. It was Watergate. It was Việt Nam. And here came Ishmael Reed, a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra. Every word was a knife, a blade, white-hot & searing with a fierce beauty. It wouldn’t matter that he said crazy-ass things later. It would only matter that he wrote that poem at that time, and I read it.
So find a poem you can’t live without, and post it. Share it. Someone out there needs your poem. I guarantee it.
Despite what we thought would be the case, we’ve had several visitors to our new home in Virginia. And that’s GOOD! In part because not only do we love them all, but they’ve all worked hard to be great house guests. Want to know how to ace that rôle? Listen up:
The biggest help is to be sure the folks you’re visiting adore you. That’s been the case with all of our guests: my three sisters — one with beloved partner; my younger son; my niece & her wife, plus friend; and a very dear old friend of mine. Each is a pleasure to visit with, and a necessary element in my very happy life. So that’s #1.
#2: Give your host and/or hostess some notice, so they can anticipate! Not to mention do the sheets in the guest room… 😉 In our case, it means we can also make reservations for Sunday brunch at the coooolest little restaurant in the Blue Ridge Mountains!
#3: Let them know if you have dietary issues. A couple of old friends are coming in a few weeks, and she was thoughtful enough to let me know they all have celiac. So I can show off our amazing local bakers, who do GREAT gluten-free! And I was able to send her the link to a great local restaurant that has a lengthy gluten-free menu, as well. We all win!
#4: If you’re staying for more than a few days-ish, pitch in. My younger son is the king of this — he takes out trash; he empties wastebaskets; he goes to pick up last-minute necessaries when I’m cooking. It’s also nice if you ask about stripping the bed when you leave, but not critical. Still, when my girlfriend did it, neatly folding the dirty linens on the ottoman, I was sooo grateful!
#5 is optional, & dependent on finances, obviously: Take your host/ess out for a meal. My sisters aren’t particularly flush — one is retired, another in FT grad school, and the 3rd unemployed. Yet each found a way to take us out, and it was such a thoughtful gesture!
Finally? HAVE FUN! If you’re at my house these days, chances are we’ve picked up some creeping bug from the grandsons, and are lower energy than we’d like to be for guests. Which means I’m über paranoid that you’re bored! If you’re obviously enjoying what we do most days — drinking tea or coffee, watching birds, reading, just talking — then I’m happy. And while it’s NOT all about me (honest), it’s sooo much more fun for ALL of us if I know what you enjoy, from the food (if you don’t like cornbread, be sure to let us know! We eat a lot of it!) to the bed (close the door if you don’t want the cats on you!) to the weather (we can’t fix that, so just enjoy it — our town is gorgeous!).
In other words, just be your normal kind & thoughtful self. Having fun! How hard is that??
This week has been a gardening bonanza. A few days ago we went to the garden center and bought several plants, ranging from white cosmos to blue sage to orange-yellow coreopsis to red&green striped fountain grass. Nectar plants. Bee & butterfly plants 😊 It makes me a happy happy camper.
I love the smell of dirt. It heals me. I am ecstatic in the warm sun, w/ a breeze lifting my hair. And there’s little I like better than sitting on the our front porch afterwards, w/ a glass of cold tea from the morning pot’s leftovers. My nails will never be long — I’m lucky they aren’t ragged, given how often I forget my gardening gloves! But the trellis is up, and the 3 climbing roses (two single whites & a single red, w/ a yellow heart) have either already bloomed (the red), or are blooming now (the whites). The trellis makes the front porch so … well, I know it sounds trite & veddddy British, but it’s cosy. Honest. So I put in a window box planter filled w/ meadowy flowers: cosmos, rudbeckia, red fountain grass, blue sage. It’s sitting on the porch floor, and looks like a verrry tiny meadow — filled w/ bees working the old-fashioned flowers.
And then there are the 5 crape myrtles — like we had at our old house, in multi shades of red, cherry, pink, & white — and the very nice mail order place sent a 6th cherry red one. So then we had to buy a 7th white one, so that the island ‘balanced.’ It’s right outside the kitchen window, in front of the back fence. If it all ‘takes’ (gardening is always fraught with weather ifs!), it will be gorgeous to see in the heat of mid-summer.
When I’m in gardening mode, I think in flowers. Or at least in plants (right now I’m beginning to think of an herb border!). I read gardening books: meadow grasses, herbs, garden design, native plants for pollinators & birds. I ‘try on’ this shrub, this understory tree, this climber. And I watch the sun move through the yard, trying to get a feel for this new landscape & what should go where, to be happiest. It’s all a totally absorbing puzzle, w/the added bonus of being outside in this soft mountain early summer.
It’s also meditation, really. Time ceases to exist, at least not in a linear fashion. There’s the soft fluff of peaty soil, the careful choosing of foliage to complement flower, and the smell of water as it soaks a freshly planted pot. Sensory immediacy is a kind of counting of the breath, at least for me. I breathe in. I breathe out. But what I’m really doing is focusing on the plants, their needs. The now of dirt & root & pot.
If you don’t have a yard, it doesn’t matter. Some of my happiest ‘gardening’ days were the clay pots on the front porch of a rental duplex I shared w/ my sister. Then as now, I made tiny meadows in window boxes, and seduced bees w/what they like best: fragrant flowers filled w/ nectar. All you need is dirt, water, & some seeds. You & Mother Nature can do the rest together.