“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962

 

 

 

“I Praise”

“Sam,” a ceramic created by Shelly Ann Moore.

“Despairing for the world,” I spotted her just as she about to get off the 85 bus. In a white, lacy, off-the-shoulder blouse and no-nonsense dark skirt, a black, canvas bag touting the name of whatever tech/Kendall Square conference she was about to attend slung over her bared, coffee-brown shoulder, she exuded confidence. Anticipation. Smarts. “Young, gifted, and black,” indeed. ( Need I add STEM-strong, too?) And, suddenly, because women like her lived in this broken world, too, my grief lifted.

A few weeks later, having just bought “Sam” at a craft fair in Ventura, California, I told my husband and brother-in-law that story. Falteringly I tried to put into words why this figurine so powerfully spoke to me.

“You suddenly saw another version of the future and a world you wanted to live in,” my brother-in-law offered.

Close.

Yes, mysteriously, Sam does somehow invoke that lifting, hope-filled moment on the 85 bus.

She does more, though. Weighted, burdened, as all Women Of Color are, nevertheless Sam persists, she stands, bending but unbowed. Because she’s “under the Power” as Shelly Ann Moore, her creator, put it. And, thus, ironically, her clasped hands remind me of a favorite poem by, yes, an Austro-Hungarian man:

O tell us, poet, what you do. –I praise.
Yes, but the deadly and the monstrous phase,
how do you take it, how resist? –I praise.
But the anonymous, the nameless maze,
how summon it, how call it, poet? –I praise.
What right is yours, in all these varied ways,
under a thousand masks yet true? –I praise.
And why do stillnesss and the roaring blaze,
both star and storm acknowledge you? –because I praise.

 

Me 2 (Duh)

While seated in a waiting area at LAX Monday morning, two women of a certain age and class and race arrived at Gate 23. Loudly.  Grandly. As if making an entrance at a cocktail party. As if they were the only people traveling to Boston that morning. As if Alice Harvey characters in a New Yorker cartoon. As if the waiting area were their own, personal space. Operating on that assumption, one of them, the redhead, threw her jacket over a waiting area chair—connected, of course, to another, back-to-back chair—so that her insouciantly-thrown jacket obstructed the empty chair on the other side vacated by my husband. (Who sat on it when he returned.)

There was something so egregiously la-di-da about that redhead and her blonde BFF! So infuriating. So annoying that the middle-aged man whose family, I am guessing, originated from the Indian subcontinent, seated at the end of the row, caught my eye and raised his eyebrows. So I got up and whispered to him, “I hate white people!”

Oh, my, Reader, how he laughed! “You know,” he told me. “I will remember this for weeks and will still laugh!”

But here’s the thing, Dear Reader. When it was time to board I realized that I, too, had insouciantly thrown my jacket on the chair beside my husband, thereby forcing people to sit somewhere else.

So, yeah: Me, too.

Uncontainable

 

Naked Peach. September, 2017

Every morning I begin my day with a cup of coffee, my glasses, my journal, and a pen. Whenever possible, I sit on my deck— even when, as it has been this past week, so cold I need to bundle up under a quilt. (I’ll come inside when the temperature gets below 50 degrees.) Every morning, in the peace of my tiny backyard, accompanied by birdsong and tag-playing squirrels, I make meaning of the day before.

I italicize make meaning to give those words the power they deserve because, yes, over the years, through this daily practice of reflection and prayer I have often found my way. (Or, at least, shined a flashlight in the direction of where I am being asked to go.) But what I am moved to write about this morning is this: given the unfathomable breadth of disaster and pain and horror of this past week, perhaps I should have written “make meaning.” Because how the hell do you “make meaning” of multiple, never-like-this-in-our-lifetime hurricanes and multiple, wide-spreading wildfires and millions of people displaced from their homes, both here and throughout the world, and the obscene cruelty of DACA being repealed and. . .

You don’t. We don’t. I don’t. This is what has come to me. (That realization feels like grace.) It is hubris to expect any human being to take in all of it. We were not made to hold all of it. We can’t. It’s uncontainable.

I surrender to the Uncontainable. Which doesn’t mean, I quickly add, to accept or to dismiss or to minimize or to deny—or to cease asking “What am I asked to do in this broken world?” It merely means I cease believing I can make meaning of today’s headlines. It means I bow my head. it means I recognize that I when I recall Brother West’s “I don’t know what will happen but I do know that If this is The End we will go down swinging,” (something like that)  I silently add together. 

 

 

Who’s Looking?

[Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, June, 2017]

Easily overwhelmed, I’ve learned the best way for me to experience an art exhibit is to slowly and reverently—yet randomly—stroll through a gallery and let everything on display silently surround my senses until That One Work hits me between the eyes. And on Sunday, at the Speed Art Museum’s “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” that’s exactly what happened. When I saw this one. This Carrie Mae Weems photograph that so slyly references Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” And yet, oh dear lord, declares so much more!

For here, literally in black and white, is witness! Showing up. Using one’s body to powerfully speak Truth. Here is a woman of color owning everything in that photograph. Everything. Those plantation columns; how those overhanging trees frame her body, every blade of grass, the soft, hot breeze, the curve made by her antebellum dress, how her hair is dressed, what aperture to use, the light; The Light. Hers. Carrie Mae Weems. All of it. Hers.

Yes.

 

 

What I’d Do Different Now

[Woolworth’s Sit In, Jackson, Mississippi, May, 1963]

Some years ago I began to wonder: Whatever happened to those two African-Americans who desegregated E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1962? So I found Dr. Lynda Woodruff and Reverend Owen Cardwell, Jr.—and wrote a book about what unfolded because I’d wondered.

These days? Now I am moved to wonder: What would happen if I found one of those despicable young men abusing the Jackson, MS sit-inners? (Surely some are still alive?) Could I possibly sit down with one of them; could I ever listen with an open heart? Face to face with a white supremacist, could I remember to seek “that of God” in the old man seated across from me? Not try to “fix” what I’d hear; offer neither advice nor comments but merely ask questions? (Why do you suppose X happened? How do you make meaning of that? Why do you think Y said that? How did you feel when Z happened? Tell me about how you learned about X? etc. ) And then write a book about what I heard? And learned? Could I?

Not lacking in (compelling, passionately engaged-in) writing projects, I am nevertheless tugged at, nudged to wonder: Where does hate come from? What, in all my studies, all my close attention to race and class and gender and education and all the other variables that make each of us who we are; what have I missed, what have I never understood? What do I need to know?

 

 

Lawn Ornament

[Pineapple Fence, New Orleans, January, 2017]

“It’s come to this,” I thought, putting up a “In this house we believe . . . ” sign in my front yard Saturday. “I’m living at a time and a place where I must declare that ‘Kindness is Everything’!” But then I remembered how Bathtub Madonnas once adorned the tiny front yards of this neighborhood. And thought, well, didn’t my former neighbors* feel moved to declare the same thing?

And then a way-more disturbing recollection came to mind: how slave-dealing New England ship captains would display a fresh pineapple on their front fence to signal that they were open for business—or that recent sales in the West Indies had gone well; Party Time! C’mon over! (Which is why we’ve come to believe that Pineapple = “Welcome!” Not quite.)

So, maybe affirming that Black Lives Matter or that Love is Love, as precious or as smug or self-righteous as that might seem, is a good idea!

* Italian or Portuguese, now deceased or condo-zed, i.e. forced to move because their building had been converted to condos—or, possibly, because they no longer could afford their rent.

“Pray you, love, remember.”

[Abandoned-Hotel Trash, Sharon Springs, N.Y. 2016]

The more I read Robert Rossner’s The Year Without an Autumn: Portrait of a School in Crisis, the more I realize I’ve forgotten way more than I remember about the 1968 crisis Rossner chronicles. Which is startling! For not only was I was an elementary school teacher at P.S. 120 when the Ocean Hill/Brownsville strike happened, I was a scab. Yes. Until our school’s custodians locked us out, P.S.120’s teachers of color crossed the United Federation of Teachers’ picket line (i.e. an irate group of P.S. 120’s white teachers) for a couple of weeks in the fall of 1968. Two white teachers chose to join those black teachers. I was one of them. You’d think I’d remember more!

So I’m struck by how much trauma and time (and, okay, maybe the druggy haze of the sixties) wreak havoc on remembrance.*

Here’s probably the worst thing I got dead-wrong: I’d remembered that less than ten NYC public-school teachers had been fired by the decentralized, parent-and-community-based (read People of Color) Ocean Hill/Brownsville board. Or so I’ve always thought. But, no, nineteen teachers had been fired by the “local control” folks. A significant number. (So: Forty-nine years later, I almost get why the UFT got so high and mighty about so many of its teachers getting canned. Almost.)

I knew one of those nineteen. He was a total incompetent at P.S. 120 and had been let go. His incompetence made my decision to support the Ocean Hill/Brownsville board’s right to fire him pretty straight-forward: Would I strike to protest his being fired? Hell, no. And so I crossed a picket line.

But here’s what I must say: All these years later, while I am glad (relieved?) I’d made the right decision, I am humbled by how next-to-nothing I really understood about systemic racism in 1968! I now know how blindly I made that decision! So when I say trauma is a factor to my swiss-cheese memory of this experience, I mean both the scary, nasty bits I have sublimated, paved over but also my present-day realization/horror that, actually, I’d stumbled into doing the right thing!

And, finally, to honor Shakespeare’s injunction to love and to remember: an incongruously-lovely memory; a (self) love story: Somehow, in the midst of being called horrible names as I crossed the picket line or, once inside, tried to teach a few scared children while fire alarms keep going off or, on the subway, getting punched by a young man of color because, why not? Racial tensions were tearing the whole city apart. Yet somehow, in the midst of all of that—and all that I have forgotten—I suddenly stopped smoking. Just like that. I’d learned that the minute you quit smoking your lungs begin to heal. What I had been doing to myself since I was fifteen could be fixed. Hope, possibility, redemption were possible. So I quit.

*There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Shakespeare.

 

“The Stranger Among You”

[Landscaping, Somerville, MA Style, 2016 ]

I live in Somerville, a sanctuary city, and my faith community is located in Cambridge, another sanctuary city. As the xenophobia in this country becomes ever more vicious, I’ve been been examining what this dual citizenship means. Not in terms of my sense of public safety* or, god forbid, to feel smug or politically correct or content; heck, no. But day to day, standing in line at the post office or hearing voices outside my window speak languages I can’t even name, what does it feel like to live into “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”? (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV**)

It’s a spiritual practice. It’s a moment by moment interaction with The Stranger(s) and to pay attention to what that interaction calls up for me. (Lately? Mostly? Incredible sadness.) To daily encounter brown-skinned people, ever more stressed and scared—living in a sanctuary city isn’t a stress-free guarantee—is to perpetually pray: what am I called to do? (Write this for starters!)

It’s to connect with that “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” bit. To know with certainty, with deep and abiding understanding, that The Stranger’s backstory is, in some fundamental way, my own backstory. And that if the folks walking past my house and I were to share our stories, we would find the same themes, the same plot lines, the same unifying beliefs.

But also, these daily encounters are moment-by-moment reminders that my experiences and how I see the world aren’t the whole. Aren’t reality. Aren’t The One and Only. Or, to paraphrase another biblical bit, they’re daily reminders to walk humbly—and lovingly—as I, as we seek to do justice.

*Lots of conflicting studies, lots of rhetoric, but the crime rate in sanctuary cities seems to be lower!

**Slightly amazed I’m quoting Leviticus, one book of the Bible I’ve never connected with!

“Preparing”

[Civil Disobedience Training, Cambridge Friends School gym, 2/4/17]

When I’d told an aging activist I was going to a CD training on Saturday he’d snorted: “What’s to learn? You go limp. End of training!”

But I don’t roll that way. If I’m considering something hard, something I’m scared of, I need to do exactly what I did: I need a class. I need to pay money. (Not a lot; $15.) I need to spend five or so hours with other people contemplating the same action. (There were about forty of us.) I need hand-outs. (9 pages, double-sided, no less!) I need lots of Q & A and roll-plays and earnest conversation at lunch. I need to take turns reading quotes about non-violence aloud. I need to contemplate Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods of non-violent action. And to study a hand-written flow chart explaining what might happen at a civil disobedience event—and my choices at every step. I need to show up.

And now I need to do my homework, the same homework I always do. Which is to ask: What am I called to do? Is getting arrested—and all I now understand will happen to me should I decide to do so— what I am called to do? I’m not clear.

But I do know this. The day after that training, at my Quaker meeting, when asked to give a one-word description of how I was doing, my immediate answer was “Preparing.”

Numbered

[Shipyard, Gloucester, MA; 2016]

On the thirty-first anniversary of the Challenger tragedy and the same, infamous day Muslims were being refused entry into this country, I saw “Hidden Figures.” That such an unlikely competitor to “Rogue One” has been such a surprising, box office hit for much of January; well, I just had to see it. Especially after hearing what Leslie Jones had to say!

It’s not a great movie. And yet it’s a great movie. “Based on a true story,” there are moments when I thought, “Yeah! Right! Never happened like that. No way.” (The Kevin Costner and a crowbar scene, for example. C’mon!) But hyper-aware of the Trump-era world outside that movie theater, it was easy to forgive Hollywood silliness. Because, dear God, do we need good fables right now! We desperately need stories that applaud, that celebrate grit and brilliance and math and science and sisterhood and the idea that when one of us succeeds, we all do. (Both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer say this at different times in the movie.) Because, as many brilliant people like Joanna Macy believe, what’s happening right now, as terrifying as it is, is actually the death throes of an Old Order. A new era is coming; I truly believe this (if Orange Fingers doesn’t nuke us all, first!).  And we’ll need uplifting (pardon the pun) stories to guide us as we move into that Brave New World.

Who Gets to Say What’s True?

[Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January 1, 2017]

Saturday I saw “Fences.” And one line from the Denzel Washington (Troy) and Olivia Davis (Rose) movie, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, hit me just as hard in 2016 as had the same line in the staged version—which I’d seen in 2009. Troy and Rose are arguing about their teenaged son Cory’s future. Troy wants Cory to get a trade; Rose believes if he goes to college on a football scholarship he’ll be able to make his way. So she says something to the effect of, “You’re just being stubborn, Troy. Things are different (for people of color), now. There are more opportunities.” But as the story unspools, and we’ve spent some time within Troy and Rose’s shut-off-from-opportunity world, even the most clueless white person has to admit: Nope. Troy’s not being stubborn. Oppression was real in 1957. And, sadly, in 2017.

Which makes the Pew Research Center’s Study on Race and Inequality required reading. For my white brothers and sisters.