I woke up at four-thirty this morning, the morning of my 52nd birthday, to the sound of a coyote howling, deeper down the hollow. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so it looks like I will welcome the dawning of my 53rd year.
Wikipedia reminds me that if you consider the majuscules (capitals) and miniscules (lower case) as separate letters, you’ve got 52.
There are 52 weeks in a year, with an extra day added to make 365. Perhaps this year, I will work on living with that sense of the extra day, the time beyond time.
On a piano, there are 52 white keys. Perhaps now I begin to learn the complexities of playing on the half notes.
There are 52 cards in a deck of playing cards, plus that extra tricksy Joker. Perhaps this year, I’ll be a Wild Card, playing any role I choose in the game.
(In the minutes it has taken me to write this, the sky has gone from the luminous grey of the pre-dawn, to a shining indigo. The dawn chorus is beginning.)
The web page Affinity Numerology tells me: “The numerology number 52 is a number of introspection and expression of a personal sense of freedom. It is studious and is mentally sharp. The energy the number 52 represents tends to do whatever attracts its attention as desirable to experience. But not on a whim. It analyzes what it experiences and what it observes.” I’ll take it.
Isn’t aging a wonderful thing? We grow more into ourselves, year by year. Sometimes I feel like I am a very young person, encountering the same ideas and experiences over and over again as if they were new, but always at a deeper level of awareness. Life’s a spiral–I keep coming back to the same things, but not really at the same place. Looked at from the top down, it could appear to be a solid, repetitive circle; looked at sideways and from a distance, it looks like a straight line. But we keep spiralling on.
Thank you, my friends, for walking this spiral with me. We were made for these times.
Gratitude List: 1. Coyotes howling in the holler 2. Getting older 3. Dawn chorus 4. My wise, wise friends 5. The fluttery purr of a contented, sleepy cat
“There is still a place for you at our table, if you will choose to join us,” the young man said. “Yes,” people chorused, “even now, there is a place for you.” –Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
At the end of The Fifth Sacred Thing, when the military forces are over-running their city, Maya and the others decide on this strategy: They approach the soldiers and tell them they have set a place for them at the community table. They know that some of them, in the moment of invitation, will be shot and killed. They know the situation is dire. But they decide to appeal to the humanity of their enemies.
Can I say to the fiercely adamant Trump supporter on my Facebook threads: “There is a place for you at our table of welcome, if you choose to join us?”
Can I say it to the racists who are spouting venom and hatred?
Can I say it to the fear-mongers who scapegoat immigrants and Muslims and Latinx?
Could I say it to Mr. Smucker, my local representative, who consistently votes against everything I stand for, and for everything I stand against?
Could I say it to a denier of the climate Crisis? To a Monsanto exec?
Could I say it to Mitch McConnell? To Mr. Trump?
It’s an invitation that requires some self-reflection: “. . .if you choose to join us.” It doesn’t condone the soldier’s violence. It begs a different relationship, a sideways step across the line. It offers a way out for the individual trapped in a cycle of violent words and actions.
I am unsettled and twitchy these last few days about my own position in this story, my own lack of empathy and welcome. I’ve been working really hard at keeping the conversation to a high level. Still, in conversation this weekend, I said something to the effect that this administration has drawn the racist and homophobic cockroaches into the light. A dear and wise friend firmly and kindly called me on it. Just days after I wrote something calling out the president for calling people animals, I was calling people cockroaches. In my defense, I was being metaphorical. I didn’t intend to dehumanize, I tell myself. But what did I intend? Why use such metaphors? We tend to stomp on cockroaches. There’s a verbal violence for you. I can’t defend such language.
My friend encouraged us to look at people’s needs, to ask what needs are not being met when a person chooses, either verbally or physically, to harm another. This is the beginning of empathy.
In The Fifth SacredThing, the community was willing to risk their lives for the truth of this question. Am I willing to risk letting go of some of my protective rage so I , too, can invite people to the table? What will we be asked to risk if we offer this invitation? It’s not about destroying healthy boundaries. The community was actively standing up to the soldiers. Still, they chose to offer their enemies a choice, a way out.
My personal rhetoric in these difficult times has had a strong edge of boundary to it. I believe that to fight the evil (yes, evil) that is harming children and families and communities, we must declaim the truth. When a president uses a constant barrage of lies in order to confuse and demoralize the populace, truth-telling is a necessary and powerful act.
I wonder if there are ways that I can hold firmly to the truth-telling, and still set the tables in the rooms of my words in ways that invite my rivals to sit and eat and be nourished. Can I speak against the lies in ways that invite those who believe them to tell their stories and share their pain? And perhaps become transformed rather than entrenched?
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” said Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, who joined the realm of the ancestors this week. She told the truth, directly and fiercely. And she also knew the power of words to heal, the power of narrative to create a bridge to a more just future: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
And further: “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly–once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.” ―Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993
I don’t know if I can do it with grace and brilliance, with fierceness and tenderness. But I can try, as Morrison requests. Language has magic to it. As a teacher of language and a writer, I take that seriously. Let’s apprentice ourselves to the powerful human magic that language offers us, to create spaces within our words where our rivals may find a space to rest and consider, where we may all be transformed, and the future may be created with love.
As an epilogue, I offer you this song by Mary Gauthier, “Mercy Now.” Click the link, sit back, and listen.
White Supremacy is an ancient and virulent virus that has infected this country since its founding. It began with a “Manifest Destiny” that wiped out any humans that stood in the way of the European conquest of the New World and continued with an “all men [sic] are created equal” that didn’t recognize all the humans as human, ignoring the inhumanity of brutally enslaving thousands of African people.
White people, we are all infected to some degree. We have absorbed it in the images we have seen, the media we have consumed, the education we have received, and even the sermons we have heard in our churches. It’s everywhere. It’s no longer slavery or wholesale slaughter of the First Nations. It’s no longer explicitly codified in apartheid-style laws. It’s subtler, more insidious.
Oh, it’s also obvious. The woman on the video spewing the n-word and saying she’d say it again. The white people calling the police on black and brown people for simply existing in public spaces. The police officers who shoot first, shoot pre-emptively, and walk free of the murders they commit. And the epidemic (yes) of white men slaughtering people with their weapons of mass destruction–we have reached the point when it’s no surprise to discover that the madman with the AK-47 is a self-avowed White Supremacist.
And while we have been searching for ways to combat the virus within ourselves and our communities, the president and his cronies in the halls of power in this country are feeding the virus, adding to its virulence and strength. From his tweets to their shrugs and tepid explanations, the virus is being fortified and given room to bloom. When frat boys pose in celebration in front of a memorial to a black boy killed for the color of his skin, when people sworn to defend and protect all people are serving up vileness and hatred on the internet, when our nation is caging brown children and people of faith say they deserved it, when a raging and disaffected youth posts a manifesto about race and then picks up a gun to kill as many people as he can before he goes down in a blaze of non-glory, it’s not only the virus itself that is to blame. It is those who spread and nourish it.
I call out the president of the United States for spreading the virus of white supremacy, for normalizing it, for egging on his weak-minded followers to vile and horrendous acts. He and his enablers must be held accountable for their words and actions.
I’m not letting myself off the hook. I’m not letting you off the hook. All of us whose skin gives us privilege have a responsibility to deal with the virus within ourselves, within our communities, within this nation.
If you are white, I urge you to join me in several actions. First, let’s look inside and keep opening doors of awareness. It’s never enough to simply call out the racists out there. We need to look at the racists inside ourselves. When we feel defensive or self-righteous, those are clues that we are holding on to our own privilege in unhealthy ways. Examine. Repent. Let go. Grow. Move on. Repeat.
And then, let’s find one thing, or two, or twenty, that we can use to identify white supremacy in clear and articulate ways. Let’s call it out. Post it on our social media. Speak out. Open conversations. Teach our children. Spread the word. We need to kill this virus.
Looking through some old journals today as I work on a project, I came across this, from my 2016 Silent Retreat at the Jesuit Center:
“A brilliant moment. A brilliant and shining moment. Yesterday evening as I was intently collaging in the Ignatian Room in the basement, two women (Catholic sisters) ‘pssss-d’ at me from the doorway. They needed help to figure out their room and how to get settled, and so I broke my silence and directed them where to go. Pleasant connection.
Just now, I saw them coming in from packing their car, so I went to talk to them. (I feel a little shaky-giddy yet with the dearness and synchronicity of it.) They, too, are/have been educators. Sisters Mary Clare and Bridget, Sisters of Mercy from Dallas, PA.
They embraced me, embraced my story. They said that they will add me and my students into their evening Centering Prayers. They said they will send me the Energy of the Universe. They said that there are no chance encounters, no coincidences.
They kissed me and embraced me and blessed me. Oh marvelous world, that has such people in it.”
I remember them and their love so clearly. Indeed, there are no coincidences, no chance encounters. How will I, how will you, bless and embrace those we meet–with such purposeful blessing from the Universe?
Following her fascinating performance at the G20 this past week, I have been thinking about how Ivanka Trump typifies white American femaleness.
This is toxic white femininity at its most caricatured, I think. I remember being caught by her apparent (key word: apparent) candor and thoughtfulness in her speech at the RNC when her daddy was running for prez. She could parrot feminist-sounding ideas, and perhaps she even has some sense of (white) feminist conviction. (What was the phrase she used in the infamous video from the G20? Something about a male-dominated ecosystem?) She can look deeply concerned in interviews about children and poor people. Along with the Barbie-fresh have-it-all physical image she has cultivated, she builds up an image of ideological understanding that has no basis in real, significant thought and education. She’s young and beautiful and well-dressed, and knows how to play for power based on her sexual appeal. She has the family and the power-husband and the power-job and the handbags. From Image Menu C, she’ll help herself to a little pseudo-feminism (as long as it has no hint of intersectionality), a little furrowed brow and sad eyes when presented with the pain of non-white non-rich people. Ideology as image-boost. Like someone who has no idea who Che Guevara is wearing a Che t-shirt because it looks cool.
Please understand that this isn’t simply a hate-Ivanka fest. I want to come back to the main point. I think she absolutely typifies toxic white femininity. Isn’t this toxic white femininity in a nutshell? The image from the G20 that seems to hold it all is the doll-like and flirty Ivanka sitting with her daddy among all those serious world leaders, because vulnerability, because sexuality, because Disney-princess.
And I don’t exempt myself here. I swim in this cultural soup myself. I try to wake up and wake up and wake up again. White sisters, we can choose to use our privilege to pretend our way into powerful situations, we can parrot intellectual-sounding babble about the male-dominated ecosystem, we can weaponize our sexuality with flirty child-like princess-innocence, we can carry all the power-handbags we want, but we’ll be helping only ourselves. Consolidating our own power. Continuing the sinister and insidious mock-innocence of the white woman who could pretend concern for the enslaved people on her husband’s estate while brutally and capriciously abusing the house-slaves. Continuing the hypocrisy of northern white women who could give lip service to civil rights, but do everything in their power to keep black and brown children out of their own children’s schools.
I’m not sure how to wrap this up. I guess the point is more about unwrapping at this stage. How do we white women unthread ourselves from this toxic tapestry? How do we grow beyond the very modern fairy tale that so many of us find ourselves embracing? Let’s begin by walking into a different fairy tale, leaving the princesses behind. We’ve got new woods to walk in, new characters to notice and pay attention to. Here is the stark and liberating reality: we’re not actually the main character. Can we step out of the spotlight, share power, and choose to live authentically? Can we be true to our human selves rather than purchasing images of selves like America’s princess?
(Gratitude: My friend Christine Lincoln–a Poet and Activist and Grandmother and Wise Woman and so much more–is the one who gave me the analytical doorway into an exploration of toxic white femininity. I hope she writes a book. All Americans should read it.)
I need to sit quietly and spend some time understanding all that I have learned and experienced in the last three days as we’ve explored the Harriet Tubman Byway near Cambridge, Maryland. Words like inspiring and life-changing don’t quite do it justice.
Meanwhile, here is a poem I wrote in 2015 after a church meal at the house of friends. I had plans then to revise it, and never did. Perhaps that might be the task of the week ahead.
The Cherry Tree
After we had eaten, the adults shared stories in a circle underneath the trees.
The children rode the tractor wagon down the hill to splash and wander up the creek almost out of hearing or gather sweet black raspberries to pass around in paper cups, each set of fingers smashing down the fruit below until all was sludge scooped out and licked from purple hands: a sacrament.
Back from the creek and the fields and the barn they came, dripping water, straw in their hair, trailing jewelweed, clothes and fingers and smiles stained purple from berries.
We gathered beneath the cherry tree with buckets and bags. We all were children then, in the kingdom of the cherry tree, laughing, leaping high to catch her boughs to draw the clusters down within our reach. We could not hope to get them all, even when the children scampered up into her branches.
We laughed and were amazed at the wild abundance of the tree. And this was church as ever church can be, all of us filled, dazzled, alit.
May your mouth be filled with sweetness. May your ears be filled with the laughter of children. May your heart be as wide and open as the blue sky. And may your stories blend with the stories of others, reaching out and upward like the branches of a tree.
Friends I met on my walk yesterday: 1. Crow. Crow reminds me to get the wide perspective, to take on the adventure that any wind offers, to speak my mind. Crows don’t take heed for nothing. 2. Dogbane. Dogbane reminds me to be resourceful, to take note of the helpers who are always present, and to spin: cord, stories, prayers. . . 3. Deer. She ran across Schmuck Road, causing an SUV to brake. She reminds me to pause. She reminds me to love myself unconditionally, to live from the heart, to listen. 4. Monarch. He reminds me of resilience, how fragility and strength are not mutually exclusive. He reminds me to always look for beauty in everything. 5. Scarlet Pimpernel. A tiny five-petaled scarlet flower found in the grasses. When I was in college, I watched the old black and white movie The Scarlet Pimpernel, about a French dandy who uses disguises to rescue aristocrats condemned to the guillotine. What I took away from the movie is the importance of resisting the machines vengeance and death-dealing. Be surprising. Pop up wherever you’re needed.
Things That Made Me Happy Today (Another way to say Gratitude): 1. The chenille bedspread. It’s so comforting to snuggle up under it. 2. My Best Bird, the Oriole, flitting in and out of the honeysuckle vines all morning. 3. The holler is filled with the scent of honeysuckle. 4. Reading Bud, Not Buddy with the kid before he headed off to school this morning. 5. Completing the grading for four of my six classes. Only two more to go! 6. Talking on the phone with Sarah this morning. 7. The way the sun dapples the pathway the deer have made in the bosque across the stream. 8. How Ellis hums to himself wherever he is, like his dad.
I know. No posts for a week or more, and then two in one day. I’m out of school, and all the things I have not had time to think are now finding their way into my brain.
Here’s a plea: Can we please cut out the personal insults to the president’s appearance, please? It’s too easy, too below the bar, too off-point. We have too much at stake to muddy our message with meanness.
The tuxedo pictures with the Queen? Isn’t that just fat-shaming? Yes, Obama looked terrific in a tux, but I didn’t vote for Mr. Obama because of his body. I liked him because he did his best to try to level the playing field a little. I liked him because he read and understood liberation theology. I liked him because he was well-read and well-spoken, and a man of grace and character. I liked him because he had a plan to make health care accessible to all, and he tried his best to make it happen.
By the same lights, I don’t care what Mr. Trump looks like in a tuxedo. He could look classy and stylish and debonair, and he would still be someone who enacts fascist-style policies that tear children away from asylum-seekers without any intention of getting them back together again. He could be svelte and handsome and charming and still gut environmental protections while denying the climate crisis.
PThe fake tan? Can we just stop with the Cheeto references? Let’s not make fun of people’s skin color, okay? Even when it’s self-inflicted. Didn’t we learn that one a long time ago, from some wise man, that we should judge people on the basis of their character rather than the color of their skin? And there are more than a few aspects of Mr. Trump’s character that make me question his suitability to run a country: blatant misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, classism, narcissism. . . We really need to focus on those: they’re what make him a dangerous leader.
Basic Logic 101 teaches us about the ad hominem fallacy, attacking the person rather than the issue. We have plenty of strong arguments as to why this man is at best a poor leader and at worst a dangerous one, but we weaken our arguments with ad hominem attacks on his personal appearance. We lose our focus on the real dangers he poses to vulnerable people, and we trivialize the actual pain he and his policies cause, when we make fun of his appearance. Plus, it gives people an excuse not to take our very real concerns seriously. Also, would you make fun of your rotund cousin in his tuxedo? Would you make fun of your friend who has rosacea?
I am all for the work of the sacred clown in society, making fun of people who refuse to self-reflect. When a president has his press flunkies lie about the size of his inauguration crowd, then it seems fitting to point out the size of the crowd that turns out to protest his presence in the UK. When he uses Twitter as a platform to spew wild and conspiracy-laden ideas, as well as a forum for personal aggrandizement, then it seems right to point out the ridiculousness in his tweets. But the size of his belly and the color of his face have nothing to do with the size of his crowd or his Twitter status.
Meanwhile, children who have been torn from their parents (nursing babes, toddlers, all the way up to teens) are in camps and detention centers, receiving minimal care and no education, from what I am able to gather. They’re subject to sexual and physical abuse. Reporters are not allowed to film or photograph conditions, if they’re allowed in at all.
Meanwhile, transgender people are in danger of losing human rights protections for medical care. Meanwhile, women are losing reproductive rights. Meanwhile, the environment is being destroyed, and the warnings about impending ecological devastation are ignored or denied.
We need to actively work to remove this man AND his enablers from power, not sit around taking potshots at his appearance.
I hate to be a scold. I know it feels good in the moment to stoop to his level. I know that because I have done it. But it doesn’t feel good in retrospect, to get down in that mud. We don’t save this country by name-calling. We save it by truth-telling. By action on behalf of the vulnerable. By holding the greedy and power-hungry accountable for their speech and their actions. Let’s get to work.