This IS the America we’ve built.

The work of dismantling white supremacy has been severely hindered by the fact that structural racism has gone unnoticed by most of white America for at least couple of centuries now, but it’s hard to ignore at this point.

But will we find a way to ignore it anyway? White people’s complacency is incredibly hard to disrupt. Today that complacency feels like a vast body of water that’s been disturbed by a rock dropping into it. Well, many rocks. Except by “rocks” I mean “dead people.” People murdered by a system that props dominant paradigm people up at every turn and keeps us just comfortable enough that we don’t challenge it.

I watched us after the election. There was such a swell of liberal aggressive energy. As I watched liberals express continued shock and dismay, I feared the moment when my fellow white people would start to realize they were probably not personally in danger if they chose not to be. I dreaded, for the sake of people I love, the moment when most white people would grow weary of the weight of caring about them and their safety. This work is a cross country run. Liberal aggressive energy, unless it’s carefully channeled, causes people to sprint off in all directions looking for anything that will make us feel less terrified of the realities of our society. Anything to assuage the guilt we feel as bearers of whiteness.

Liberal aggressive energy causes people to say things like, “Not my president” or “This isn’t the America we’ve built.”

Except that it really, really is. This *is* the country we’ve built together. Until we truly reckon with that I’m concerned white supremacists will continue to have the upper hand. Further, to think or say otherwise risks undermining our credibility with people who have borne a weight of violent oppression for centuries.

People are gathering today. My own city, whose citizens often think of it as a “liberal utopia” (that claimed identity sometimes makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit when I think about it too much because of certain discriminations people I care about have faced here) had a gathering Saturday night to show unity and solidarity.  I’m glad people are doing that, even as a part of me is frustrated that it took Facebook until now to finally popularize an “I stand against racism” frame for people’s profile pictures.

As I sat awake in the wee hours, my laptop perched on a breastfeeding pillow and my newborn asleep next to me, I hated the timing. I felt small and powerless. I feared for my children and the world they are inheriting. That sense of hopelessness echoed the feelings of a friend who recently posted on social media to say, “We’re losing. We’re going to keep losing. I’m glad my kids don’t plan to have kids. I’m glad I’m old and will only have to watch the unraveling of America for the first 30 years of it or so.”*

It reminded me of this quote from the Lord of the Rings:

‘”I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”‘

The terrible truth that too many white people of good conscience have yet to face is that this is precisely the America we’ve built. What are we going to do about it?

Let us not act out of guilt. Let us not act out of fear. Let us act out of solidarity and allow care for other human beings to give us the courage to do so. Love is not always softspoken and calm. Sometimes love is tenacious and forthright. The kind of love that can “trump hate” sure as hell is going to require some grit.

A question I’ve heard over and over is, “what can we do?” While there are some common first steps for people who want to work to dismantle white supremacy (here’s a great primer from Ijeoma Oluo, if you haven’t seen it yet, and here’s another perspective that may help you), we all have to engage the work differently. It’s OK to specialize even as we necessarily push ourselves out of our comfort zones. The work includes marching in the streets and calling our senators and stopping to overtly watch when black people are surrounded by the police. It includes raising kids who are prepared to participate meaningfully in this work and it includes talking to other adults in our spheres of influence. It includes using our critical thinking skills to find ways we can stop participating in systems of oppression. It includes many, many more things than this short list.

We can’t do everything. But if each of us does one thing at a time, a growing pile of things will get done and then change may become visible.

*reposted with permission

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Peace as Seasonal and Feelings as Nouns

In ancient Greek mythology, Irene is the goddess of peace. Significantly, she is one of the Hours, who govern the seasons. This felt especially meaningful to me because I am learning that in whatever season we find ourselves this moment, peace returns eventually. Sometimes that thought is very comforting. Sometimes it feels terribly unfair, like going to a funeral on a cheerfully sunny day. But I’m learning that peace looks different with each iteration, so I experience it differently each time around.

I talked with E yesterday about some overwhelming feelings she was having and we were talking about the idea that feelings are nouns you can turn into verbs. The really great thing is when we can choose intentionally which feelings we want to turn into verbs, though some of us need years of therapy or medication to begin to figure that out. One hard thing I’ve found about feelings-as-nouns is when there are too many nouns for me to deal with. At six weeks postpartum, the nouns have definitely piled up (it is so smart that the postpartum visit with the midwife is generally scheduled at this point). It begins to feel as though I’m walking through a minefield and if I’m not perfect something will blow up. What if I can never form coherent sentences again and have to stop writing? What if I can’t make a “plant perfect” (no, really, people call it that) meal tonight and my kids get heart disease? What if J helps me too much and is too tired to take care of himself? What if my friends need something and I’m too tired to help? What if S doesn’t just have seasonal allergies? What if?

Because I have other friends with busy brains, small children, and the sense to turn off their phones when they sleep, I felt comfortable calling my friend M at 2 a.m. (don’t worry if I have your phone number as well…in these moments I only call people who have promised it won’t wake them if they are sleeping because I’m anxious, not a barbarian). She asked me if I could walk out of the minefield. As I breastfed Irene, it occurred to me that in my arms I held a tangible reminder that peace exists in the world whether we can see it or not in a given moment, and that we can work to bring it about. The idea that there is safe footing outside the minefield helped me to figure out where to put my feet.

So if you’re reading this, and bombarded with nouns (my high school English teacher would probably ask with exactly what else one could be bombarded besides a noun of some sort), I wish you 2 a.m. phone call kind of friends. I wish you safe passage. But most of all, I wish you peace.

“Life is a cookie.”

 

 

Unfinished Conversation

Even the title’s a little uncomfortable. We like things to be able to be checked off. But what I learned from sitting with Vincent this week is that sometimes a conversation is left incomplete in service to the bigger picture.

Above on the left is a picture I took at the Cleveland Museum of Art of The Large Plane Trees because I am fortunate enough to live in the same city as that piece. On the right is the same section of The Road Menders, which he painted later in the studio, using his earlier painting as a guide. I’ve written before about how much I love The Large Plane Trees because of its passion and very obvious need to capture the moment before it disappeared. He had to catch the colors of the leaves changing and was so desperate to do so that he used a tablecloth rather than wait for canvases to be delivered. There are places where you can see the pattern of the cloth beneath because portions of the painting were left as rough sketches to be returned to later.

And he did. On the right, because he was working from memory and because he had his earlier work as a guide, he was able to flesh out a great many more details. I was especially struck by the two road menders in each iteration of the work. On the left, they look very…unfinished. Because they are. On the right, the lines are clearer and you can see much more clearly what the two figures are doing.

I think certain conversations are like that. When you Just Begin, sometimes you have only a very rough idea and it gets to a point where you have to stop. The light looks how it looks only for a brief time and sometimes you have to direct your attention elsewhere or you’ll miss it. When I have been in a conversation that has stopped (who goes through their whole adult life without having that experience at least a few times?), I work hard not to begrudge a person this. Maybe at some point we will pick it up in a different context to make the lines clearer, but maybe not. Either way, my hope for each of us is that we catch the light in whatever way speaks beauty to us.

On the Rise of Seeker Sensitive Social Justice Work

In case you don’t know: in Evangelical Christianese, there is something called a “seeker sensitive church.” It basically means that the main focus of a church is to get people in the room and keep them there at all costs. A main reasoning behind this is that if you keep people around, you have a chance to effect a change in them. There is some logic in that. You can’t have productive conversation with people who won’t talk to you.

But.

In order to keep people in the room, many times seeker sensitive churches will be super careful not to say anything too challenging, ask too many uncomfortable questions, or push people too far too fast. Therefore a main criticism of seeker sensitive churches is that they tend to produce Christians who never mature in their faith.

I’m seeing this as a trend across several areas of social justice work, especially since the election. Look at all these new people! Caring about All the Things! How can we keep them engaged? The biggest and most obvious example was the often chaotic unfolding of the Million Women March Women’s March. I have been to a handful of white people anti-racism meetings where we spent the first 10 minutes clapping for ourselves simply for being there. Why are we doing that? I don’t go there to feel good about going there. I go there to do the work. Leaders of social justice work, hear me if you have ears to do so. Please, please learn from the fact that seeker sensitive evangelical churches are no small part of what led to a significant number of American Christians who are so disconnected from what the Bible actually teaches that they will vote for Donald Trump.

White people new to thinking about this stuff: we don’t have time to sit around indefinitely theorizing in abstract ways about how racism may or may not be present in our lives. Here’s a spoiler alert. It is present. Racism is all around us. At our dinner tables. In our inner ring suburban schools where middle schoolers are telling concentration camp jokes at the lunch table. In our anti-racism meetings. In our book clubs and passive-aggressive conversations where we all try to be the best at not being the smartest anti-racist in the room. Racism is the toxicity in the water we all swim in. Please swim anyway. People are dying. Asking them to be patient so you can work on your butterfly stroke is….inappropriate.

I’m not saying we as white people shouldn’t analyze or think deeply about how our whiteness affects the way we walk through the world, and how it affects people around us who are not white. We absolutely should be doing that. As we go. In a way that allows us to get rid of our nonsense, not wrap it up in other nonsense and keep carrying it with us. It is essential to this work that we find ways to cultivate a stillness inside us that doesn’t need to disregard the voices of oppressed people in order to exist. We are all bombarded with the false idea that we can only be one thing at a time. We are acting or we are thinking. We are reacting to what happens now or we are considering the long-term implications. If that is the way we understand the world, it is so hard to take the long view in a way that doesn’t erase the people right in front of us. Please try anyway. There is work to do.

I am not without compassion. I get that many people are shocked. The world is a shocking place. Here’s the thing. If your body goes into shock you have to find out why and deal with that. A good first step in most cases of physical shock is to huddle under a blanket and call for help. But most of the time, you have to seek further treatment or your body will go deeper into shock until you die. I repeat: you have to huddle under a blanket and call for help. When help comes, you have to accept it. Very often you have to find the underlying cause and treat that or you will not get better.

Creating a seeker sensitive social justice movement runs a high risk of just putting a blanket around ourselves and never seeking further treatment. I know it’s hard to move when you feel small, scared, and trapped. I spend time feeling that way too. But to quote our favorite misanthropic tv doctor…

Patient: I just want to talk.
House: About nothing. If you talk about nothing, nothing will change.
Patient: It might.
House: How?
Patient: Time. Time changes everything.
House: That’s what people say. It’s not true. Doing things changes things. Not doing things leaves things exactly as they were.

 

 

 

Anxiety: The Worst Best Friend

If you are someone who need things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you at first glance. But if you love someone who struggles with anxiety I would encourage you to consider reading to the end. I’ll describe the hard part honestly, which allows me to describe the hopeful part honestly too. Nobody is just one thing.

~~~~~

Having an anxiety disorder can be like having an emotionally abusive best friend. It follows you around from place to place and whispers to you confidentially (like it really cares about you), “What do you think you’re doing?”

When you try to make new friends, “Why would they want to talk to you?”

When you try to start a new project, “Who do you think you are? You can’t take this on.”

When you do something outside of your comfort zone, “You shouldn’t be doing that. Someone else could do it better.”

When you are brave in relationship, “You’ve said too much. They won’t want to be your friend now.”

When you are afraid for someone you love, “That thing you’re afraid of is going to happen, and it’s going to be even worse than you think.”

When you are celebrating something, “But what about all the people who didn’t get this thing? Have some compassion!”

When you are celebrating something else, “You don’t deserve this thing. This is a fluke and something bad is about to happen.”

When you think you know something, “You’re probably wrong about that. Someone disagreed with you and they’re probably right.”

~~~~

This cycle is going on in my brain most of the time. When I’m doing well (which is also most of the time) it’s just one of many and I am better at disrupting or ignoring it. As I type this we are in the middle of a great weekend. Other times, the cycle is louder and it’s harder. So you’ll have to excuse me (or not; it’s your call really) if I don’t come across as Very Optimistic all the time.

See, I have this friend. I’d like to ditch them. But they’re right juuuuuust enough of the time that I can’t quite shake them. Sometimes I’m terrified a bad thing will happen and then it does. Sometimes people really do die. Sometimes husbands really do have heart disease.

I wish I could pretend Anxiety doesn’t exist. But abusive best friends don’t respond well to that treatment. At least not according to what I have observed. A more direct approach is needed.

So when I can’t handle it internally, I repeat the crazy things Anxiety whispers to me out loud. To a trusted friend, to a therapist, sometimes even in an essay. Because those things wither in the light.

My friends are my friends (and if they aren’t, that’s good information to have; when people show you who they are, eventually it makes sense to believe them).

I can do lots of things. Probably more than I usually think I can, not less.

All criticism should be considered in relation to the source. Relational equity and the amount of wisdom of the person offering the feedback should be examined, as well as making sure that a criticism really is meant for me before interpreting it so. Sit with criticism honestly, not under it coweringly.

We’re at the end of the Christmas season. If you’re into liturgical traditions and things, Epiphany was yesterday and so we’re taking our Christmas decorations down today. My favorite Christmas song is called, “You Are the New Day.” There are several versions of it out there but my favorite one has a couple of stanzas I love and hold on to:

Like a breath I knew would come

I reach for a new day….

 

Hope is my philosophy

Just needs days in which to be

Love of life means hope for me

Born on a new day

 

As I said at the beginning, if you are someone who needs things to be shiny all the time this likely won’t sound very optimistic to you.

But the thing I keep repeating to myself as needed is “Proceed as though this might turn out ok.”

And that’s been an amazingly encouraging thought.

An Invitation to Work

My friend was walking down the street at the college campus where she lives and studies, and, well, this happened.

gab

I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is happening.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

As our kids played at gymnastics yesterday, a friend related to me the story of her relative who went into a liquor store. The man behind the counter sporting a Trump shirt said to him, “We don’t have to serve your kind anymore. Get out.”

I don’t have time to sit around crying indefinitely when this is the reality of people I care deeply about.

There is work to do.

~~~~~

I was able to get to a Black Lives Matter event the other night. I don’t want to report on the details because it wasn’t open to the public in that way. But there were a couple of things that really stuck out to me and weren’t directly about the meeting, so I’ll share some pertinent items I witnessed.

The meeting began with the organizers saying, basically, “White people! Welcome! We noticed there are a lot of you here tonight. That’s great. Welcome to this conversation we have been having! Please know that this meeting is not about you and we will be prioritizing oppressed voices.”

At one point, an angry white HRC liberal lady spoke up and said, “So, do white people have a place in this? Because what I’m hearing you say is that…”

The facilitator was ready, and it was excellent. “I need to stop you right there. There is a place for you and we absolutely need you in this work but this is not the time for that.”

I was very relieved to hear another white person say, “White people’s place in this space is to stand in the back and listen. There is a lot we can learn by doing that here.”

Whiteness is so used to being at the center that it sometimes takes a great deal of work to avoid the impulse to recenter it even when other voices really need our attention before they are snuffed out.

Please try anyway. There is work to do.

~~~~~

Garrison Keillor recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post encouraging the distraught liberal elite with some suggestions for lovely ways to spend their time.

“We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long , brisk walk and smell the roses.”

No, Mr. Keillor. I don’t want to grow heirloom tomatoes and taste artisan beer and ignore what is happening to people I love. And it’s absurd to me that you would even suggest such a thing, let alone say it outright as the thing people should do. It may be that your Minnesota sarcasm doesn’t mix well with Ohio earnestness, but people are getting the wrong idea.

So by all means. Take long walks. Travel around the country (must be nice to be able to afford to do that on a whim!). Heirloom tomatoes and craft beer are delicious! But if that’s all you do, you don’t get to call yourself ‘woke’ or ‘ally’ ever again. You can find joy and beauty in life without saying, “Let them eat cake.”

I understand feeling paralyzed. The America you thought you lived in (the one where Hillary Clinton was going to bring us all together) doesn’t exist, and that is deeply destabilizing. If you can’t get past it just yet, I feel compassion for you. Whether you believe it or not, it’s true. I can feel compassion and frustration at the same time because I can be more than one thing. It may not seem like it right now when the shock looms large, but you can too.

So if and when you are ready, a growing group of us will be over here (not on the elite left, because apparently that’s where people are smelling the roses or something) doing the work to dismantle racism in our daily lives. You are more than welcome to join us. The comforting thing and the difficult thing is that, as I heard recently in a room full of people who have been dealing with this issue for a long time, is that if you are new to this conversation your very first job is to show up, stand in the back, and listen.

America is Not Built on Freedom

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance.

By men who wrote the beautiful words, “We hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” and yet owned other people as property.

The constitution grants all men “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” except some men are three fifths of a man.

I have a theory. I think this election has not created a lot of ugliness. I think this election has uncovered a lot of ugliness. I hear my white friends saying, “everything’s about race now.” Now? Now?! Racism did not begin when Donald Trump first talked about Mexicans being rapists. It didn’t start when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. It’s been here all along, we just tried to stitch the wound closed in recent years with things like color-blindness and “I have an asian friend.”
Well, white people, the wound is open. We can either try furiously to close it up again, or we can debride the terribly infected tissue that’s been festering since the first time we landed here. I would posit that cognitive dissonance is more at play here than most of us realize.

In a psychologist’s office, if you come upon an area of cognitive dissonance, they may tell you there are a few ways to deal with it. Let’s agree that for most people, internal consistency is the goal.

Denial

The quickest way to accomplish that feeling of consistency, in the short term, is to disregard everything that doesn’t fit the narrative that makes you comfortable. To ignore the italics.

“She should’ve listened to the cops.” Except she did.

“He isn’t a racist. Look at this picture of him next to a smiling brown person!” Except for mountain of evidence from his own mouth that he possesses and acts on dehumanizing biases toward large groups of people.

“Well, we don’t have all the facts.” Except we have video of this from several angles and they show quite a clear picture of what happened.

“When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within.”

I grew up in the country. I remember this occasionally when I randomly hear a Garth Brooks song somewhere and realize that I still know all the words for some reason. With all due respect to Mr. Brooks, “color blindness” (possibly the most well-intentioned large scale effort at denial to date) is not the way forward. At the time it started being advocated for, it made sense to tell people, “Stop talking! Just stop talking because what you’re saying is awful.” But now? We really shall be free when we notice the color of skin whenever we notice it, and we are able to see that it is connected in inextricable ways to the beauty within.

Justification

Justification looks lots of different ways, and is the first line of defense when denial is challenged. It can look like externalizing or like trying to prove you’ve solved the problem.

“What am I supposed to do? I’m just one person, and this has been going on for hundreds of years.” Institutionalized racism is a system-wide problem. But systems are made up of people. “Be the change,” can be more than just a cheesy key chain slogan, if we choose to make it so. It’s a lot of work though, so don’t take it on lightly.

“I live in an integrated city and so I’ve solved racism. That city over there? That’s where racism lives.” Guess what? Living in a city where black or brown people also live doesn’t mean that you automatically ‘get it.’ The city I live in is sometimes described as a ‘liberal hotbed,’ and yet it is painfully obvious how segregated it is. What’s worse? Living in a city where everyone looks like you, or living in a city with lots of people who look all different ways, but only being in close relationship with the ones who look like you?

Change

“I will try to learn about people who don’t look like me.” For goodness sake, google some stuff. There are plenty of really thoughtful essays written by people who don’t look like you. If you are white, please don’t make people give you a free 100-level course when they are already stressed out and grieving because they’re afraid their husband, their cousin, or their daughter is one flat tire or traffic stop away from being the next hashtag. Don’t be that guy.

~~~~~

Continuing to claim that American culture is built on liberty for all people equally is a refusal to confront the cognitive dissonance. I understand wanting to find a way to reduce the dissonance. I suppose I’m just looking to reduce it in a way that actually makes a difference. Maybe that’s the musician in me….I look to the dissonance as a way to move the music forward toward beauty and resolution.

America is not built on freedom, but on cognitive dissonance. And the sooner we admit that to ourselves and each other, the sooner we can begin to truly approach the freedoms we desire.