One Nation, Indivisible

It seems fitting to republish this on the first anniversary of the inauguration of our new president. With DACA up in the air and #shitholenations in the news, this piece feels as true now, and more urgent, perhaps, than when I first wrote it. 

It was election night. The results were pouring in. My phone buzzed with a text from my son: “America doesn’t want me.” This text required a phone response.

I called my boy, half a country away. He answered. His voice was trembling, I could tell he was in tears. “Mom, I’m terrified. I’m afraid to go out.”

For the record, this adult son turns 29 today. He is a world traveler, and street-savvy. He has an art degree, is studying law, and is passionate about pursuing justice for all, that thing we pay homage to in our pledge of allegiance. He is smart, but more importantly, he is kind. He’s of Mexican descent. And he was terrified.

“Mom,” he said, “during the course of the presidential campaign, I’ve been approached in an LA laundromat and a St. Paul coffee shop, questioned as to whether I was a terrorist. I’ve had my life threatened by an off-duty policeman in a bar in Minneapolis, who said he could take me out back and shoot me, and no one would ever find out who did it. This was just during the campaign–how much worse will it be if he gets elected?”

It is the fear of every parent that we cannot protect our children from the world. We do what we can, we prepare them as adequately as we know how, and we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go. For those of us who are white parents of children of color, the world we would protect them from is not one that we personally experience. We are only too aware that the elements they may need protection from are part of the white privileged systems from which we ourselves benefit. It is painful to acknowledge that we can be unwitting players in the oppression visited upon our children.

I felt so helpless as I talked to my boy. I tried to offer support that only seemed to twist the knife deeper, and hung up feeling inadequate and dissatisfied. In a later conversation, I asked him “what can I do to help you?” “Let people know, Mom”, he answered. “It’s important to tell these stories.”

So I share this story today, knowing full well that it is far from unique, and struggling with this ugly irony–that in the same breath in which I am enraged and indignant at how strangers dare to treat my son, this precious child who made mother’s day cards, and brought me breakfast in bed when I was sick, this young man who loves to play with babies and spent his last summer seeking justice for those on death row–in this same breath I am painfully aware that my own unconscious racism leads me to look upon other mothers’ sons with similar suspicion. I catch myself checking to see if my car is locked, when driving through predominantly black neighborhoods. I see a young man and woman of color, walking together down the street, laughing. He holds a television set poised over his right shoulder. The first thought that flashes through my brain, before my Minnesota Nice chip can intercept it is: “I wonder if that TV’s stolen”.  I walk down the street and encounter a dark-skinned stranger, and from some deep recesses of my brain, a racial epithet floats to the surface, something cruel and ugly that I would never speak out loud, and am ashamed to discover I even contain.  Of this I am not proud. And I am not just chagrined–I am horrified. Horrified to recognize the seeds of racism sown within my own heart.

It’s always easier to project our evil onto others than to engage in painful self-examination. I can weep and wail and protest about everything going on out there, but if all that does is allow me to turn the spotlight away from my own failings, then I am no better than the “enemy”, whomever or whatever he or she might be.

I believe that the surest way to peace, to justice, and to “One Nation, Indivisible”, is for me to take a good, long look at my own heart, painstakingly uproot what has been planted, till the soil, and plant a new crop. I pray the harvest will come soon, and be bountiful.

And I wonder–what sort of a nation might we become if we each tend first and foremost to the fruits of our own heart? Shall we journey together and find out?





Mending a Broken Heart

It’s a gloomy day in a gloomy spring. Rain is pouring non-stop in what appears to be our new local temperate rain forest.

I’m lying in bed, recovering from a leg injury, trying to “be have” myself, resting my leg on a pillow. I’m “supposed to” be paying bills and such, but my heart isn’t in it. My heart is in a lot of other places apparently.

My heart is with Anne, my mentor, teacher, wise woman and companion in the healing profession, who will undergo a bilateral mastectomy tomorrow, on her path to reclaim a long life of vibrant health. Something about this grips me to the core. Her courage, her spirit, her choice to embrace all the positive aspects of this experience, leave me awestruck. But I am railing about the unfairness. Why? Why her? Why anybody?

A mastectomy seems like such a maiming, such a violation, such a shattering of something so powerfully symbolic of the feminine—the first bloom of the path to womanhood, the seat of our ability to nurture new life.

According to legend, Amazon warriors used to cut off a breast to permit them to be better archers. And so it is that as we lose parts of ourselves, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, the ensuing process of loss, grief and recovery, allow us to develop new skills, habits, attitudes, that will serve us better in the days to come.

Oh Anne, my prayer for you today is that your sacrifice will ultimately be worth the cost, and that when all is said and done, your arrows will fly true.

My heart is with Michelle, our pastor of the past six years, moving today to Mankato in the rain. She has served us well, and is called to move on. I am thankful for the crossing of our paths, for the miles we have walked together. We are at that crossroads where our ways must part, at least for the time being, that fork in the road marked “God be with ye”, the origin of today’s simpler “goodbye”.

My heart is with my artist son, bound today for Tennessee, for a gig doing airbrush tattoos for–as he put it–” hillbillies at NASCAR”. It’s the millennium, in what would some say is post-racial America, yet I worry  for his safety as a young man of color traveling in the South.

My heart is with the people of South Africa, as Nelson Mandela’s light begins to flicker. The man whose life has been a testament to persistence, forgiveness, hope, and freedom, will undoubtedly soon finish his earth’s journey. When we lose our leaders and teachers, our pastors, or parents, it’s a frightening prospect—the mantle has passed to our shoulders and we understand that carrying on the work is now up to us. We pray that the seeds they’ve planted have fallen on rich soil, and have had time to root deeply, so that we’ll be strong enough and equipped for the task at hand.

My heart is with a couple of little girls I met last week at the overflow shelter. I spent some time reading to them on a saggy couch in a church basement. They liked my earrings and told me I looked like a rock star, high praise from a four and a six year-old, (and music to the ears of one whose last birthday just made her eligible for the Goodwill’s senior discount).   One of them asked me if it was ok to take her shoes off. I said “of course”. “That’s ‘cause this is my house” she replied, then asked me, beaming “are you my auntie?” “I’m your auntie for tonight”, I said, but went home troubled, thinking about all our children, and how we can be better aunties.

My heart is in so many places today, it feels splintered, if not shattered, and I struggle to hold onto enough of it for myself. I hold these people in my heart, and perhaps they hold me in theirs as well, but does that mean that a part of my heart goes with them, and a part of their hearts get left behind? Is that why people end up being heartless, because they get spread too thin? Or is it part of the mystery of life that the heart continually replenishes itself, that as much as we give away and share, more grows to replace it?

The Bible tells us that “God hardened Pharoah’s heart”, which has always seemed a dirty trick, a heartless play by God, if you will, which I have never understood. Dr. Suess, on the other hand, tells us that the Grinch’s heart “grew three sizes that day”. This gives me hope that, given the blessing of a non-judgmental, loving community, small-heartedness is something from which we can ultimately recover.

And how does the heart work, I wonder? I don’t mean the physical, blood-pumping, life-sustaining heart with which we are all too familiar. I mean the metaphorical heart, the one the Bible tells us to guard since “it is the wellspring of life”.   The ancients understood the heart, rather than the mind, to be the seat of the soul, and they may well have been right. Besides, theres just no poetic ring to “I love you with all of my brain” or “I hold you in my cranium.”

And my dreams, oh those dreams. They just keep on a’comin’, wave after wave after wave—I need some dreamless nights to catch up and incorporate the lessons they bring:

Little girls that need tending, girls bitten by tigers, or riding camels, or afraid that they are not beautiful enough.

A young man, driving erratically (I hope he at least has his permit)–I am riding in the backseat, leaning forward, calmly speaking into his right ear as he careens the wrong way down a divided road, coaxing him past obstacles until he can get back on the right side of traffic, making sure he slows down before he goes over a big bump.

 A woman I meet at a retreat house tells me she was at the funeral of a mother of three children—I don’t recognize the dead woman’s name. I wonder–did I know her? Her partner has already remarried; I think that seems a little quick, and hope she’s taken time to do her grieving.

As I heated my coffee this morning and the haze of sleep finally started to lift, I was startled to recognize that the dead woman was me, as was her remarried partner, as was the young driver, as were the little girls–pieces of my psyche that have separated or gotten left behind along the way. I understand that I have to be kind and gentle to myself, to invite back and incorporate these missing pieces of me, honor their journey, tend their wounds, embrace them back into my current life. I need to take good care of myself and pace myself, and make space for the frightened little girls, for the young man who’s driving through scary territory, to grieve for that young woman who died, and rejoice for that somewhat older, slightly wiser woman, who’s still taking a chance on life.

What the Left Hand Knows

“But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”    Matt. 6:3

There’s a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will come.  I met such a teacher recently.  Her name was Jane.

Walking through the hallway at a local strip mall, I noticed a person hunched in a corner, surrounded by plastic bags of belongings, tentatively trimming her hair.

I ran my not-so-exotic errand–exchanging printer toner at Office Max.  I thought about her.  Actually, I thought about “that person in the hallway”; I hadn’t looked closely enough on the way in to tell if I’d seen a man or a woman.

I thought about what I “should” do.  I had cash on hand–one twenty dollar bill, my week’s “allowance”, and it was only Tuesday.  I thought about getting the bill changed, but since I made my purchase with a debit card, the cash drawer never opened.  I pulled the twenty out of my wallet, and stuffed it in my jeans’ pocket to be easy to get to, “just in case.”

As I started back down the hallway, I felt nervous.  Stopping to talk to strangers is a cultural taboo on a par with facing backwards on an elevator.  Our usual social mechanism is to pretend we don’t see them, these people whose very presence makes us feel uncomfortable.  We usually walk on by, averting our eyes.  Besides the social awkwardness factor, there was the safety factor.  What if this person was mentally ill?  That’s not usually a big showstopper for me, but the hallway was deserted, and I had seen a pair of scissors in use on my way in.

I walked slowly closer, looking more carefully to determine if I felt safe enough to stop for a conversation.  This time, the anonymous “person” took on a more individual appearance.  I saw a woman, probably in her late sixties (though weathered lives often age one prematurely).  She had a pale complexion, was wearing a thin sweater, and had neatly trimmed bangs.

I approached and said “good morning”.  She put her glasses on to get a better look at me.  I introduced myself and asked her if she was ok.  She said she was fine.  I asked her name. “Jane”, she told me. “That was my grandmother’s name”, I replied.  She brightened up a bit.  I asked her where she was from and learned a little about her family.  I wondered if she were homeless–what kind of person trims her hair while sitting in a corner on the floor of a mall, unless she has no alternative?

Thinking about the twenty dollars in my pocket, I asked Jane again if she was doing all right, and if she needed anything.  She said she was fine, had just been dropped off by transit and was waiting there awhile.  “Okay” I replied, “I just wanted to make sure you were ok and wish you a nice day.”

As I took my leave and walked outside, the whisper inside my head told me I “should” go back and give her the money anyway.  The whisper that sounds like my own voice.  The one that sometimes prompts me to be my best self, and sometimes holds me back.  Like the proverbial imp on one shoulder and cherub on the other, these whispers always sound the same, but I am learning to be discerning about the messages.  It’s my way of “testing the spirits”.

I struggled with what to do.  I struggled with choices and justice and morality, with personal discomfort and embarrassment.  I struggled with calling myself a Christian and what that might mean specifically in this context.  Would it mean giving away all my money for the week to someone who looked like she needed it more than I did?  Or would it mean contributing to someone’s dignity by taking her word for it that she  doesn’t need anything, doesn’t’ need me to fix what’s not broken, just because it looks broken to me?

I think about Jesus, and about the now trite phrase: “What would Jesus do?” We don’t get to know the answer to that question, but we do have many of his stories to reflect on.  Perhaps we can truthfully ask–what MIGHT Jesus do in a similar situation?  What might I be called to do?

I think about Jesus’ approach, how he met people where they were, and asked their story, how he often asked people to participate in their own healing, or ask for what they needed.  I ask myself some hard questions about my own motives.  Am I truly being present and available to help a woman who really needs something, or am I trying to feel good about myself, part of the “white savior industrial complex?”  I remember part of the Hippocratic oath, the one that doctors take before beginning their practice: “First, do no harm.”  I decide not to go back in.

Today’s teacher has left me with more questions than answers, but the questions are worth asking.  And the left hand has learned this–that the right hand’s habit of handing out charity isn’t the only way to do God’s work in the world.

Looking people in the eye and asking “how are you?”, taking time to listen with the heart and wish them a nice day–sometimes, that’s the greater gift.

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