Are you on countdown this week? I keep ticking away days as if life is being divided into BE (before elections) and AE.
I know this is historically myopic.
The crow, the hawk, and the falcon are not counting down. They will keep flying regardless. As their kin have done for centuries.
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Book of Hours:
“I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years, and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.”
This week, instead of bringing more thoughts to you, I offer a poem instead.
This one comes from the Irish poet and Nobel prize winner, Seamus Heaney and was published în The Cure at Troy in 1991, to honor Nelson Mandela. (Heaney’s book was based on Sophocles’ play Philoctetes, which, truthfully, I haven’t read.)
It speaks to today.
From The Cure at Troy (I added the bolding.)
Human beings suffer
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope On this side of the grave… But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change On the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
Is it OK to rage when we’re committed to practicing love?
How do we love someone whose words and actions have lead to deaths and needless suffering for millions? And when their credo of selfishness taints and threatens to destroy this county?
If love is a tender, uplifting feeling of appreciation and warmth for someone, I can’t go there.
If love is a stance that acknowledges that the world is interconnected, we’re in this together, and everyone has a right to be here, then I can love.
I don’t have to like said person. I detest most of their actions. But it’s not worth hating because hate changes me and does nothing to better the world.
A time for revolutionary love
Author/activist Valarie Kaur would say I need revolutionary love, a love that doesn’t “other” people different from me, but does not condone their actions, either.
Valarie is a civil rights activist, film-maker, lawyer, speaker, author, mother, faith leader, and seeker, who has packed an unimaginable number of accomplishments into her thirty-nine years.
I listened to her speak in conversation with two other amazing souls, Parker Palmer, educator and activist, and Carrie Newcomer, songwriter and peacemaker. They spoke on Newcomer-Palmer’s “The Growing Edge Podcast,” which I recommend.
She launched her path as an activist and documentary film-maker when a close family friend, a member of the Sikh faith, was the first person murdered in a hate crime post 9-11. Then, when she witnessed racism and police aggression while filming and was herself arrested, she decided to add a law degree to her theology training. When she speaks she is serious and joyfully uplifting, eloquent in the languages of compassion and social justice, birthing, mothering, meditation, and civil rights.
Valarie knows the micro and major aggressions directed daily at people of color. In the Newcomer-Palmer interview, Valerie spoke about seeing her father subjected to a racial insult in the presence of her son. She added,
“To rage to protect that which we most love is worthy.”
Rage is not the opposite of love. When we love deeply, the correct response against systemic bigotry and injustice may be rage.
To sanctify our rage and help it serve others, we must work with it. Too often, people stay stuck in grief and rage until it calcifies within them.
“When we don’t give rage a safe container for expression–when we don’t move through our rage–it’s easy when it stays contained in our bodies to harden into something like hate.”
Parker added, “Or into depression, which is where I think a lot of people are… A lot of depressions are bottled anger.”
Valarie believes that white supremacy often reflects frozen grief for a country no longer here (and that maybe never was).
We all need safe spaces to work through our grief and speak our rage, without keeping it locked within us or lashing out reactively.
In the hands of someone committed to social justice, rage, grounded in compassion, can become a fierce sword.
Moreover, rage and grief can provide fuel for creative energy, which I need these days.
Keeping the flow
I’ve just started painting with acrylic paints and learned the hard way what happens when they dry out. Watercolors can be reconstituted with water, not so acrylics. The hardened blob of blue paint I cut from a tube was useless.
Similarly, I can’t let rage or grief dry out my heart.
Fortunately, when I paint, sing, or write, I have a way to move my feelings. While painting, I pick colors, like crimson red, burnt sienna, and cadmium orange, that speak to me, then see what comes forth. When I allow my feelings to flow, without clinging to them or justifying them, what emerges on the paper may surprise me.
Curiosity and wonder keep me going.
Softening with joy
I can throw a tube of paint away.
I’m not sure what it will take to help soften the many hardened hearts in this country. Listening to their stories? Practicing compassion?
I don’t have gobs of love to share, not the sentimental kind, at least, but I can offer compassion.
At the same time, I can work my rage and keep my soul soft by playing with colors.
A vibrant violet brings me heart-warming joy.
As the remarkably ebullient Valarie Kaur offers,
“Joy reminds us of everything that is good and beautiful and worth fighting for. Joy gives us energy for the long labor.”
When we were told to shelter-at-home at the beginning of the pandemic, I heard many friends talking about our new lives like a “staycation.”* We cut air travel and all but the most essential trips outside the home.
We had more time.
(*I realize this wasn’t true for everyone.)
I organized my home, completed projects with my husband, and enjoyed the space.
Later that feeling of spaciousness disappeared as the world discovered Zoom and a wealth of online classes appeared. I enjoyed the abundance and indulged my inner learning-junkie.
I played the piano again. I meditated. I was never bored.
My schedule became full.
Life is getting blurry
I’m still enjoying the creative spurt that I’ve been on, but I’ve noticed some disturbing symptoms:
Because I didn’t check my calendar, I blew two appointments I didn’t want to miss
I have to think hard to know what day of the week it is.
The weeks and months are blurring together.
The often cool Northwest summer days are confusing me. Is summer really here?
I don’t know when the political conventions are supposed to be.
When does a staycation end?
The word staycation was coined in 2005 by Canadian comedian Brent Butt in the television show “Corner Gas.” Now, the word’s in the dictionary.
Staycations, like vacations, were a break in work. They were supposed to have an endpoint.
What I’m experiencing is more like a beautiful drone that never seems to end, going on and on until at some point it fades.
I need more punctuation.
I’m taking a ___”cation”
For the rest of this month, I’m taking a break. (I haven’t found the word for this.)
On a manual shift car, you have to pass through neutral when you shift. Otherwise, you grind the gears.
I want to feel that still point from which change can emerge.
I’ll resume this blog in early September. I may use the time to catch up on some things. Or maybe I won’t. I may spend more time writing my book. Or maybe I won’t.
I need to add some periods to my schedule in place of commas.
Rumor has it we’re in for the long haul.
How can we find breaks that feel like breaks in this time of ongoing uncertainty?
I don’t know how it will work. In the meantime, I’ll miss you.
In the Pacific Northwest, I love to go up into the mountains, the Cascades or the Olympics, where I can breathe cool, clean air, and be inspired by spectacular views.
Standing on high ground gives me a chance to put life into perspective.
I need that perspective. So much of the news is about low-getting-lower ground. The rollback of environmental protections. US military-style agents invading Portland, Oregon. Misinformation about Covid-19 leading to a dramatic surge in the pandemic and thousands more deaths. Black lives still being lost.
What I need even more than mountain air, though, are people who show me, with humility, what it is to stand on high moral ground.
That’s what John Lewis could do.
Photo from President Obama’s recent post on Medium about John Lewis
I cried about his death last week. It’s not just that a great man, and a great congressman, died. It’s that he was a voice of conscience, to quote Nancy Pelosi, whose words carried the force of a life dedicated to social justice.
Through his mere presence, he could inspire our better angels.
Many will be eulogizing him. I’ll save that for those who knew him personally and loved him, like President Obama.
Former Ambassador Andrew Young said of his close friend:
“[he had] the calm, quiet, power of humility, integrity, and determination. He didn’t say much but when he said a word everybody listened because he was willing to put his life on the line for any word he spoke.”
John Lewis is gone. But his words aren’t. I offer them as a way of resting a few minutes on higher ground, gathering courage for the journey beyond.
“Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”
“These young people are saying we all have a right to know what is in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and the food we eat. It is our responsibility to leave this planet cleaner and greener. That must be our legacy.”
— Lewis on youth climate activists in a statement released in September 2019
“A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.”
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”
— Lewis on seeking truth, justice, and equality, during the impeachment trial for US President Donald Trump
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be Hopeful. Be Optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
— A tweet from June 2018
I can’t wait to watch the documentary about his life: John Lewis: Good Trouble
In the face of the brokenness all around us, it’s time to heed the call for good trouble and let ourselves be led through chaos by the “strange attractor” of a higher purpose.
“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.”
What if women, in this county and around the world, were to link arms across divides, including color, class, faith, sexual preference, and nationality, to demand a more loving and just world. A “no” to greed, bigotry, and war. A “yes” to compassion, caring, and peace.
Sound like too big a fantasy? But in dark times, don’t we need a few visions, even if they might initially strike us as air castles?
Consider the story of Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee. who organized women of different faiths and walks of life to protest together for peace in their war-torn country. Dressed in white and sitting by a fish market in the hot sun, the women braved the local warlords to demand peace negotiations. When those negotiations began but stalled, Leymah took a delegation of women to the site of the negotiations in nearby Ghana. The women blocked the building’s doors and windows and refused to leave until the men inside negotiating reached an agreement. When security forces tried to arrest the women, Leymah threatened to disrobe.
She knew that according to traditional beliefs, disrobing would bring a curse upon the men. The security forces backed down. The event was later seen as a turning point in the peace process.
Or Dr. Alice Min Soo Chun, an immigrant to the U.S. from South Korea, whose activism was triggered by her son’s asthma. She remembers hearing the saying, “A worried mom does better research than the FBI.” Soon, she was studying about asthma, air pollution, and learning about the number of people around the globe living without access to electricity. She imagined a solar solution. As a professor of architecture and material technology at the Parsons School for Design, she challenged herself and her students to come up with a solution an individual could use in a disaster. The result was a self-inflating solar light called the “SolarPuff” that could allow communities without access to electric power to function. When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, she sent three thousand SolarPuffs to the Mayor of San Juan. She later visited the island and distributed SolarPuffs to schools so that children could do their homework at night and households could function. She told the children, “Even more powerful than the sun is the light in your mind, your imagination.”
Or Daisy Bates, who defied racism and threats to her life to co-found the Arkansas State Press, and later made sure that the schoolchildren called the “Little Rock Nine” were able to enter school safely as they desegregated the Arkansas school system. Last year, the Governor of Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, signed a bill ordering that a statue of Daisy replace that of a white supremacist as one of the two Arkansas statues in the US Capitol.
Why don’t we all demand that statues of African American women replace the Confederate “heroes” in the U.S. Capitol buildings?
I found these and many amazing stories of resilience in The Book of Gutsy Women by Hilary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton.
I admit that I’d let my library copy of the book sit on my bedstand for two months, untouched. (COVID has extended my library loan!) I was dubious about a book by celebrities, and I thought that it might be the kind of simplified, sanitized history one foists on middle schoolers.
When I finally started reading it, I decided I needed my own copy to keep on my bedstand for inspiration. I read stories of women from around the globe, many well known, some less so. I read stories of women of color, indigenous women, white women, straight women, trans women, lesbian women…a smorgasbord of genius and greatness. I read stories of grit, tragedy, inventiveness, resilience, and tenacity.
Many of the women had suffered abuse, threats, even torture, yet transformed their pain into a commitment to better the world for others.
Of course, for every woman featured in the book, many of whom Hillary knew personally, there are thousands more (millions?) who deserve to be known. (Like the civil rights activist Pauli Murray whom I featured two weeks ago.)
So a vision of women locking arms together for change might not be that crazy.
Gutsy is contagious. When you read what these women have done, you gain faith in the future.
Now for a moment of joy:
I loved the following moment when an African-American mother finds out her daughter had been accepted into law school.
I’ve read a lot about trauma and somatics, (the body as we perceive it from within), and have done trauma recovery work myself, so I was excited that Menakem was bringing the body into the conversation about race in America.
Caveat: I’m a privileged white woman with a steep learning curve ahead of me about my role in perpetuating an unjust and racist world.
Without denying the needs for systemic social, political, economic, and judicial change, Menakem believes that both white-Americans and African-Americans hold what he calls “white-body supremacy” locked in their bodies. It influences our instinctual responses to fight, flight, or freeze in a situation. To free ourselves from our trauma-based responses, we need more awareness of the pain we carry within and how to work with it.
As an African-American expert in trauma therapy, Menakem has worked with blacks, whites, and blues (members of the police). The trauma of white-body supremacy affects members of all three groups differently, and the approach to healing needs to be different as well.
An event does not have to be deadly or horrific to trigger trauma.
“Trauma is anything the body perceives as too much, too fast, or too soon. Whenever trauma is involved, the first step in mending any relationship—or any emotional dysregulation—involves working through that trauma. And in order for someone to do that trauma work, he or she must first learn to slow down, observe his or her body, and allow it to settle.”
Our unprocessed fear reactions may show up in a slight hesitation, cringe, or a frisson of fear, when approached by a member of a different group, any of which may be tied, if but for a moment, back to white-body supremacy.
When we can’t deal with our pains, fears, and experience of abuse, we store them in the body as trauma.
Instead of dealing cleanly with our pain, we project it on to others, especially when we are afraid, triggered, and caught in the spell of white-body supremacy.
Once again, this month, we saw the tragic consequences.
What to do
Science is teaching us that fear, trauma, and prejudice can be passed down, on a cellular level, between generations. White-body supremacy goes back centuries. Many of us born in this country carry a legacy of fear deep in our bodies.
No matter how enlightened our beliefs may be, we need to consider what was loaded into our cells.
Although we can say racist reactions are very wrong (for example, the dog walker in Central Park who called the police on an African-American birder), we can’t change our beliefs by thinking alone, that is, without noticing bodily responses and our deeds. The fact that the woman claimed, “I’m not racist,” illustrates the gap that can exist between beliefs and behavior.
A personal example
Here’s how my personal trauma got mixed with a white version of white-body supremacy.
When I moved to New York City, I was mugged at gunpoint days after I arrived. I was staying with a cousin in Brooklyn Heights, not too far, it turned out, from a large housing project. I went to the corner convenience store around 7 pm for some yogurt and noticed a man buying Twinkies whose behavior seemed a little odd. My intuition didn’t register that he was casing me out.
Moments after leaving the store, he approached me with a gun and demanded, “Give me your purse.” Shaking, I handed it to him and he fled.
Physically speaking, no harm had been done. I hadn’t been hurt, and my losses, while inconvenient, were repairable. I learned to become aware of my surroundings when I walked in the city at night.
After the mugging, though, when I was alone on a street and saw a tall African-American man who looked like my assailant approaching me, my heart beat wildly and I felt a wave of reactive panic, even knowing that the sight of an African-American man did not necessarily spell danger.
I didn’t think much about the incident until years later when I attended a Story Bridge event and was paired with a man who looked a lot like my assailant. As we shared our stories, I fell in love with this stranger before me. As my heart opened, my body softened. We hugged. A wounded part of me let go.
Even with that healing, I have far to go to address the ways in which I still hold on to white body-supremacy.
When it comes to freeing the trauma held in our bodies, talk-therapy may not be the best solution. The field of trauma care has developed gentle, body-based tools like Somatic Experiencing (Menakem is a practitioner,) to help us shake off and release trauma and reset the body’s nervous system.
One key to this process is learning how to settle ourselves. Menakem suggests learning to recognize when your body feels safe and at ease, and when it feels tense and threatened. With time, we can learn to find a place of safety and calm we can return to in ourselves.
Even as we protest for bold and urgent action to change unjust systems, the body requires a different approach. My experience is that it responds best to gentleness, compassion, and small steps. The body never asked for the pain that it bears. A body that’s been traumatized needs kindness and patience while it learns that it can change and let go and still be safe.
When talking about race makes us physically uncomfortable, let’s not hide from what our bodies are saying, but gently work with and through it.
We can pause, breathe, listen. We pay attention to reactions in our bodies as we speak to people who are different from us.
Hopefully, when we learn to safely release both the personal and cultural trauma caught inside of us, we can stop acting on it and passing it on to the next generation.
“I think what it means to be human is to realize that we’re ever-emerging and that we are not machines…And for me, what that means is that it’s about work. It’s about action. It’s about doing. It’s about pausing. It’s about allowing — the reason why we want to heal the trauma of racialization is that it thwarts the emergence…Let’s condition and create cultures that will allow that emergence to reign supreme…”
Let’s do the work so that our better angels can continue to emerge.