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 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!
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.