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A Mystical Take on Masks, Racism, & the 4th of July

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As always, I have arrived at my family home in New Hampshire happily laden with books and full of dreams of writing. I intend to post here on Writing with Spirit more often, I’m working on a draft of my memoir, and I’ll begin a month-long online writing class next week. You will likely hear about some or all of these pursuits. Meanwhile, I have finished my first book of the trip, Richard Rohr’s “What The Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self.” I thought I’d share a short review because it’s rare that a “spiritual” book so completely jives with what we call “reality.”

And what a reality! As if things weren’t surreal enough lately, the President just celebrated Independence Day with a speech attacking what polls show is a majority of Americans who support the removal of confederate statues from places of honor. He aggressively stoked fear and hatred and division. But all this is nothing new. As he tries to distract us from the deadly pandemic that worsens daily, there will no doubt be more race-baiting and ugliness emanating from the White House.

Orange Fireworks

But back to the book:

I liked this little book. If you’ve read much Richard Rohr, you will find it familiar, with good reason: it’s a book of excerpts from his other writings. I could quibble with the structure of “Mystics;” the “seven pathways” seem forced and kind of random. This is probably because the editor who came up with the idea died part way through the writing, so I think the big picture may have been lost. But since the readings are in small bites, and the book doesn’t pretend to be a straight narrative, the structure isn’t too distracting, and there are plenty of wonderful Rohr nuggets throughout. This makes a fine daily reader for meditation and journaling, and I think I’ll be using it for years to come.

If you haven’t read Rohr, I recommend “Everything Belongs,” my favorite. But “Mystics” is a decent summary of his beliefs about spiritual growth and enlightenment, including growing out of our egoic self-preoccupations and into more compassionate non-dualistic thinking, less “othering” and judging.

It’s unusual for a “mystical” book to track so directly with the day’s headlines, but it’s impossible not to think about my fellow Americans refusing to wear masks because it “infringes on their freedom” when doing so would literally save the lives of others — talk about sick egos! Or about millions of white people yammering about their their precious “heritage” of slave-holding while demonizing black people being murdered in our streets and jails by law enforcement officials. Some seem more concerned about statues made of stone than their fellow citizens made of flesh and blood. Wrong color flesh, it seems.

Also timely, the last section of Father Rohr’s book centers on transforming others and society, and is hopeful but realistic. He recognizes that in North America, “our economy, our self-image, our very psyche have lived in a triumphalist and paranoid stance for so long that it will be hard to change to a positive and creative mode . . . a new way of living based on faith instead of fear, peacemaking instead of moneymaking, community instead of competition.”

May it be so!

 

Writing of Racism and Pandemics

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Everybody says I must write. It’s what writers do. Words help us make sense of the world. Words can comfort and calm or inspire and challenge, all of which are sorely needed in this moment.

It’s just that I’m having trouble writing. I write in my journal most days, as I have for fifty years (??!!) but I mean writing for consumption by others. I had written a nice, hopeful blog back in May, before all hell broke lose in the white world — because of course “all hell” has been lose in the black world for a long, long time. The blog was about how COVID-19 is teaching us to appreciate the simple things and to live in the present moment. It started out thusly:

“‘Plan Ahead with Confidence!’ shouts the red banner ad splashed across my screen. I laugh out loud. I remember planning. I have years of journals filled with various versions of it: What, when, how, with whom? Nowadays the only thing I’m able to plan is my grocery list, which feels outlandishly vital. I know exactly what I’m going to get (if the shelves aren’t bare) and it’s all written in aisle-order so that I don’t waste any time wandering around with all those scary masked vectors who used to be my innocuous neighbors.

My grocery list gives me a sense of control in this time when so little is in my control, least of all, the future. Of course, the future never was in my control, but somehow planning gave me the illusion of control. In reality, all we ever have is this present moment, but these COVID days have made us more aware of this truth.”

. . . And then I prattled on about the present moment, how lovely it is to bake bread, how walking is sweet therapy, how my neighbors probably started their new gardens out of a survival instinct, but are learning to love digging in the dirt and watching seedlings sprout. Etc. It was a “nice” blog, which now reeks of white privilege to me.

Things Aren’t Nice Anymore

Since the week of May 25th, when George Floyd was slowly, tortuously murdered by a policeman in front of the whole world and we witnessed intentional, vicious white privilege in the form of a safe, professional white-lady-dog-walker, things aren’t so nice. The thin veneer of niceness that separated white reality from black reality has, at long last, been splintered into sharp shards. The President of the United States is using those shards to slash whatever vestige of American unity might have remained.

Local artist’s portrayal of George Floyd

Sitting in my living room tapping on my laptop keys seems pointless.

Instead, I’ve been on Zoom calls about systemic racism and white privilege, I’ve ordered books and more books, I’ve joined Facebook groups that help white people understand that their reality is not the only reality. I’ve had honest and uncomfortable conversations with my black friends. I’ve attended four socially distanced, masked protest vigils in my community and at my church, not wanting to risk COVID at the protests in D.C. 

Writing a New Story

 

I’m taking an online class called The New Story Community, about imagining a new human story based not on power and domination, but on community and cooperation. A speaker named Melvin Bray really resonated with me (if you click on that link, begin at 10:05). Melvin teaches that simply trying to change minds and hearts won’t dismantle racism. By the time you get to the emotional stage, it’s too late. Because racism started for reasons of gain and profit, not hatred or fear. Once you’ve enslaved a bunch of people and committed genocide against some others, you have to backfill with a rationale for your actions. So you conclude that those people are “less than . . . sub-human . . . beasts . . . need to be civilized,” or better yet, “saved” by your religion. From that rationale is created your society’s myth, the story that dictates how you live, and your emotions and beliefs. Hence, if you start with emotions and beliefs like white hatred and fear, you’re way too late. You have to start with action —  a “doing” — because that’s what started the cycle of racism.

 

These are not times for inaction or silence, and I feel restless and impatient. I pray and I meditate and I implore the cosmos, “What’s my part, what’s my role, what am I to DO?” And two words keep coming back to me: truth and write.

Writing Truth

Truth is a hard one, especially when we are experiencing a pandemic of lying, concealment, and “alternative facts.” Real truth, though, is an inner thing. It only comes when you still yourself, open your grasping hands, and sit with the grief and pain of losing whatever myths you believed about yourself and/or the world. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I believe this, and I also believe that when anyone escapes their fearful, ego-centered thinking and opens their heart to true oneness and compassion, they are connecting with the same spirit I find in Jesus, no matter what they label it. 

So getting to truth is complicated, and confused with “reality” and “right and wrong” and “proof” and all the rest. 

But writing? Writing I can do. It’s what I’m called to do. I pray that my words and the spirit behind them will add mercy and kindness and truth to the world. I also pray that grief, confusion, cynicism, fear, outrage, guilt, and despair do not keep me from being who I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to do. Amen.

Amen

What September 11th Means To This American

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September 11th: we call it the “National Day of Service and Remembrance.” Honestly, I’d rather not remember that soul-shattering day in 2001, except for the surreal sense of oneness and belonging — the connection, concern for others, grief for the state of the world — dare I say universal love? I do want to remember that. There were beautiful tributes at American embassies worldwide, thousands of flowers and flags and candles and cards. And of course we remember those first responders, many of whom are still paying the cost of their sacrifice. No wonder this date is dedicated to unity and charitable service.

The world loved America that day, warts and all. Even this old hippie drove around with an American flag tied to her car antennae for months afterward. Remembering the unity and big-hearted patriotism that surrounded us in the weeks after 9/11 makes me feel homesick, wondering how we could have fallen so far so fast. The seeds of division and nationalism that plague us today were already planted and well-rooted in 2001, but they were easy to ignore if you were a privileged white person such as myself. I was busy.

Now, though, there’s no denying it.

America is desperately ill, and the seeds of evil have grown into gnarled trees of corruption and greed and white nationalism. Our president and his cronies are intentionally feeding and watering those trees. Evil is flourishing right out in the open: we have a mentally unbalanced, strongman authoritarian seeking dictatorial power with the complete compliance of the once “Grand Old Party.” There may be violence if he loses, he warns, as he stokes the fires of anger and fear at his hate-fueled rallies.

I barely recognize America anymore. She never really was “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” but at least we all wanted her to be. Now the strongman tells elected officials of color to “go back where you came from.”

But here’s the thing: I still love America, even more than I did when I tied that flag to my antennae on September 12, 2001. Her founding ideals may have become a mockery, corporate money may have damaged democracy beyond repair, and greed-driven climate denial may spell the beginning of the end for our species. But that “liberty and justice for all” thing? That’s still worth pursuing and defending with all we’ve got. Good-hearted women and men have fought for those ideals for hundreds of years, some in uniform, some in courtrooms, some protesting in the streets, some being martyred. Their spirits live on.

So on this “Day of Remembrance and Service,” let’s remember what this country stands for. Let’s commit to speaking up when we see racism and injustice in our daily lives. Let’s commit to educating ourselves fully, to admitting and learning from our mistakes, to voting, and to teaching our children to vote. Let’s march in the streets to protect one another, and let’s get involved in the upcoming election.

“Don’t mourn, organize!”

Joe Hill, songwriter and union organizer executed by the state of Utah in 1815.

In Remembrance

 

 

A Touch of Beauty

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The hardest part of coming back from the Wild Goose Spirit & Justice Festival is facing reality — getting back on social media and seeing the news and being reminded in a concrete way of the evil that’s blatantly running amuck in America.

So today I’ve been fretting. I’ve been forgetting to breathe, forgetting to do my contemplative journaling, forgetting my meditative centering prayer. I even neglected the new body/chanting prayer I learned at the Goose this year.

As if in response (and who knows, maybe they do monitor my stress levels), Facebook chose to share a lovely photo from a simpler time, a time when white privilege and basic denial allowed me to wander amongst the flowers without the knowledge that nearly 40% of my fellow Americans are OK with straight-up racism and state-sponsored child abuse.

Thanks, Facebook. I need to practice seeing beauty again, in nature and in people. Because the world is both/and. Beauty and racism, peace and cruelty. God, please open my eyes to both.

Beauty in Putney, Vermont. 2015

A Conversation About Racism and White Privilege

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Because there just hasn’t been enough about politics in the news recently, I’ve been reading up on potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. I wondered why people identified Senator Kamala Harris as African American, since her heritage is Jamaican and Indian. Although I had a feeling this was a really stupid question, I nevertheless sent my query to the African American Registry.

File:Kamala Harris Delivers Remarks on 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Civil Rights Act 11.jpg

Sure enough, a guy named Ben wrote back simply, “Follow the middle passage.” Too late, I remembered my trip to the Museum of African American History and Culture last year and all I had learned (and forgotten) about the early slave trade: the maps outlining slave ship routes from the African continent to the islands, the pictures of the sugar cane plantations, the whips and shackles and chains. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution, there were close to 200,000 African slaves in Jamaica.

Feeling sheepish and frustrated with myself, I wrote back thanking Ben and asking him to forgive “my ignorant white self.” I am always aware and grateful to people of color who take the time to educate me.

Much to my surprise, Ben wrote back and asked if he could interview me. Turns out he is the director of the Registry, and an important part of his work is educating white people. He said he hoped I could help him “understand whiteness.” I told him I certainly couldn’t speak for all white people, but I’d be happy to help if I could.

Understanding Whiteness

Ben has two main questions:

  1. How much does guilt propel whites to try to step outside their comfort zone in the professional world?
  2. What does it look like to consistently give up one’s racial privilege for a lifetime?

These questions have got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to our interview. Understanding my own history of family racism and privilege has been an important part of my personal and spiritual growth, and was also key to my professional development when I worked on cultural competency and dismantling racism at the Sierra Club. Getting beyond my guilt and shame was essential. 

What really interests me, though, is his second question. I’m not sure that white people *can* give up their privilege. It just is. It is a fact. You can’t take off your skin color. I did nothing to get it, it’s just the way other people and society as a whole view me.

I am aware of it now, and do small things like always letting a person of color walk through a door first or get in line ahead of me or speak first in a meeting. Just to purposely step out of my unwarranted position of privilege. And I work towards racial justice and reconciliation and try to make sure that the groups I work with are not led by white people. But I just don’t think that a person can “give it up.” The trick is to become increasingly conscious of it and to decline it or bring it to light whenever possible.

What do you think? I’d be really interested in your thoughts on either of these questions. These are such important conversations as our nation struggles to confront the resurgence of white supremacy in America today.

I wish you a blessed, just, inclusive, and compassionate new year!

— Image of Senator Kamala Harris from Wikimedia Commons

PROPHET OR MYSTIC? EITHER WAY: VOTE

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It’s a fine line many of us walk these days. I’m a big believer in not “normalizing” the man-child’s behavior; nor should we ignore it, though that is one strategy a parent might employ with a child throwing tantrums and spewing lies and invectives. We may occasionally laugh at his outlandish hubris or his ignorance about our system of government. But we must not fall into the habit of seeing him as a joke, as the Germans did with Hitler. This is dangerous and we should call it dangerous, even if friends tell us we need to lighten up or “let it go.” Let decency go? Let values go? Let justice go? Let our planet go? No.

So there’s that.

At the same time, how can I be a “light in the world,” as Jesus said? How can I “sow joy where there is sadness” and “hope where there is despair,” as Saint Francis prayed? How can I deepen the roots of my faith and truly believe, as mystic Dame Julian of Norwich believed, that “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well?”

Then there’s Philippians 4:18: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

So there’s all that.

But what about the prophets of old who called out depravity and violence in their political and religious leaders when they saw it? Not that I fancy myself a prophet, but it doesn’t take a prophet to see how depraved the man-child is. Yesterday, he complained that his political momentum was slowed down by a massacre of Jewish people and some assassination attempts. In case you missed it: “Now, we did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible. Because for seven days, nobody talked about the elections. It stopped a tremendous momentum.”

It also stopped eleven beating hearts and threatened dozens of others, but who’s counting?

Also yesterday, at a press conference designed to terrorize his voters about an “invasion” of brown-skinned people — “a lot of young men, strong men” — trump declared that he had told the military they should view any potential throwing of rocks as an attack by rifles. “Consider it a rifle, I told them.” Which means, of course, shoot the brown-skinned people.

Fortunately, there is a high likelihood he’s lying and did not actually order our soldiers to shoot desperate families seeking asylum. He’s just trying to make this sound like a crisis so his 32% will vote and he can justify using the military in a political stunt, right? Right? Because our military wouldn’t do that, right? Right?

Much as I’d like to write a funny post about the challenge of closing up my New Hampshire house for the winter, or an inspirational post about the scents and scenes of autumn, or a despairing post about the mess that is my memoir, I can’t do that today.

Today my prophet needs to speak out, and she’s yelling from the rooftops: If you don’t vote Democratic this week, a lot more people are going to die, whether by assault weapons, loss of healthcare, white supremacist murders, racist police or soldiers egged on by their Commander in Chief, or the storms, floods, and fires brought by climate change.

Think that sounds like an over-reaction? Think I should “let it go?” If you are a trump fan, no doubt you think I’m fear-mongering. Know what? I don’t care. This is no joke.

This is Why They Kneel: Jordan Edwards

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Jordan’s picture has haunted me even more than they usually do. Because you can see it, can’t you? The spirit, the humor, the warmth, the potential. All that potential. Shot dead in front of his brothers for something that probably would have produced a police warning, if that, had the kids been white.

But you know the story, right? I don’t need to set it up for you. We read them all the time. We even see videos of them, unarmed Black people running or begging. And then the gunshots, always multiple gunshots. I think Jordan took five.

He was fifteen years old.

This old story, though, has a new ending. And I’m praying that this different ending births different stories. Stories where the police officer takes a deep breath, thinks twice, or maybe just doesn’t aim for the head. The officer might not imagine Jordan’s face, but maybe he or she will see their own child’s face, or perhaps an image of a white police officer being escorted out of a courtroom in handcuffs, headed for prison.

I pray that the conviction of Roy Oliver in Texas today — sixty-three years to the day since fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman — will be a new beginning. I know, I’m a radical optimist. But someday I hope to live in a country where Black boys can go out with their friends without worrying about getting abused, searched, insulted, beaten, or murdered.

This is why they kneel, Mr. President.

Jordan Edwards: Rest in Peace and Power

Learning From Our Racist History

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LEARNING FROM OUR RACIST HISTORY

If we make it through our trumpian crisis without a civil war or a nuclear blowout, perhaps we will learn from this mess.

On a good day, I have a half-written blog in my head about how we’re going to recognize and repent of what we’ve become; we’re going to see where greed and selfishness have brought us; we’re going to reign in corporate power and learn to care for and lift up our poor; we’re going to treasure this beautiful planet and begin to accept and even embrace our differences, etc., etc., etc.

Today is not a good day, though, so I can’t write about that. I am too sad. The man-child’s behavior since the racist rally and murder in Charlottesville has shocked and shaken me, which is, in itself, shocking. How can I still be shocked?

I suppose it’s just the degree of ugliness that flattens me. I honestly did not know that a human being could get like that. If he was a main character in a novel, you would put down the book halfway through because it wouldn’t be believable.

“Very Fine” Neo-Nazis

I won’t dwell on his remarks yesterday calling neo-nazis “very fine people” and comparing our nation’s founder George Washington to confederate generals who committed treason and waged war on the United States. You probably saw that highly alarming press conference.

 

The worst of that spectacle was the backstory, which I also won’t dwell on because it’s all over the news. Basically, after not clearly denouncing the neo-nazis and white supremacists on Sunday, his advisors all but forced him to do so on Monday. But then he just couldn’t stand not getting his way so he reneged on the renunciation and dug deeper into his racist trench on Tuesday while his aides tried to melt through the floor.

His ego is so twisted and poisonous that even with his polling numbers and political career at stake (not to mention our country’s stability), he had to spew that, that . . .  whatever it was he spewed yesterday. Which does not bode well for the moment when the Vice President is telling him not to push the nuclear button. “Don’t tell me what to do!!” the man-child will wail.

Remembering — Not Honoring — the Confederacy

Anyway, my purpose for this blog today is not to dump more negativity into the world, although I will confess that I succumb to that temptation far too often. Writing is therapy for me, and I’m afraid I must vent and rage and grieve for my country from time to time. 

Today though, I want to make a constructive suggestion. When I was in Budapest some years ago, I visited a statuary park where they had moved all of the old statues of Marx, Lenin, and other Communist leaders — sort of an outdoor museum. It is a haunting place.

Photo attribution Yelkrokoyade

I think we should do something similar with all these confederate statues that are coming down one way or another. While it’s tempting to destroy them, we should not erase our history but rather learn from it. There’s a reason they did not tear down Auschwitz.

Here’s a link to a short and powerful video about a slavery museum in Louisiana that sounds like a great place to process some of our collective pain and shame. I’ll bet they would take a few statues.

I Want To Write About Charlottesville

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I want to write about Charlottesville. About watching my Twitter feed in horror as scene after scene scrolled by — swastikas, confederate flags, t-shirts emblazoned with Hitler slogans, torches of hate surrounding a church full of peaceful praying people, a black boy being beaten with poles, and finally the car — the car crashing into living, breathing, beautiful human beings.

I want to say Heather Heyer’s name.

But I can’t seem to gather the words.

I want to write about how I wonder if even just a few trump voters are thinking, “Oops.”

If they might see the teensiest connection between the largest gathering of white supremacists in modern history and the election of a man who encouraged his supporters to commit violence and pledged to pay their legal bills, expressed regret that he couldn’t punch a protester in the face, yearned for the good old days when people were carried out on stretchers, and just the other day advised the police to rough up people in their custody.

But there simply aren’t words.

I want to write about the nameless fear and deep sickness and vast emptiness that must be devouring those raging white men who chant “We will not be replaced.” What is that? Whatever happens with healthcare, can we at least get these people some therapy?

I want to write about how I smirked at the images of the little boys with their tiki-torches and the fact that the Tiki-Torch company actually had to disavow nazism — I mean, it’s all so ridiculous — but then I remembered how much evil a bunch of “boys” with a simple loop of rope can do.

There aren’t words.

I want to write about the feeling of solidarity at the rally yesterday, thousands and thousands of us marching purposefully, signs aloft, our chants booming off the hulking federal buildings that line the roads in the nation’s capitol and then rising to a thunderous crescendo of “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME, SHAME” as we passed the trump hotel.

And my further feelings of love and gratitude when I got home and found dozens of Twitter photos of demonstrations and vigils in Philly, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta, Durham, Vancouver . . . and virtually all of my Facebook friends expressing grief, determination, love, and commitment to fighting for justice in whatever ways they can.

My friends didn’t post pictures of their cats and appetizers this weekend.

But all of these feelings are too much. There aren’t the words.

So although I want to write about Charlottesville but am unable, I will instead leave you with a quote from Anne Frank, which I must believe or I would perish.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

A Sad but Beautiful Personal Story of Japanese “Internment”

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A Sad but Beautiful Personal Story of Japanese “Internment”

This is Part Two of the story that I posted this morning, Executive Order Imprisons 110,000 People. I wanted to share this lovely remembrance that a reader wrote in response to the version I posted in my Daily Kos Diary.

This is from a Daily Kos member who calls himself HarpBoyAK, a “long-time Juneau, Alaska political and environmental activist.”

My community was incensed that their good citizens of Japanese ancestry were being deported.  They implored the Federal Government to let their beloved laundry owner and workers, their favorite cafe owner and workers, and many other Japanese workers stay.  They knew these good, honest, hardworking people, and did not want them to leave.

So much so that when the valedictorian of the Juneau High School class of 1942 (my uncle’s class) held their commencement, the school painted one of the wooden folding chairs black and put it in John Tanaka’s place in the front row of the class (he had been awarded his diploma 2 months earlier when his family was sent to Minadoka, Idaho in early March).

John Tanaka went on to enlist in the 442nd Regiment and fought in the Italian campaign where the “Go For Broke” unit had one of WWII’s highest casualty rates.  Unlike many other communities on the West Coast, Alaska’s capital city took care to preserve the properties and businesses of our fellow citizens and helped them get back on their feet when they returned after the war.  John worked summers in his family’s restaurant while he attended college and medical school.

2 years ago, we dedicated a bronze copy of that folding chair placed in the park next door to that school as a memorial to those who were deported, and to remind us that it should never happen again.

Never again will we allow people to be imprisoned for who they are.  Never Again.  NEVER AGAIN.

EmptyChair.jpg

For more information and the full story of the Empty Chair, see The Empty Chair Project blog.

Another reader of my Daily Kos blog pointed out that calling these “internment camps” is “whitewashing” what our country did. They were concentration camps, built with the intention of concentrating the “undesirables” in one place. Hence the quotation marks.

And in case you missed it, the trump people are already citing these concentration camps as a legal precedent for their planned incarceration of immigrants (despite the fact that President Reagan issued an official apology for our World War II actions and paid each victim $20,000). The man currently occupying the Oval Office says he may or may not have supported the Japanese camps.

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