Minneapolis Police Department

I got an email last week. It nearly broke my heart. It was written by my adult son, now a lawyer in NYC, and was a description of the violence and racism he experienced over the years at the hands of the Minneapolis police. Until I received the email, I had knowledge of only a couple of these incidents.

As a white person, it can be all too easy to think minority complaints of police are overblown. In my case, I didn’t even know about it when it was happening in my proverbial own back yard. My son has given me permission to share liberally, and so I do, with the hope that those of you who are white will take some time to take stock of your own personal biases and figure out what you can do to help dismantle our racist systems. I know that sounds like a tall order, but I urge you to just take one step, then another. Start by Googling “how can white people fight racism?” Read my previous blogpost entitled “One Nation, Indivisible”.   https://reluctantmethodistmystic.wordpress.com/2018/01/20/one-nation-indivisible/ Have courageous conversations. Be part of the solution.

Hi Family,

I thought I would share this with you, because I think often the shame that comes with being heavily policed contributes to a silence. Although some of you know about these incidents, I’m sure a lot of you don’t. I think following the killing of one person by the police, it can be easy to see it as an isolated incident or accident. My hope is that my email sheds light, at least from one of your loved one’s personal experiences, about how much of a fixture the police are in the lives of black and brown men in particular. I have been stopped many more times than this, but these are some incidents that stand out.

11 years old: Handcuffed and questioned for skateboarding in a parking lot—
let go, no charges, no incident number.

14 years old: Handcuffed and put in the back of a car for supposed shoplifting at a Walgreens—let go, no charges, no incident number.

16 years old: Handcuffed, punched, sat on the side of the 94 highway for an hour with no coat on in January, while officers searched my mom’s minivan—no charges, no ticket, no explanation, no incident number.

17 years old: Pulled over for broken taillight in NE Minneapolis, removed from the car, searched splayed out on the hood of the car. When the officer asked me where I was coming from, I lifted my hand to point to my friend’s house down the block. The officer grabbed my hand, twisted it behind my back, slammed my head on the car, and told me if I moved again he’d kick my teeth in. I was put in the back of the car, questioned as to why I was wearing a hat (Twins hat) in my driver’s license photo. He asked me what gang I was in. He let me go after they ran my license and searched for warrants. No ticket, no incident number.

18 years old: Pulled over for “failing to signal a lane change.” Pulled out of the car at gunpoint, handcuffed, placed in the back of the cruiser while he ran my license and then nothing came up. Let go, no ticket, no incident number.

19 years old: Biking home from work at night, a cop car pulled in front of me suddenly and almost knocked me off my bike. The officers stopped me, frisked me and searched my bag without consent, and said they were investigating a stolen bike report. I told them to check the number (it was a bike I had received as a birthday present years earlier). They ran it, let me go.

20 years old: Violently arrested while with a friend in Minneapolis by two undercover officers. Punched, kicked, hit repeatedly in the head. The officers put the handcuffs on so tightly that I lost all feeling in my hands, and I begged them to loosen the cuffs from the back seat of the car. The officers had punched my friend in the stomach repeatedly until he urinated on himself. The officers drove us around for 4 hours, so that our Thursday arrest became a Friday arrest on a holiday weekend. Spent 72 hours in jail, where at one point I was put into a room with a bunch of other Latinos slated for “deportation proceedings.” I didn’t regain feeling in my hands for several months, and developed an intermittent hand tremor that continues to this day.

23 year old: Christmas break, drove to a party at my friend’s house. My grandpa had just died, I had just gotten back from Rome and hadn’t processed the death, and I was really distraught. I drank too much, and called my mom and step-dad to pick me up. While waiting for her outside of the apartment, I was weeping in the parking lot. A police car drove in, ordered me onto the ground, and handcuffed me face-down, as I tried to explain that—no—I wasn’t breaking into cars, I was simply at a party, got drunk, and really sad because my grandfather died. My mom and step-dad showed up, and I was released.

28 years old: At a bar with Mary during Christmas break (before we were dating), an old white man walked up to me and started asking “where are you from?” I said I grew up in Minneapolis. He said “where are you really from” and I repeated myself, to which he replied, “I know where you’re from you fucking Afghanistani ISIS…” I didn’t tell him I’m Mexican. He proceeded to tell me that he was an off-duty MPD, and that it would be no big deal for him to shoot me in the parking lot, or to call his officer friends to do it for him. I told Mary we needed to leave right away, and walked her home. An hour later I came back, and from half a block away I saw him pacing in the parking lot. I panicked. I called 911, who redirected my call to the NE precinct. They told me “anyone can say they’re a cop, we can’t just come to every call.” They hung up as I was speaking. I waited for half an hour until I watched him get in a car and drive away. I got into my car, and had a severe panic attack.

These are just some of my experiences with the Minneapolis Police Department—not the St. Paul Police Department, not the state troopers, not NYPD or LAPD—some of those which are even more traumatic. I think in the news or in media there is often a discussion of disparities in arrests or deaths, but that fails to capture the everyday indignities that are never charged or captured or written down.

I would ask you not to reply to this email with an expression of sympathy, because that is not what I need. I think in the past years, as many of you have said to me “be safe” in protesting against this and other related police misconduct, injustice, I have been curious about why you thought I was less safe surrounded by protestors than I was simply walking or driving around the city in my everyday life. Clearly, it’s because the protests are visible and receive attention.

So again, I ask you not to express sympathy or sorrow. I don’t want you to ask me what you can do to make it feel better. I just want you to know that this is the world that I lived in—in the same Twin Cities which is often touted for its high standard of living and progressivism, which in fact has some of the highest racial disparities and growing segregation in the country. I don’t know if you’ve watched the video of what happened to George Floyd, and I don’t know if I would recommend it. It is brutal and barbaric—to see an officer continue to kneel on the neck of the lifeless body of a man for four minutes after he has already stopped pleading for his life, to continue to kneel on his neck even as the EMT tries to take his pulse, and to see his fellow officers fail to so much as flinch. But, I wonder, if you see that video, if you would ever be prepared for it to be me. And what would you do if it was?

I am horribly saddened and distraught to see what happened to Lake Street and University, two streets which were formative to my younger years. But if you see what happened to George Floyd, and you can imagine what has been happening for decades, then I think you will understand what is going on.

I have no broader point. Hope you are all well. Feel free to share any of this reflection out.

Pillow Talk

 

The flames
that
tonight
leap so high
and burn so bright
bear witness
to the peoples’ pain

“They” say
when you’re angry
you can scream into a pillow
or bat some balls around
do something physical
to move this visceral emotion through

But what if
a warehouseful of pillows
isn’t enough
to contain your roar
of grief
and rage

what then

my friend–

what then?

Quarantine Poetry–Day Forty-One

Let’s write about joy

unfettered

unfurled

unrelenting

Rising up from the ashes

of a challenging life

Not in some future

imagined moment

nor in some glorious memory

of seasons past

Joy is decidedly

in the now

In this precise moment

the veil is lifted

and we perceive

the deep beauty

of our experience

the sacrifice rewarded

the dream fulfilled

the longing met at last

Joy

pure unmitigated

joy

Quarantine Poetry–Day Five

 

The birds know nothing

of the pandemic

and greet

the dawn

with

chirps

and

tweets

 

a hint of spring

in a

world

at long winter

Tepozteco–Climbing the Stairway to Heaven

It is a sunny day in late December, and I am traveling to the village of Tepoztlán, Mexico, with my adult son and my ex-husband, whose birthday we are celebrating today, in order to climb the Tepozteco peak.  My son lives half a country away, in New York City, so time spent with him is always precious. Of the three of us, I am the only one who has not made this trek. My son tells me that it was the hardest hike he ever took, which gives me pause, since he is thirty years my junior, and the last two times I’ve hiked at an altitude I’ve gotten quite ill.

We arrive in Tepoztlán, a picturesque town with cobblestone streets, and hills reminiscent of San Francisco, and wind our way down main street, around myriad street vendors and souvenir shops. The handcrafts in this town are varied and colorful. Many vendors hark spa treatments, especially massages, which, if I were paying closer attention, would be harbingers of the climb to come.

We begin our ascent, up a flight of stone stairs flanked by more vendors, this time mostly small restaurants. I am quite apprehensive about my ability to make it to the top, but I figure I will give it my best, and armed with a bottle of Gatorade, I start the climb. The stone stairs go on for some way. This is quite a steep path, and sooner rather than later, I am in trouble. My legs are fine, but I am so out of breath, and need to stop frequently to rest. I look at my son who appears to be having no trouble whatsoever and think that he will make it and I most likely will not. I think about how it is in life that we raise our children from newborns to adults, and in the end, they go forward without us. Some piece of me suddenly feels sad about this.

The stairs eventually give way to a rocky passage that can hardly be called a path. It is a Sunday, and therefore the way is full of people. The path isn’t especially narrow, but people are traveling in both directions so that there are many places where I am forced to look at my feet in order to secure my footing, and I observe myriad pairs of tennis shoes pass me by. It is strange to be in such tight corners and not be able to look at the faces of my fellow hikers on their way back down.

Before long, perhaps a half an hour and maybe a fifth of the way up, I tell my son it is fairly apparent that I won’t make it all the way, and I don’t want to hold him back. He tells me he’s not in a hurry, that we’ll just stop to rest as often as I need to, and that he thinks I can make it. His confidence gives me a boost. He hangs back with his dad and me, patiently slowing himself down as often as necessary for us to catch our breath. This is an ardous, painstaking climb, unlike any other hike I’ve experienced. The footing is treacherous enough that I need to watch every step, so spend a lot of time looking at my feet, rather than at the scenery, which is lovely. This is lush semi-tropical forest with several shades of green. One thing to be thankful for is that today is not a hot day, and the forest blesses us with shade. Even so, I’ve broken out in a full-body sweat, something that occurs very rarely.

An hour goes by, then an hour-and-a-half.  I notice that my son’s dad and I are among the few older people on this trek, although we do see several people older than ourselves, some of whom are making quicker progress than we are.  My demeanor has shifted, and I am hopeful of reaching the top. Even so, it is brutally slow-going, with our frequent breathing stops. It is also maddening, as there are several junctures on the trail which appear to be the end, only to open out or turn in to yet another section still to climb, so that we (or at least I) think we’re at the end of the climb several times before we actually reach the summit. It has taken us two hours to walk just over a mile. A mile that felt like it went straight up. Not exactly, but there was a 1200 ft. altitude gain, and we already started from about a mile high.

I am ecstatic to have made it to the top. And relieved to be no longer climbing. I take a moment to gather myself, and notice, to my chagrin, a dead dog lying under some trees. Did the climb wear him out? Did his owners leave him up here? True, it would have been hard to carry him down. But still. With a heavy heart, my son and I walk over to take in the view. It is spectacular. And worth the climb. The steep mountainside opens out over valleys that stretch for miles, with jagged, green-covered mountains jutting out in between. We take our time and take it all in.

We decide to head over to the area where a pyramid, a temple, sits atop this mountain. On our way over, we pass by the dead dog. We stop for a moment, and realize that, wonder of wonders, it is breathing. Barely, shallowly. Its posture gives the impression of being thoroughly spent. So is it dying rather than dead? So it would seem.

We make our way to the pyramid and climb (again) up to the first level. This small temple was built to honor Tepoztēcatl, the Aztec god of the alcoholic beverage pulque. I wonder what it must have been like when the original builders made it their sacred place.

As we walk out of the pyramid area, we are startled to see the “dead” dog suddenly lift her head and look around. Several minutes later she is trotting around like nothing ever happened. Apparently she is a very deep napper.

All too soon, it is time to head back down, and I am promptly faced with the reality that the way down, while less taxing to my respiratory system, is still treacherous (thank goodness it’s not rainy season—it would be so slippery) and hard on the joints. After half an hour or so, we see the formerly dead dog, trotting on ahead past us, reminding me of the scene from the movie “Office Space” where an old man with a walker makes more progress than those in cars on the LA freeway.  Not long after this, my legs turn to jelly and start to buckle. I have pushed them about as far as they will go, and we are still at least halfway out. I sit down abruptly and have a hard time getting up. My son is very solicitous and caring, and alternately offers me a hand or the opportunity to hold onto his shoulders. The extra support makes all the difference, and I am able to make the descent, a little wobbly, but still on my feet. The internet says this hike will take one-and-one-half hours round-trip. Apparently, the people who write these things are not 60 and out-of-shape. It took us two hours to make it to the top, and an hour-and-a-half to get down. But we made it, together, unharmed (if we don’t count the four-day recovery my legs take before I can walk comfortably.)

I think that while it is true that there are experiences my son will have in which I will be unable to share, it is also true that today, this experience, is something I could never have accomplished without him urging me forward and helping me back down, propelling me out of my doubt and fear. And for this I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

The Foot Soldier

Once upon a time there was a soldier. He was a foot soldier, because he had so very many feet. These feet took him numerous places, but always in a hurry, so that he never saw where he was, only where he was going.

And then, one day, when the foot soldier was busy and on the move, the sky opened up and down poured rain. First it rained gently, and then and it rained hard, and finally it rained so hard it was as if the rain were coming down by the bucketful.  And just when you thought it might finally stop raining, it rained some more. And what was the poor foot soldier to do?

First he slowed down, for it was too muddy and slippery to keep walking fast.  And when he had slowed down, he realized that he was soaking wet, and that his feet were quite tired and sore. He noticed that he was hungry. And he remembered that he was very far away from home. This was a lot to notice all at once, and the foot soldier was overcome with emotion. He dropped to his many knees (for you do remember that he had many feet), and wept so long and hard that the rivers, already overflowing with rain, ran even deeper than before.

Night fell. The foot soldier was frightened of the dark, as he had an active imagination and had watched too many horror movies, and, as we have mentioned before, he was also quite far from home. It was clear that for today, there was no way he could move forward; the path was unclear and treacherous. He could not move back, for the path home was foggy and obscured. The foot soldier felt fearful and disoriented, lost and alone, and to make matters worse, he was unaccustomed to being still.

As the foot soldier wondered what to do next, he spied a tall, red oak tree a short distance away. He thought to look for shelter under the tree, and as he approached the oak tree, he was delighted to discover that this tree was hollowed out inside. He climbed up the tree and nestled in the deep hollow where its largest branches met, let out a sigh of relief, and promptly fell asleep. Surprisingly, he had a long and restful sleep.

When the foot soldier awoke, well, he was in a tree. And he was fairly stiff, having slept scrunched up most of the night. While he was gingerly testing out his creaky knees, the foot soldier looked out from his protected spot, and saw someone coming slowly down the road. As this person came closer, the foot soldier was stunned to see a man who looked just like him, from his bushy eyebrows to his dusty uniform, from his pointy nose to the red handkerchief sticking out of his back pocket. In fact, the only difference that the foot soldier could detect was that in place of the boots that took him an hour to put on each morning, the other man was sporting a plethora of slip-on camo tennis shoes.

There were several things about this man that were disquieting. Why did he look the same as the foot soldier? Was he a ghost? Was he real? Was he a shadow? Or,  was this man the real one, and the foot soldier himself just a copy?

The foot soldier was confused, and more than a little wary, but he gathered up his courage and climbed carefully out of the tree. The man on the road came closer. And closer. And closer still, until he stood opposite the foot soldier. The men were both silent for a time, for who ever has the opportunity to experience oneself in the flesh? It was eerie. It was uncanny. It was so cool.

After a time, the foot soldier spoke. “Who are you?” he asked the man. And why do you look just like me? “I am an important part of you,” the man replied. “ I am the part of you that likes to take time to smell the flowers, to splash in mud puddles, to fly kites, to laugh and frolic with children.. I am the part of you that likes to write poetry, paint, and listen to music.  I am the part of you that likes to bake bread, mend fences, share a good story with old friends. I’m the part of you that likes to sit still and watch the embers crackle and burn in a fireplace for hours, the part that enjoys contemplating the sunrise and the sunset. I am the part of you that notices where you are,not just where you’re going. “

The foot soldier grew teary, recognizing in his doppelgänger a most important part of himself that had been lost along the way, a part that he hadn’t seen in ever-so-long. The foot soldier embraced the other man gratefully. “You are my happiness” he exclaimed.” I’ve been searching for you for ever so long, hoping to find you around the next bend. Would you be my companion?” “But of course,” “the man replied. “I have been longing for you for many years. I knew you were ahead of me, but since I travel at the speed of now, I couldn’t catch up until you slowed down to meet me. Shall we travel together again?” “Yes, let’s” replied the foot soldier, and so off they went, arm in arm.

It took a long while for the companions to learn to walk together.  Walking arm in arm didn’t work so well. It was difficult for the foot soldier to slow down, even though he wanted to. Force of Habit, you know. And the other man would not, could notwalk any faster than the speed of now. The two eventually settled on tying themselves to each other with a large, stretchy rubber band. The foot soldier still got ahead of his companion most of the time, but he eventually learned to stand still to catch up to his fun-loving. speed of now self.

 

 

So Mindful

I am daydreaming, thinking about how mindful I’ve become. How I really pay attention now. When I get dressed I notice how my body moves and bends as I put on my clothing, notice the feel of the clothes on my body.  When I open the refrigerator, I notice the temperature and feel of the refrigerator handle. I notice my arm as it pulls out whatever item I’m looking for. I notice the weight of the refrigerator door as I put the item back, taking care to replace it carefully. How nice to finally be fully inhabiting my body.

I am interrupted from my reverie. I come to. I am driving. Oops.

Clearly I still have work to do when it comes to mindfulness. It’s just that I find driving so boring and tedious, especially in the depths of another Minnesota winter. It’s easier to let myself get lost in thought than face head-on the monotony of mile after mile of freeway, back and forth, back and forth.

I don’t shame myself for getting lost in thought. Though I need to to be more mindful while driving, I definitely am making a lot of progress. I am heading in the right direction. I laugh at the inconsistency of mindlessly focusing on my mindfulness, and draw my full attention back toward the road.

In Every Thing, Give Thanks

“Oy es taansgeeveen dei, verdad?” asks a man in the Cholula market. It takes me several tries before I recognize what he is asking me: “It’s Thanksgiving Day, right?”

I am 19, an American studying abroad at the University of the Americas in Puebla, Mexico, living in the small town of Cholula. I have come to buy groceries for the impromptu Thanksgiving meal my roommate and I will prepare for about eight students, fellow Americans far away from home for this distinctly American holiday.

I am surprised and taken aback by this man’s awareness and acknowledgement of a holiday that is not his own. In this moment, surrounded by his words of welcome I don’t feel like a foreigner. I feel known and deeply seen. It isn’t until years later that I pause to reflect on the depth of meaning in his greeting, and wonder what I might do to offer a similar welcome to the foreigners living in my midst. For this memory, I give thanks.

Fast forward thirty years. For nearly twenty years now, our family tradition has been to join with other members of our faith community and serve a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter in Minneapolis.  This shared meal truly marks the highlight of my holiday season.

This year is different, however.  In a story with a twist, this November Thursday finds me in Rome. Alone. On Thanksgiving.

I have come to visit two of my children who are studying a semester abroad, and due to a transatlantic email miscommunication, my son has left Rome for a weekend in Barcelona with friends a day and a half before my daughter is scheduled to arrive from France, leaving me alone in Italy for the holiday.

I am trying to take it all in stride, but the truth is, introvert that I am, I don’t do so well when I’m truly alone. Let alone in a foreign country. On my favorite holiday.

I bravely say goodbye to my son on Wednesday, and take the tram back to the AirBnB apartment he has found for me. My touchstones are all gone, and I’m struggling to stay positive and not get sucked into the useless and most unpleasant self-pity vortex. That thing pulls in one direction only, and it sucks hard.

Thanksgiving dawns and I decide to make the best of it by attempting to create a modified Thanksgiving dinner for my daughter. Her flight doesn’t arrive until 10:30 pm, but, no matter, we can celebrate on Friday. I take myself to a local park, and watch the families with children and older couples. The weather is balmy and delightful, much nicer than the Minnesota weather I left behind. For this, I give thanks.

With my heart in my mouth, I go grocery shopping.  I emerge from the grocery store an hour later, no cultural or linguistic mishaps to my credit, with what promises to be the makings of a small Thanksgiving feast.

At “home” again, I whip up the pumpkin bread mix that I have brought from the States for my pumpkin-loving daughter. I open the oven door to get it started, and, much to my surprise, find a washing machine where the oven should have been. Well, ok then. No matter. I guess I’ll try and fix it on the stovetop. After scouring the apartment kitchen, I manage to jimmy rig a double boiler. 

My second attempt at pumpkin bread also fails, as I can’t light the gas stove. There isn’t a match or lighter to be found in the entire apartment. I know— I’ve looked. Twice. I am getting a little frustrated, but am bound and determined to create Thanksgiving, no matter what. So the next step involves procuring matches.  I slave over my Italian dictionary and verb book for half an hour until I come up with two sentences that I hope will work: “I need matches. I’m trying to cook.” I’m adding the second sentence to clarify my intentions, lest I unwittingly, in my unschooled Italian, manage to say something like: “I need you to light my fire” by mistake. It is another language, after all, and, well, you never know.

Mercifully, the landlord comes home just as I am leaving to procure matches, and since he has good English, there is no misunderstanding about what I need. He provides me with matches, and I am finally in business. For this, I give thanks.

I cook the pumpkin bread/pudding for several hours. It is not yet done, but it is time for me to head to the airport to pick up my daughter, so I turn it off to finish it later.

My daughter and I are both nervous about this airport rendezvous, not having phones that will communicate with each other, or with anyone else, for that matter.  My daughter is coming from France, multiple bus, train, and airplane flights away. I have given her the address of my Rome apartment as a back-up plan, but this is small comfort, since my Roman taxi driver had great difficulty finding it even with his GPS.

I am grateful that my son, before his departure to Barcelona, took time to orient me to Termini, the local bus station, as well as which bus company would take me to the correct of two airports. For this, too, I give thanks.

I walk several blocks to the train station and take the train to Termini, find my way to the correct bus, which will, hopefully take me to the correct airport. I have given myself several extra hours in case anything goes wrong and I need to backtrack. Mercifully, everything does not go wrong. Everything, in fact, goes right. After a long and boring wait in the airport waiting room, I see Erin’s anxious face appear alongside those of other arriving passengers. I catch her eye and we let out a collective sigh of relief. As soon as I reach her, we have a tear-filled reunion;  it’s hard to say which of us is crying more. We link arms and head out to find a taxi. No matter if it gets lost—we’ve found each other, and that’s all that matters. All’s well that ends well—and for this, I give thanks.

Oh–and the pumpkin bread wasn’t half bad.

We See You

On past occasions I’ve written about my experience as a white mother of biracial children. This is my first post about what it means to be the parent of a transgender child and of his partner, my child by choice, who identifies as genderfluid.

In many ways being the parent of a transgender child means the same thing it means to be the parent of any child: you clothe them, feed them, raise them, and nudge them. But mostly, and most importantly, you love them– no holds barred, no matter what.

It differs in that, in the current social and political climate, a trans or gender non-conforming individual is more likely than a member of the general population to commit suicide.  (According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute, 41% of trans persons attempt suicide vs. 4.6% of the general public.) These statistics are sobering and, to a parent, terrifying.

In the face of last week’s New York Times report that the Department of Health and Human Services was circulating a memo proposing that gender be defined as: ” an immutable biological condition deterred by a person’s sex organs at birth,”  I couldn’t sit still. That pronouncement got the momma bear in me all riled up. How dare you try to eliminate my children? How dare you try to eliminate America’s children?

Yesterday I got together with my adult children, made some signs and spent an hour on a lovely sunny October day, standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other supporters at our local trans-visibility event. My family joined voices with other GLBTQIA individuals and allies, to say: “We are here. We are real. You can’t erase us. We are not going away.”

There was a sense of camaraderie and joy, of common purpose, and perhaps wonder at how many folks turned out to be counted. Counted as in–we count.

Passing motorists were joyful as well, honking, whooping, flashing peace signs, occasionally shouting something supportive.

The stipulated hour was almost up, when one car passed, the passenger sporting a small cardboard sign. The letters were faint, so it wasn’t until the car had almost passed that we made out the message. Just three small words formed a message of solidarity and love: “We see you.”

My brawny son, whose brave transition from female to male over the last three years has left me awestruck, was moved to tears, as was his partner.

And I marveled at the power of a few well-chosen words to move hearts. I was reminded of the power of being deeply seen. Reminded also of the responsibility that I carry as a privileged member of American society to be an ally, to continue showing up and bearing witness.

The sign I made for today’s rally read: “You may not erase my children.” My next sign might be simpler. It could just read: “I see you.”

By and By She Met a Tiger

Note: This essay concerns a problematic children’s story, which may be triggering for some. Please trust me to get us to the other side.

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved stories. She loved hearing stories, she loved looking at stories, and she especially loved the sound of her parents’ voices when they read stories to her. And her favorite story, the one she asked her parents to read her over and over and over and over again, was…(I know) Little Black Sambo.

The little girl loved how much Little Black Sambo’s parents loved him, how they fashioned clothes and shoes and a fancy umbrella for him. How he marched off into the jungle proudly parading his finery. She did not love how, several times “by and by he met a tiger.”  Those tigers were out to get him, no question about it. But Little Black Sambo was SO smart, he shrewdly convinced these tigers not to eat him, but to take his clothing so that they would also look grand. In the end, of course, he is naked, but safe. (Well, this is actually the middle, not the end, but he is still naked.) He comes upon the tigers arguing over who is the finest; they chase each others’ tails round and round a tree until they turn themselves into butter, while Little Black Sambo looks on from behind the bushes. Our hero picks up all his discarded clothing, takes the butter back home, and feasts on pancakes with his family, consuming one hundred and sixty nine pancakes, which was an astonishing feat. The little girl always wanted to be able to eat as many pancakes as her hero, but never came close. Even five pancakes was quite a stretch.

By and by, the little girl grew up, and learned that her favorite childhood tale was racist, containing, as it did, grotesque, stereotypical images of people of color, and a title that had come to be used to demean African Americans.  It was hard to square this information with a story that had meant to her, a loving, functional family, a brave and smart little boy, and a lover of pancakes. What to do with her old storybook? She didn’t feel comfortable keeping it anymore, yet she didn’t want to throw out what constituted one of her most precious childhood memories.

Her mother came to the rescue, sending her The Story of Little Babaji, a modern retelling of the same tale, set in India, with beautiful, culturally appropriate  illustrations. This book she can comfortably read to her grandchildren. So this resolved the issue of how to pass her favorite story along to another generation, without passing on the negative messages and stereotypes that accompanied the original version. There is also a VERY cool picture of Little Babaji actually RIDING ON THE BACK OF a tiger. 

Which brings me to my next point. When the little girl grew up, she discovered there was darkness buried deep inside her, scary things, terrifying things that were way too difficult to acknowledge. In her dreams, from time to time, tigers would appear. They often prowled around her, sniffing at her, looking menacing and scary. After several years of this, one night the grown up little girl had this tiger dream, which she has shared with me here:

I am at home, and there is a HUGE tiger in my room. At least I’m outside the room. I need to let him out, get him back to safety. I creak the door open. He is enormous, and did I mention TERRIFYING? His head comes nearly to my chest. Somehow I discover that he likes to have his ears scratched, and then, wonder of wonders, he can talk to me—we can communicate! I don’t remember what we talk about, but I end up letting him out of the room. I am worried he might hurt someone else. I open the closet door. A fire has been raging in the closet. Is this where the tiger was? Will the fire burn the house down? Apparently not. There is a sprinkler system, which has doused the smoldering pile of two by fours. I guess there will be some messy clean-up to do. 

Meanwhile, the tiger has found his way to a boy, who greets him enthusiastically, with great joy. They are old friends. The boy is not afraid of him, and they will be together again. They have missed each other.

The grown-up little girl ponders the meaning of her dream. Her heart still pounds thinking of how frightening this dreamland tiger was. Her eyes fill with tears when she thinks of the joyous encounter between the tiger and the little boy. And she realizes—this tiger is a part of her, as is the little boy. This is her wild nature—her creativity, her passion, her anger. It is big, and powerful, and alive. She has been afraid of it for so long. She finally realizes there is nothing to be afraid of, only strength and power and beauty to embrace. And, like Little Babaji, she steps up and goes for a ride on the back of her very own tiger.

 

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