Winter Wind Scroll. Peaked Hill Bar Life Saving Station.
Thea Sullivan asks, “What’s something you’re proud of yourself for this year? (Or, if you don’t like the word pride, what can you appreciate yourself for?) What hard thing or challenge did you face, internally or externally?” And “What’s something you’re grateful for from 2019? *
My first thought is fighting: the daggers of doubt, the not-good-enough in everyday moments in between some so-awesome enough. It has been a hard year—deaths by cancer, a taking of life, a sudden brain disease; the shattering of pedestals built since childhood; living in shards of grief and sadness; financial fears; our stressed landscapes and fewer birds singing; inevitable aging.
Aka: Being Alive. I’m grateful for all the new learning, yes, as hard as it’s been.
Despite 44 years without a drink, this year the whiskey ads sound so sexy and seductive. Oh, to let go of this tension. But as my colleague, friend, and sober brother in all this mess of life, Michael Klein, said in a recent social media post, “… But in all of it, I never think drinking would make it easier. It would just make it drunker.” I didn’t grab a cigarette or drink. I often underline the “wild” and “precious life” of my tattoo since Mary Oliver’s query is demanding.
The things to appreciate and accept of 2019, and to continue: Finished the memoir; the college grad flew off to California to work; son had another season in the beautiful game; I’ve been an imperfect companion to a very grieving partner; started making a job as an equity scholar– thinking our way to more just educational action; and started interviews for a book about transracial families’ knowing. Best teaching in my college classrooms! Best because students departed with eyes and hearts wide-open and a desire to talk and think about complexities rather than demand “either /or.” They are most interested in striving for “and.” They also noticed how a conversation stops when someone says they will ask Google for “the answer.” The questions really are more engaging.
Despair and devastation everywhere. This planet is ablaze. Many people are belligerent and unkind. And scared. There are children in cages. In it all, the fires, the rising waters, the endless plastic and denigration of the lands, hope and possibility are aflame too. Former coal miners are becoming beekeepers. Greta Thunberg and Jane Fonda are inspiring strikes for climate awareness and action.
And us—all of us are thinking and doing things in our lives to be transformational and makers of kindness and change.
I recently read about President Lyndon B. Johnson burying the Kerner Report of 1968. How did I miss this historic note? The commission was established to find out what caused the riots of 1967. The findings were clear, even though “white supremacy” was not the term used, and poverty.
Alice George writes, “White society,” the presidentially appointed panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” The nation, the Kerner Commission warned, was so divided that the United States was poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies—one black, one white.” **
W.E.B.Du Bois said this in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folks. Nobody listened to the Kerner Report either.
I spent two weekends at Omega Institute studying with Buddhist, activist, Black, queer Radical Dharma teacher, Rev angel Kyodo williams. I’ve read Radical Dharma so many times the cover is tattered (not torn). She says people are ready. Ready to face the truths. In her 2018 interview with Krista Tippets’ On Being she says, “There is something dying in our society, in our culture, and there’s something dying in us individually. And what is dying, I think, is the willingness to be in denial. And that is extraordinary. It’s always been happening, and when it happens in enough of us, in a short enough period of time at the same time, then you have a tipping point, and the culture begins to shift. And then, what I feel like people are at now is, no, no, bring it on. I have to face it — we have to face it.” ***
The year started with a trip to Montgomery, Alabama. Long wide boulevards once teeming with the business of cotton and slavery, was fairly desolate in late January. The Equal Justice Initiative founder, Bryan Stevenson brought the museum and the memorial to Montgomery. He requests a real reconciliation, the real truths, the real depths about dehumanization of Black bodied human beings—from slavery to now. ****
I listened to the podcast of 1619. More pieces of the puzzle.*****
This is my history.
Tippet continues in the interview with Rev angel, “You say: “We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit,” if we don’t do inner work, as you say in another place, that has been underemphasized. That we have not trained ourselves to do the work that is upon us now.
Rev. williams: No, we haven’t. We haven’t; and we haven’t, for good reason, from a particular perspective. To do our work, to come into deep knowing of who we are — that’s the stuff that bringing down systems of oppression is made of. And so capitalism in its current form couldn’t survive. Patriarchy couldn’t survive. White supremacy couldn’t survive if enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit, which includes reclaiming the sense of humanity of the people that are the current vehicles for those very forms of oppression.”
“If enough of us set about the work of reclaiming the human spirit…”
All spirits, all humanity. Liberation. Guilt, shame, and blame. How could thousands of white people gather and watch a lynching? Send postcards about it? Black history is my history. Queer history. Indigenous history. The history of people with all kinds of abilities. The devastation of white supremacy. Say it. Come into acceptance. Our history is devastating trauma. ” How intolerable it is to be intolerant,” muses Rev angel.
Loving vs. Virginia (1967) and US vs. Windsor (2013) gave marriage rights to interracial and same sex couples. Black Lives Matter. BIPOC Lives. Our history also includes glorious moments of togetherness, solidarity, and love.
How ironic to be intolerant of those who are intolerant, say I, who is.
Did I ever answer Thea’s questions? Here’s to living into the questions, the hard challenges, things to be grateful for, to our deep knowing and liberation, and all the unknowns that a New Year brings.
This is my trilogy:
Equity. Inclusion. Justice.
Oh, and only possible with much,
Sources for you to explore:
- Meet Thea Sullivan http://bigpictureguidance.com
** The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders became known as the Kerner Commission.
Photographs and text by Shelley Vermilya. Edited patiently by Zora Aretha Vermilya.
January 1, 1940 – May 11, 2019
How I miss your unconditional love
With the Peace & Justice Center of Vermont
Two small Black children in tattered clothing holding hands, ask quietly, “Have you seen our mother?”
This scene of the ghostly siblings is in a hologram display at The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. I listened and then moved on to another hologram of the sister of another child taken from their mother. I went to the next gate behind which was a hologram woman talking of God and things meant to be, redemption, but her words melted in my ears and I was drawn back down the hall to the children. A hologram woman singing piercingly in an adjacent cell made listening difficult. I focused, trying to hear the question. Such a small voice. I bowed my head against the cast iron bars of the gate and suddenly sobbed. I was broken open.
All my years learning about the history of the South and the North, reading autobiographies of civil rights activists both Black and white, sorting out pieces of lies, myths, the glossing over, the distancing, the constant betrayal of half-truths, and the silences. The glossing over, the denial, the denial, the denial. I was finally broken open.
Our Nation has been built on the dehumanization and destruction of Indigenous Peoples of North America and Peoples from Africa brought here with no consent. It was not enough that the International Slave Trade was abolished in 1808. The Southern States created the domestic trade and Montgomery was booming with it. The Civil War was not enough. Reconstruction was shattered. Jim Crow smothered rights. 4,400 people were known to be lynched between 1877-1950. The Civil Rights of the Sixties did not create real integration of schools or society. The denigration and dehumanization of Black people continues through violence, police shootings, incarceration. A Google search reports, “Prison rates in the US are the world’s highest, at 724 people per 100,000.”
Currently Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris are among the supporters of Representative Bobby L. Rush’s H.R. 32–Emmett Till Antilynching Act, an anti-lynching bill designating lynching as a hate crime. 2019. 2019. 2019.
Imagine being Ruby Bridges’ parents in 1960, sending their six-year-old daughter into a white school for a better education. Ruby and her mother daily walked past screeching vicious crowds while escorted by white federal marshals into the school.
Imagine those parents and children believing so deeply in integration, and, that the time had come for change. The Freedom Riders had signed their last will and testament the night before getting on the Interstate bus. They were willing to die for justice.
Imagine a phone call in 1961 from Alabama that your white child, supposedly in college in New York or Boston studying for exams, was beaten severely at a Greyhound Bus station in Montgomery.
People from my family, my father, his siblings, his parents, grandparents, born into the South believed everyone liked it just the way it was. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make change. People know their place. Philosopher Elizabeth Minnich has written about the “evil of banality.” People do their job, want to be the best at it, go along. They don’t necessarily question why or what they are doing, they don’t think about it. And racist, white supremist core values were seen as polite, civil, “just the way things are.”
I am abashed by the hate. Those capturing, shipping, whipping, selling people. Taking a mother from her small children. Collusion everywhere—from the slavers to the sellers and wearers of the cotton fabrics. The boatbuilders in the North. The rope makers, the blacksmiths making manacles and chains. Those cheering and having a picnic at a lynching. Everyone, North and South, was part of the enslaving systems. Everyone was terrorized.
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. (Maya Angelou)
My years of reading and watching documentaries (like all the episodes of Eyes on the Prize and 13th), and facing this history and our legacy, takes courage. It also takes acceptance. I have accepted the power of the lies, the insidiousness of the whitewashed versions of happy slaves, the hysteria that white women have to be protected from Black men, the “science” of brain, bone, teeth measurements to determine intellect, the absolute humiliation for us all of stereotypes and misinformation.
This trip to Alabama was merciful—50 degrees, the museums and sites were not crowded so we could walk through the Memorial at our own pace with our thoughts and wonder. It was also heartbreaking. Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, writes in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, “There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy.”
“Racism is a heart disease,” says Buddhist teacher Ruth King, “and it’s curable.” Racism is a disease. We can cure this if we face the realities as Maya Angelou says. Enough white fragility. Enough, oh that was so long ago. Enough coming down on each another, for that perpetuates the rule of the owners and betrays our abilities to heal and unite. Our only chance for survival will be through our resistance to hate. Resist racist, homophobic and sexist remarks, jokes, and symbols. Resist messages that demean us. Educate about the honest and true history and contributions of People of Color as intertwined with Euro Americans. We have to work together in all our creativity and abilities to save the planet and create the future. Urgently.
Diary of the Trip: January 25-27, 2019
January 25: THE DEXTER AVENUE KING MEMORIAL BAPTIST CHURCH
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first church. Sarah Collins Rudolph and her husband arrived as Tour Guide Wanda Howard Battle was giving us her regular talk. Sarah Collins Rudolph is the Fifth Girl, the one who did not die in the Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, along with Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair did. Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph were in town for the opening of a play about the Four Little Girls. Mrs. Battle was overwhelmed by their entry and swept them into the tour. Mrs. Rudolph was temporarily blinded in the blast and she did lose an eye. Her new book recounts her life-long witness.
January 26: THE NATIONAL MEMORIAL FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE
800 6-foot-tall rusted steel mini-monuments represent the victims of lynching.
Representation. Six foot mini-monuments hanging, to be walked around and gazed up upon. Replicas waiting in the adjacent yard to be taken to the State and location of the lynching. 800 of them. Some with many names and dates. The year 1947 on one.
4,400 names and many “Unknown.” Murdered for asking for a drink of water, for protesting the lynching of a husband, for saying something to a white woman, for the right to be human.
The memorial sculpture by Ghanaian Kwame Akoto-Bamfo on our early morning visit was saturated in sunlight. Nkyinkyim Sculpture. * The power in the shadows complimented the faces etched in screaming. Each link of the chain is reflected on the ground. Each sculpted Being reached to touch another, seeking to link together while being severed apart.
Inscription on a wall
For the hanged and the beaten.
For the shot, drowned, and burned.
For the tortured, tormented, and terrorized.
For those abandoned by the rule of law.
We will remember.
With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
With courage because peace requires bravery.
With persistence because justice is a constant struggle.
With faith because we shall overcome.
Ida B. Wells Memorial Grove
“Our country’s national crime is lynching.” (Ida B. Wells)
Guided by Justice, 2018. Dana King (b. 1960) Bronze: Three Women walking during the 381-day Bus Boycott in 1955 and boot prints.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott started on December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956.
Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus, where the Colored or Negro people were to sit, on December 1st. She was a trained non-violent activist, a seamstress, and she investigated rape cases for the local NAACP. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor at the Dexter Street Baptist Church was 26 when he was faced with these events. The people walked rather than ride the segregated buses. And they walked until the Supreme Court declared racial segregation of public transportation illegal. Non-violent activism begins in earnest.
Raise Up, 2016 Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) Bronze
JANUARY 26: THE LEGACY MUSEUM: FROM ENSLAVEMENT TO MASS INCARCERATION
Written on the exterior wall of the Legacy Museum:
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again”. Maya Angelou
The domestic slave trade expanded slavery after the International Trade was abolished in 1808. Montgomery, Alabama became a leader in the sale of humans until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Then the manipulation and continued dehumanization of people of color evolved to the current mass incarceration.
JANUARY 26: FREEDOM RIDERS MUSEUM
I don’t think anybody can say the students caused the violence . . . the people who committed violence are responsible for their own actions. (Freedom Rides Coordinator Diane Nash)
Thirteen (7 African Americans and 6 white Americans) Freedom fighters aboard a Greyhound Bus arrived at the Montgomery Terminal on May 20, 1961.They were testing the Supreme Court decision to desegregate interstate bus and rail travel. They had signed their last will and testament the night before.
A mob of 300 segregationists first attacked the photographers and journalists, intentionally destroying their equipment and then they attacked the Riders. All local police, ambulances and services were “busy,” and “unavailable.” The Riders fled to the church nearby or were taken away by local allies.
Over 400 volunteer Freedom Riders, college students, clergy, and housewives, traveled to the South through the summer until Attorney General Robert Kennedy convinced the Interstate Commerce Commission to uphold the law.
Freedom Summer, of 1964, brought many more volunteers to the South to assist in voter registration.
January 27: CIVIL RIGHTS MEMORIAL by Maya Lin (1989)
A black granite circle, names of social justice activists carved on the surface, caressed in spilling water. In front of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Among those names carved into the dais:
Viola Gregg Liuzzo (1925-1965). She was shot by the Klan while driving Leroy Moton, a Black teenage activist who survived by pretending he was dead, from Montgomery to Selma. She is the only known white female to be killed during the Civil Rights Movement.
POEM—Elizabeth Alexander At the National Memorial for Peace & Justice
The wind brings your names.
We will never dissever your names
nor your shadows beneath each branch and tree.
The truth comes in on the wind, is carried by water.
There is such a thing as the truth. Tell us
how you got over. Say, Soul look back in wonder.
Your names were never lost,
each name is a holy word.
The rocks cry out —-
call out each name to sanctify this place.
Sounds in human voices, silver or soil,
a moan, a sorrow song,
a keen, a cackle, harmony,
a hymnal, handbook, chart,
a sacred text, a stomp, an exhortation.
Ancestors, you will find us still in cages,
despised and disciplined.
You will find us still mis-named.
Here you will find us despite.
You will not find us extinct.
You will find us here memoried and storied.
You will find us here mighty.
You will find us here divine.
You will find us where you left us, but not as you left us.
Here you endure and are
You are not lost to us.
The wind carried sorrows, sighs, and shouts.
The wind brings everything. Nothing is lost.
True Peace is not merely the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice. (Martin Luther King, Jr)
(in no particular order) for further reading.
Video of Sculptor at work.
The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (The Sarah Collins Rudolph Story) published by Africa World Press and written by Tracy Snipe (in conversation with Sarah Collins Rudolph). The book will be available through http://africaworldpressbooks.com/
All text and photographs by Shelley Vermilya. Edited by Zora Aretha Vermilya.
Enormous Gratitude to the people of the Peace and Justice Center of Vermont who organized and made this journey possible.
In 2014 Vermont received an “F” for the lackluster teaching of civil rights by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance organization. Vermonters, among others, deny their obliviousness. And then the election results of 2016 startled a whole lot of white folks, oblivious before. All over again the glaring impotence of thinking rights were won and legislation was all set for every issue the Second Wave feminists, African American, Vietnam veterans, First Nations Peoples, Environmentalists, folks with disabilities, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender folks had marched for. We are marching now as we watch every civil thread and right challenged, taunted, or abused. Hopelessness is not an option. It is obvious that lifetimes are required to widen the avenues toward justice for all. If we want democracy to work, we have to pass action on to the next generation as the most important inheritance.
When my son Dashiell was about three we were at the beach as the tide was receding. We wandered further and further into the watery sand of the bay catching hermit crabs and strolling at a pace one only finds in summers with very young children. He asked, “Where does the water go?” In bewilderment I said, “Let’s go see if there is a book at Cricket’s house that will tell us!” We dumped our buckets to return the hermit crabs to their own wandering and trudged up the street to rummage through the guide books. Today, if asked, Google replies:
Tides are caused by the gravity of both the moon and the sun “pulling” at the water in the sea. Because the Earth is constantly turning, the “pull” of gravity affects different places as each day goes on – so when the tide is “out” in your area, it is “in” somewhere else. But the water level at high tide changes too!
Almost two decades after this idyllic beach walk I sit in wonder at how, despite the reliable ebb and flow of the tides, I am still bewildered by new questions. I had never thought to ask about the whereabouts of all that water and since then there have been many more such queries by Zora and Dashiell. We, humans, too are pulled incessantly by parents, friends, media, school curricula, social media and the constant “ding” in our pocket as the phone alerts. Our senses, our physical and psychic energy, are at the mercy of these relentless social and media tidal flows. Curiosity, questioning, finding our rhythm, knowing the truth may have more layers than we see at first glance—this is what understanding is all about. This is acknowledging the world as the dynamic continuum it is.
This summer of 2018, a great number of white people have called police to report people of color while napping, shopping, swimming, or walking in their neighborhood or entering their own home—no other reason, no other apparent activities that would suggest endangerment. Several individuals have been murdered. The dehumanization of Black people started at the very birthing of this nation, and still blights our communities, our nation. The bridges slowly bringing intersectionality across the wetlands of segregation have been undermined by the hatefulness engendered by the current president and those emboldened by him. But the bridges are there—getting reinforced by new candidates running for local and state offices, kids on campaigns to stop gun violence, get out the vote, and sue the government for the climate. The bridges are being built by new entrepreneurial young people in neighborhoods they love and want to keep affordable.
Hope sneaks in and shines light on despair. But then I recall the tall African American social worker standing at the railing of his condo by the bay who warned that when the cute little toddlers got big, people would cross the street when they saw them coming. He could have no idea just how deeply his words would resound these years later. When Dashiell was just seventeen Trayvon Martin was murdered, and the number of Black boys and men killed for being Black and male continues. President Obama’s presence in the White House gave a lot of us tremendous hope that racism in American was turning around. Instead, what was just ahead was the unleashing of a new wave of terrorism on men, women, girls, boys, transgender women of color as well as school children in an era of untethered white boys with access to big guns. Ruth King eloquently explains, each individual murder is a star in a much greater galaxy. That galaxy includes all the Emmitt Tills, Trayvon Martins, Tanisha Andersons, Dee Whighams and Botham Jeans over hundreds of years in the United States.
In Vermont this summer, kids and counselors of color at a camp for adopted children were harassed with racial slurs, taunted at a mini golf venue and made devastatingly uncomfortable in the renowned resort town of Stowe. The representative for Bennington decided to withdraw after winning the primary because of the death threats she and her family received. She has been the only African American representative in the state house and her work for social justice and inclusion has been admired.
Hurt people hurt people, say the men in their restorative justice circles in San Quentin. There are a lot of hurting people. Healed people heal people, I remind my daughter when she comes home after work and recounts a weird interaction with a customer. “Is it because of my skin?” She is intentional in her efforts to be welcoming, friendly, and not at all impatient, so as not to be seen as the Black girl with attitude. This is retail. Is it or isn’t it racial? These so called “micro-aggressions” take hours to shake off. Hurt people are also on that wide spectrum—perpetrating their violence in rude remarks to fatal gunshots — our nation suffers the hurts of all these confusions and unequal regard.
Stares, drive by catcalls of the N-word or other derisive words, questions that could be taken as doubting reliability or responsibility, these are the daily experiences that make up microaggressions. “Death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind, referring to a slow torture practice from ancient China.
Robin DiAngelo has just published a fierce retrospective of her years as an antiracist educator, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, 2018). She is adamant and clear about the squirming and denying most white folks do regarding racism and race. We are soaked in white supremacy by our very existence on this land, we are drenched in socialization that promotes white as normal, white as the way it is, white as right.
I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be racist, though I do know many who are because we have not thought about our own whiteness. Racism is in the air we all breathe, the laws of the nation, the media we consume, the neighborhoods we inhabit, the schools we attend. This is systematic, larger than an individual. We are all born into it. We have to acknowledge our initial naïveté and then get to work.
Prejudice is learned.
Ignorance can be replaced with knowledge.
Ruth King says, “Racism is a heart disease and it is curable.”
Fear can be subverted with conversation, attention, information.
Curiosity can turn fear into a willingness to change.
And still, events occur and hurt prevails.
I know that joy would thrive here, where anxiety has taken hold. Loving and raising two children has taught me about being willing to see the world through un-restricted eyes, colorblindness works both ways. Breaking the stranglehold of white supremacy/racialized and prejudiced ways of knowing–on my imagination, on my responses to events, on my moral compass, on my compassion for other peoples—is my liberty. Seeing the world without the lens of racial denial, knowing the additional layers of non-conforming gender, sexuality, economic agility, age, and living in a rural sociology have taught me about complexity. Every day I come to a deeper understanding of more of what I didn’t know!
Dr. DiAngelo wants us, white folks, to accept that the foundations of this nation have been built on dehumanizing people with brown and black skin, stealing land, and breaking treaties (along with James Baldwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Nell Irvin Painter, and so many others). Our ancestors all came from other places and many were treated horribly until they established their lives, as in assimilating to the standards of whiteness of American. This is a deeply bitter heritage. We can hold these truths and at the same time embrace the beauty, art, science, and majesties that have been able to thrive here. By accepting the past, ending our denial, we may design a better present.
Stamp your foot, holler your refusal. “I don’t want to be racist.” From here we may begin our work to learn, to love, to do something every day to thwart the hate, the vengeance, the fear held by white supremacists, the transphobic, the ableists, the ageists, the Holocaust and climate change deniers, the bakers who will not celebrate nontraditional marriages. Every day. One thing.
James Baldwin always wanted his white readers to grow up, be mature, accept history and reality. Note his last lines here that clarify the racist blame regarding integrating neighborhoods, note the way we have been given twisted information. Baldwin writes,
There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why. I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.
We can change the country, 1963
Too often we don’t know what we don’t know—and how easily we have been deceived. We have to find the erasures–of color, women, gay, lesbian, and transgendered activists, to point out a few. We need deep curiosity, not despair and defiant skepticism. As I write this Texas is determined to ban Hilary Clinton and Helen Keller from their history books. White radical women are so despised….
I’ve had students rage at what they have not been taught. I’ve watched as my kids have negotiated their community of “well-meaning” white people, the very people who are shocked at my concerns for my children’s safety locally and more broadly.
I’ve been constantly amazed at how, despite my attentiveness, I keep finding out new-to -me perspectives on the historic record and their consequences. The NASA “Hidden Figures” of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are good examples of women not easily found even with the feminist quest for revealing silenced voices. May 1, 1865 when black workers dug up the mass grave of Union soldiers and buried them with dignity, prayers and the choir of Black children singing “America the Beautiful.”
The tall African American social worker warned me as the toddlers walked along the bay at sunset about the reactions they would meet as teenagers. Here, tides and years gone by, I fear the rage and even the innocence of white fragility. Growing up, accepting the complexity of our identities and heritage, welcoming the vitality in challenging our assumptions—this is what I’m constantly trying to explain and examine. How is it we are this way? Why are immigrants so despised when they are the new, very much needed new energy, new participants for our democracy? Why are we not the generous nation, truly welcoming and encouraging new citizens as the poem on the Statue of Liberty offers? James Baldwin reminds us that the folks who got on the Mayflower were not successful in England. Relentlessly, the tides prevail, watershed ideas, new technology, our lives keep changing, the water low means the water is high somewhere else.
Swimming I am buoyant. Moving through cold spots, watching clouds, loons, boaters, and paddle boarders. Freedom in the wide-open space of the pond. There are no tides here, but the earliest fallen leaves are on the surface, my body follows the power in my arm strokes, propels with the flutter of my feet. Slowly, with effort, I progress across the pond. In the bay I swim through the waves, breathe in the gaps in the surge, progress only as the tide and my defiant persistence permit. Wind and water, the pull from the moon, the backlash from a storm out at sea, all play their role in my drifting. The elements are all the same—pond and ocean—yet the challenges are complicated differently. White fragility and racism, the elements are all the same—pond and ocean—individual and enormous systems.
As mentioned above, Ruth King talks about the individual event, the single star and the constellations of many stars. This is her description of how we respond to the killing of one Black being as a single star. If we step back, look harder, we see so many individual stars, individuals harmed or murdered. We see the constellation and better understand the magnitude of what is going on.
Which of course, makes me think of Marvin Gaye’s (April 2, 1939- April 1, 1984) song “What’s Going On.” We’ve been wondering—we have to challenge all our impatience, fury, and frustration. Fifty-five years ago, four young girls were preparing for church. They were blown apart in their church basement. Remember this road is one we make by walking, we design each path from the rubble of explosions to mercy and the possibilities we dare dream.
What’s Going On
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on
In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me what’s going on
I’ll tell you what’s going on, ooh ooo ooo ooo
Right on baby
Right on baby
Songwriters: Alfred W Cleveland / Marvin P Gaye / Renaldo Benson
What’s Going On lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Two shells at Herring Cove After the 4th Nor’easter March 2018
PROVINCETOWN ART ASSOCIATION AND MUSEUM
June 29 – August 26, 2018
It is the only thing louder
Beauty, mysterious mixes of nature and light, doesn’t have the power to stop gunfire or war, greed, or even the beginnings of fear. If we love the land, listen, hear the voices of the hurt, allow the other sides of the stories to be told: How do we hold on to hope, persevere, and continue to be faithful to the idea of justice for all?
Verging on hopelessness, despairing, crushed by political hijinks, anti-intellectualism, and reversals of protections to lands and peoples: we persist. We find beauty in the storm. Awe and wonder too.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”
Mary Oliver spent over forty years combing the landscape of the Province Lands. She describes these 17.5 square miles at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts in her poems and essays. She would head out at dawn and walk, along the bay, through Beech Forest, down fire lanes, across dune meadows, and gaze at the blue pastures of the ponds and across the sea. She sat still and long enough to see a fox playfully batting at a butterfly, a turtle striding across the bottom of a pond. She always carried a hand sewn pad in her back pocket. Local lore says she left pencils in tree nooks in case she needed to scribble an idea. A squirrel stashes seeds for the next cold spell, but Ms. Oliver’s pencils won’t sprout the next generation of poets. That one of her pencils is around someplace, seems right. That’s poetry waiting for a word.
The image of Mary Oliver walking, and pondering, and letting ideas emerge, year after year across the same paths, offers a kind of permission and promise. I’ve been thinking that I need to photograph other things. Maybe I need a new perspective and new things to print, both photographs and in words. Actually, yes and certainly, no. Just as Ms. Oliver found new words while traversing well known places, every time I go out with my camera there is new light and striking shadows, shells, snow on dunes, leaves on trees, or tides high or low. Every time I start an essay, even if it is about the art of photography and my visual life, words about justice seep in. I am coming to realize that photography retains my balance, keep me from falling into the tyranny of despair.
From my toddlerhood to their last agile days, I would trudge along behind my Mom and our neighbor, Connie Clark. We would walk down tree canopied nature trails, around ponds, and across narrow boardwalks traversing swamps. Connie plied me with bowls filled with springtime pond water teeming with larvae or frog eggs, so I could witness the miracles of life’s transformations. My mother was patient until mosquitos started buzzing in the dining room and she demanded the research be returned to the source. These two women read voraciously and collected seed pods and vines for fall bouquets. Silent Spring shocked them. They were my first guides to Rachel Carson’s world view and respect for the universe right outside our door. In 1962 Carson wrote, “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature… but man is a part of nature, and this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
Carson’s “…this war against nature is inevitably a war against himself” sends me thinking of James Baldwin and all he endeavored in his lifetime to teach white people about their too frequent and thorough dehumanization, especially of people of color. Every one of us has a face that fits on the Pantone color scale, every one of us carries a glimmer of our ancestors in hair, eyes, nose, lips, eyebrows, the shape of our ears, or even a gesture with our hands. We are all humans, our skin our largest organ, and to deny one is to deny us all. The war against others begins with war within one’s own self.
As a youth, James Baldwin had a white teacher who guided him, offered him theater, literature and conversation. From her he came to know that not all white people were hate-filled, though some certainly deserved caution and contempt. He wrote every way he could through his lifetime to explain the conditions into which white Americans put Black Americans.
. . . If I’m not the nigger here and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it is able to ask that question.
That question only leads to more: Why Latinx? Why Lesbians, Gays, Transgender peoples? Why Asian? Why people with Disabilities of all kinds? Why Jewish? Why Muslim? Why Native American? Why Nature? Why people with little money? Why people with no home? Why Elderly? Why Asylum Seekers? Why Children?
Once this question gets going we have to wonder who is left to do the hating.
Terry Tempest Williams is another lover of the land, writer, activist, feminist, and conservationist. Her deepest roots are in the American West, yet they stretch to the coast of Maine. In The Hour of Land, she explores the tensions of mining, extraction, and conservation in the wilds of our National Parks. She declares three points for our immediate attention: “If we fail in this century, it is because we are too timid,” “If we lose our way in America, it is because we are too complacent,” and “There is a tradition of courage in our country and we must exercise it now.”
My usual work is teaching, talking, and writing about issues that precipitate and perpetuate misunderstanding and harm. This includes: toxic expectations for men and powerlessness assumptions for women; whiteness and racialized violence; queerness and violence toward LGBT folks; Power and Fear. The stuff of race, class, sex, gender expression, and sexualities. The ways all stereotypes about these issues–as well as disability, ethnicity, religions, education, access—keep a whole lot of hurt and hopelessness alive. My usual work is to educate to illuminate the possibilities of compassion and awareness. I don’t want to change the world. I want to transform it.
Wandering the Outer Cape brings me courage, especially off-season when the beauty is stark, and the beaches are empty of sunbathers. Extreme winds push my body as I make my way down the beach and the booming waves after a storm surprise all my senses. I feel the crashing of the waves in the sand under my feet and the spray of seawater in the wind; smell the metallic of the ions and cold salt in the air. My fingers work the camera as snow and sand blasts the beach clean, seaweed flying. Ironically, this is soul soothing nourishment. My photographs bring the viewer bluster and balm.
James Baldwin wrote, “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”
My photographs reveal all the colors in the sand. Not beige at all, but bits of black, pink, blue or purple. No combination of seaweed on the beach is the same, in the wrack line there are souvenirs from waves and human negligence. Color is in every shred of sea hay, every dried seaweed curl, every feather fiercely intact after flight from the bird. The camera lens captures one second of this wildness; to realize we are nature our minds can come to know courage, the revelation of our own oppressions will make us all free, if we are not afraid.
In my heart, I hear James Baldwin sighing in agreement as I read these lines by Rev. angel Kyodo williams:
the great fraud of the construct of whiteness is that it has coerced and convinced most white folks to no longer see their own oppression: by men over women, by straights over LGBT, by hetero fathers over their sons in arbitrating their masculinity, by capitalist values of personal acquisition over the personal freedom of one’s soul. white folks have been duped to trade their humanity for their privilege. the most insidious lie is that racism is a Black problem or a colored folks problem. white folks wake up: not only oppressed people are complicit in oppression. it’s your problem, too.
How do we become love and freedom? Is it by walking the same beach and being willing to see something new? Changing our point of view, moving our lens from the grain of sand to the clouds above the horizon line, moving the entire body, looking, focusing, attending. Click, the shutter opens and closes. Philosophy professor George Yancy writes, “As James Baldwin said, Black history “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Who could we be without the weighty anchors of social norms, constructions of race, gender expressions, the colonialization of privileges? Can we find the freedom, liberate our deeply entrenched biases, unexamined assumptions, and fears? We are waves, constantly moving, rising and ebbing. We are humans who have everything to lose and even more to gain.
Be courage. Create beauty with words, graphics, photographs, and actions. We are the world we want to live in, this is our one wild and precious life, and we aren’t afraid of the impossible.
In Order of Appearance
Shout out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog. Incredible integration of ideas, stunning graphics, as well as reminders of things read in the past and their immense value to thinking about the present.
Andrea Gibson (1975-) Take Me With You (2017).
Mary Oliver (1935–) Blue Pastures (1991).
Maria Shriver asked Mary Oliver what she has done with her one wild and precious life. Oliver replied, “I’ve used up a lot of pencils.”
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) Silent Spring (1962).
James Baldwin (1924-1987) I’m Not Your Negro (2017)
film and text by Samuel L. Jackson, Raoul Peck.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955–) The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (2016).
Ions smelling metallic. I’m not sure if this is at all accurate. What do you think? From The National Science Foundation: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/water/index_low.jsp?id=ions
Maybe it is cold salt one smells in the mists of the storm surges.
James Baldwin found in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/20/james-baldwin-the-creative-process/ From The Price of A Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction (1948-1985) on the Creative Process and the Artist’s Responsibility to Society.
Rev. angel Kyoto williams, Sensi (1969–) Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation (2016) with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah.
George Yancy, Dear White People, New York Times, 2015.
No, thunder isn’t overhead, we aren’t counting till the lightning strikes. This is Tig Notaro’s show.
I’m a reader, not an avid viewer of television or movies. We don’t have cable on purpose. With a book, I can close it when I get overwhelmed; toss it across the room when it irks me and go back to it when I am darn well ready. There is less immediate control with screens. Sure, turn it off, walk out…. but the content has already slipped in, the horror already pouring over my skin, into my brain. I gotta keep it out of my mind. I’m not overly tenderhearted or naïve. I just don’t want that stuff in me from fiction. I know it from real-world and history.
What a gift. A casual dyke, not a lipstick power babe. L- Word covered that genre and besides, stealth is a whole other way to be in the streets. Tig is Tig—down low funny dealing with the meanest hard rock formations of humans.
Stay with me, this will circle ‘round.
This is a quote from Lama Rod Owens,
When people ask me how I’m doing, I feel a little confused and pause for a moment. In my mind I want to talk about this deep sense of heaviness and despair that feels like mourning with and for the world. I want to say that a part of me doesn’t feel good enough, that this was a feeling I was born into, trained in, and encouraged to accept—that I do not remember an experience before this (Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, p.57-58).
Trust a Black, queer Lama man to express what is exactly me, precisely, perfectly. Despair is in my lungs from years of breathing it. As you may remember from earlier blogs, I was raised by drag queens. I’ve disco danced my way along the gender expression spectrum and I’m often mistaken for a guy. I say, just don’t call me late for supper when asked about preferred pronouns. Struggling to figure out why I didn’t like being mistaken, when it really was partly my responsibility because I do dress mostly in clothing from the men’s department … I realize it surely doesn’t matter. I’m queerly me. This means I never have ever felt represented in the media. Alison Bechdel’s squad in Dykes to Watch Out For, comes so close. I swoon over Rachel Maddow but I sure don’t have that passion for the national-politic.
Tig’s show is enlightening, refreshing, so cutting edge about sexual assault it made me squirm a few times (such raw taboo truth) and, and it isn’t insulting or assaulting. I tried to be a fan of Grace & Frankie, Transparent, and The Fosters. Actually, I even watched a full season and a half before signing out. I just couldn’t go along with the escalating absurdities and gratuitous weirdness. Ok, you’ve caught me in my devotion to documentaries and TED Talks. Fiction wears me out.
Tig has her share of fantasy moments, dreamy what ifs. These fade as she engages with deeper and most daring confrontations with the stuff of real life –that rocky content: Grief from a sudden dying, life-long consequences of incest for all family members, cancer, workplace sexual harassment, falling in love across sexual identities, and just beginning at the end of season 2—race.
What’s funny? It’s a mix—just as our real days are. Tip toe into the Grand Canyon of griefs or take the long view across the whole panorama?
We are all living in the grief and mourning of our pasts and the pandemonium of the current administration. The exposure of sexual abusers and actual consequences to perpetrators is bringing a liberation like we haven’t seen before. My FB post in October:
I was told, “It’s an occupational hazard of being a girl,” so I dressed like a boy and always had on shoes good for running. But me too.
One Mississippi characters are opening up silenced topics; male characters are working out of inhibitions that were put on them by history, tradition, shame, grief and denial. Women are rising. I confess to being just a little excited, kind of daring to be hope-filled. Not only for Season Three but our whole nation and globe. I asked my Beloved for a watch, just like Tig’s, for Christmas. I want to be in these times.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (2016) by Sue Klebold.
August 30, 2017
How do we respond to unimaginable events, disasters, horrors?
We watch Houston, much of Texas, and Louisiana as they emerge from trillions of gallons of water left in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, August 2017. (The very anniversary of the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
We are reeling from the brazen racist violence of the August 12th weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia and continued rallies and marches of white supremacists and counter protesters.
The list of astonishing events seems escalated since November 8, 2016 and the placement of the 45th President of the United States. We reel and reel some more.
We search for reasons. We want to assign blame. We want to know, “Why?” We ask, “How could this happen?”
I want to direct our over stimulated sense of awe and awfulness to a recently released memoir. This will take us back in time, to 1999, and events that shifted everything for our national cultural awareness. U.S. school shootings are recorded as far back as 1764, the deadliest was in Bath, Michigan in 1927 (about which I had no idea until I did an Internet search). But Columbine High School haunts our recent history. Eighteen year olds, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, designed and implemented a massacre.
Sue Klebold is Dylan’s mother. She describes the unfolding of events for her family, the relentless quest to understand her son and his suicide, and to describe the unfolding of discoveries afterward. A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy (2016) is a challenge to every parent. This is not a Mom’s cozy love story. It is not a story of cruel or psychotic parents abusing children. It is a story of a mother’s devoted love for a child that ended in a blaze of bullets that killed twelve students, one teacher, ended the lives of the two perpetrators, and injured twenty-four other students. Dylan did not become a killer due to bad parenting.
We come into parenthood intentionally or unintentionally through desire, marriage, mishap, adoption, or step-parenting. The early days of parenting are a blur of tending to minute details and the wonder of a tiny infant exhausting grown adults merely by sleeping, eating, and requiring diaper changes. Then come the hazards of kids learning to walk, ride a tricycle, cross the street, engage with friends, attend school. Those years of fundamental learning and care go swiftly. Memories are made (good and bad) that last a lifetime.
A child’s unique temperament meets the community. Idiosyncrasies abound. What is a quirk a child will grow out of, what is serious and a sign of distress? Klebold has spent the years since the massacre at Columbine High School dissecting every moment and every memory. She could not fathom or reconcile her child as a shooter. He had friends, held a job, participated in family movie nights and dinners, was a tech for the school theater. He had just been to the prom. Dylan had his streak of depression, but she never saw him as violent or mean.
That is, until she watched the Basement Tapes months after the deaths. The boys made these tapes as they planned their massacre. There Sue Klebold hears a young man she cannot deny is her son, but cannot align with the son she knew, utter hateful words and show off with guns she never could have imagined.
Reconciling suicide, murder, hate. This has been Klebold’s life-quest since April 20, 1999. She isn’t asking for forgiveness; she knows she can never make amends for her son’s actions. She does appeal to her readers to understand that her son was brought up in love, with high standards, moral teachings, and within the bosom of a stable and loving family.
Klebold is warning us all: parents, teachers, professionals who work with youth, to attend. Wake up. Kids are cool, kids are geniuses at disguise, full of deception. Depression vs. the petulance of adolescent behavior can be difficult to discern and Dylan used all his guile to hide his depression and anger.
She recognizes the bullying culture of the high school, missed opportunities for intervention in educational/professional/judicial settings, access to guns, and Dylan’s resistance to therapy. But even if we look in every corner of a kid’s room we may not find the gun, the pills, the alcohol, or catch the thrumming of suicidal thoughts, or glimpse the deepest suffering that is lurking behind the cheery face. This memoir will wrench all readers as Sue Klebold takes us through each stage of her grief, shame, shock, awareness, and the depth of her reckoning.
Blaming the parents, blaming the school, blaming guns, blaming, blaming, blaming will not bring any of the dead teachers, students, shooters of any of the mass shootings back or heal any of those caught in the crossfires. Learning about the signs, the signals of brain illness (Klebold’s term for mental illness), and taking every moment to work with an individual is our social and community opportunity to create the change and establish the hope that mass shootings will be events of history, not weekly or daily occurrences (http://www.shootingtracker.com/Main_Page).
Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017)
Imagine calming the storm raging in every cell of your body. Many years after being raped by a young man she loved, Thordis Elva found forgiveness and solace.
She was an Icelandic kid, just 16, falling in love for the first time. He was an eighteen-year-old exchange student from Australia. One night went wrong with 72,000 seconds of rape, and years later, the two come together. South of Forgiveness is a journal of that week in both their voices.
Elva’s determination to go beyond “getting over” the rape drove her to write plays and a book on gender-based violence. Her ruthless quest for truths set her on the startling path of reconnecting and confronting her perpetrator. She and Tom Stranger spend several years emailing back and forth, going deeper into honest appraisals. She had survived years of self-harm and the reprisals of post-traumatic stress. He was entrenched in guilt and shame and, eager may not quite be the term, utterly willing to drive through this uncharted territory with Thordis. They decide to meet in Cape Town, South Africa, a global half way point and, starkly, considered the rape capital of the world. Elva and Stranger break boundaries, dare to consider reconciliation and restorative practices, as they shatter the silence of victim and perpetrator.
They walk through fires of remembering, clarify times they spent together after the rape, and focus some blurred memories. They are both brave and a little crazy to endure this process. But they know their lives are on the line. Their future healthy relationships, joy, and forgiveness are at stake. The result is a respect and responsibility and an intensity of awareness few mortals will come to know.
Rape culture, globally and in the United States, is pandemic. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted.” Girls, women, boys, men, Native American, White, African American, Latinx, Asian American, all races and creeds, LGBT, military personnel, incarcerated populations— all among the victims. Underreporting of incidents, re-traumatization of victims during legal proceedings, mistrials, media and judicial bias toward perpetrators is blatantly obvious. The emotional and psychic costs to men, women and children, to the perpetrators and the victims, is beyond any known approach to accounting. Due to a shortage of staff, funding, or national initiative, in the United States there are 400,000 untested rape kits awaiting analysis.The long-term health effects, personal economic, social, and emotional costs of rape are staggering. The loss to the GDP and the national creativity and happiness quotient—unimaginable.
Freedom from rape is a civil rights and health issue—for both victim and perpetrator. Elva and Stranger sleuth their truths, which are hard and honest. Stranger does not know why he raped Elva that night, he cared deeply for her and it terrorizes him that that ability was within his nature. Where did it come from?
This is a book for all who desire to end rape culture. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all model but it does offer inspiration to challenge legal, institutional, and social dead ends. What new venues can we create? Restorative Justice? Peer mentoring? A 12-step approach? The VOEG (Victim Offender Education Group) model used by Insight Prison Project? Masculinity education programs? We need all our creative, inspired willingness and awareness to bring justice, love, and well-being to all who have been harmed. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger offer us their story of finding a path to resolution and peace. Their book and TED Talk challenge and encourage us to find ours.
In the Time Before November 8, 2016
On my tiptoes, I could scan the contents of the top dresser drawer. I was nine or ten years old. My parents’ room was not forbidden, just foreboding, so I’d never peered inside Pop’s bureau before. My mother was in the room. She was putting laundry away, folding and fussing over each item. We were convivial, having a lovely day. No tension, none of my usual backtalk or petulant attitude.
The landscape of the top drawer was spare; my father was not a man of clutter. I held each item to examine it and show my mother. The watch fob that didn’t work, she said, came from his father. There were silver cuff links and tie clasps. The slingshot he made when he was a boy in North Carolina was slack. He was proud to have made it, she said. It was his only totem of childhood. Handkerchiefs did not intrigue me, but my exploring fingers hit something solid. I lifted the small pistol from the back of the drawer and aimed it at my mother. Not intentionally, it was more like a compass needle seeking north. She gasped,
“Put that down! It could be loaded!”
Gaining more and more clarity on what I had just almost done, I uncurled my fingers from the grip. Was my finger on the trigger? Could I have killed my own mother? My horror gave way to tears. My mother took a quick step toward me, took the gun out of my hand and put it back in the drawer. The gun was for burglars, she said, along with the baseball bat behind their bedroom door. My father was lithe and very slight of build. He never hit anyone in his life.
When I last checked, perhaps a few weeks later, the gun was gone.
This memory hasn’t stirred for decades. But it did after a week in California as a participant in the Victim/Offender Education Group facilitator training. * We stayed with friends and commuted each morning across the Golden Gate Bridge into picture postcard sunrises. In a San Rafael church activity room we joined a circle of other participants. The group consisted of formerly incarcerated people who had spent decades inside, as well as employees and volunteers at other prisons. Our training followed the curriculum used inside with VOEG participants.
VOEG is a restorative justice program, focused on accountability and healing trauma. The starting point is to write a crime impact statement. This is a detailed accounting of the day leading to the crime that resulted in incarceration, the crime itself, and the aftermath, including the real or imagined impact on the victim, their family, friends and community. Listening to the stories of our colleagues who had been incarcerated, their naked truth, speaking the names of their victims through barely controlled sobs, was breathtaking. They also dove into understanding the harmful environments of their youth and behaviors that led to criminal activities and arrest. These were the steps leading them to emotional awareness. They had to dig deep and deal with the whole spectrum of their experiences and learn emotions. Then they could take full accountability for their actions, which allowed them to know empathy and practice compassion.
On the third day of the training, those who had been cleared went to San Quentin. We wore black, white, or brown as we had been instructed. No blue or denim like the men inside. We brought nothing in but our car key and driver’s license. No pens or paper, no device capable of picking up a digital signal. Getting inside meant a series of checks, one large iron gate closing before another opened. Once inside, we were escorted to the chapel, where we sat with twelve of the men who had completed, and now co-facilitated, the San Quentin VOEG program.
One by one, the men showed us how the program worked, which meant telling their stories. Every story I heard included easy access to guns and drugs. There were stories of single mothers working several jobs, abusive parents or step parents, or the lure of gang life that won over other life choices. The hardest stories to hear were of childhoods full of physical and sexual harm, shame and humiliation. Their hearts had hardened with these forms of abuse. How could they care about another person’s life when they had been raised with such meanness, disregarded, and provoked in their powerlessness? In other stories it seemed another youth or a girlfriend was killed without any more provocation than a look or a comment. This glance or snide remark proved to be life long humiliation’s last straw.
“Hurt people hurt people, healed people heal people,” was a constant refrain.
Each man I met was able to describe in detail the events that shaped his decisions and how he had come to take responsibility for his part in the events. There was liberation in all this truth telling, in listening too. Listening was learning for these men who had been boys with dreams and desperate intentions.
In the homework for the San Rafael group I shared vignettes from my younger days when I was caught in sexual, economic, and emotional power plays. I was drunk for the sexual un- pleasantries but not for the later relationships where I stayed despite economic and emotional abuse. I know that if I had continued drinking and doing drugs I would have landed in jail, died in a boating or car accident, or by an overdose.
Listening to the men in San Quentin and the people in our San Rafael group who had spent decades incarcerated also taught me the fragility of a fraction of a second. An impetuous trigger pulled. The gun goes off. Someone takes the bullets and dies in the instant of that decision or in the split second of that mistake.
Realizing how close I might have been to shooting my mother that day, or going deeper into addiction to either kill or die, only offers the tiniest mirror to understand how thin the line is between who is in and who is out of our jails and prisons. It was a line that I didn’t cross that summer day on my tiptoes. And I know now how so many men and women have crossed the line or been pushed by the accumulation of systematic oppressions, abuse, neglect, and denied expectations. VOEG works to bring those inside back to healing and emotional intelligence that is as inspired as it is enlightening. They told me that having healed in VOEG, not only have their lives been changed forever, they’ve been able to change the culture of the yard at San Quentin.
Healed people heal people.
*Insight Prison Project
This morning I received news that LaMerle Johnson, Sr., amazing, loving, caring, eye-twinkling, life coach, father, brother, friend died in a canoe accident on Wednesday, December 7, 2016 at the Rockwood Leadership Returning Citizen retreat.
I met LaMerle at the VOEG training. He opened my eyes and heart to all the possibilities of healing, coming out of a life of harm and prison and hurt and being a joyful man. He personified “healed people heal people.”
My heart is broken — more light is let in. Our work goes on.
Spring stayed underground through all of April. This was a long Vermont record-breaking cold winter. Then the spring bulbs exploded in a sudden mid-May heat wave. They danced up the driveway and over to the neighbors and down the road. Our eight-month old puppy had never seen spring, was startled by the grass. He and our older dog raced each other through the flowers. I left the dogs and the daffodils to go to town.
In town, we settled in at our favorite bookstore to listen to Abigail Thomas read from her latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. I had inhaled the book, as one does when the language is captivating, something quirky is being explained, the life of the author offers bits of your own, and you are pretty sure you better pay attention because other bits may be yours one day in the not so distant future. I’d pulled Thomas’ two other memoirs, Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life and A Three Dog Life: A Memoir from my bookcase. Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir, which is full of writing challenges — I mean, two-page writing exercises –was on my desk. Her sister Eliza Thomas’ memoir, The Road Home was also in the pile. I read that one to get a grip on being an adoptive parent when my toddlers were napping.
I pull out Thomas’ Safekeeping every time I want to write but just can’t, or don’t. That’s about five times so far. Maybe I’ll start it again tonight. I rarely stand in line for autographs, but I waited at the end of the line for Thomas to sign my copy of What Comes Next and How to Like it.
What is it? What’s so darn compelling about this author’s writing?
Take these opening lines. They are the dresses Abigail wears as she makes her entrances:
“Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola.”
“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt.”
A Three Dog Life
“I have time to kill while waiting for the sun to dry, and I’m mulling over the story I spent years writing and failed to turn into anything, trying not to be depressed.”
What Comes Next and How to Like It.
These books are all about the messiness of living. The children are caught up in spinach and scrambled eggs, a divorce, or the loss of a father. With each edition we glean the benefit of Thomas’ artful reflections, making sense of a life, rather than divvying tidbits up in the free form of fiction. We see life as complex and so often confounding with betrayals and cancer and grandchildren, and Oh, the dogs! Thomas’ sisters offer clarity. Doctors, nurses, and friends help her through. She is that whole constellation of wife, sister, mother, grandmother, friend, and woman alone dealing with the stark skies of reality.
As we all are. Yet these are not linear texts. The dogs are loud, restless, and destructive—just as are the people and events of her life. Utterly unpredictable, too, which is why wondering What Comes Next is followed by and How to Like It. We must, we always must find the way to get through the day, the years, the consequences.
How does Thomas manage to leap in the essence and stay in the crucial details too? Safekeeping and What Comes Next offer the reader a page or two at a time, a scene or reflection that advances the history, the locations, the honest truth of the moment. Each page is a clue, a piece of the puzzle stripped down to the bones. This is Haiku prose. Layers of images start to build and the portrait appears. But it isn’t still life, there is so much living going on. As we learn in that first page of What Comes Next, the sun dries and only then can she add the paint for the clouds around it.
At Bear Pond Books, after Thomas’ reads, I wait patiently in the line, watching the audience thin, wonder what is taking so long with the guy at the podium with her. I have no idea what to say to her. Let him take his time. Finally I am face to face with the writer whose honesty thrills me, who is just a little older, so I know of but didn’t live her references, and her musical taste is before mine. Our lives have similarities: smoking, drinking, Woodstock, NY (I lived there some twenty years prior to her residence and missed all that 1969 sex), roasting chickens, baking cookies for kids, her painting, my photography, love of language, love of students finding voice through writing. I’ve only two dogs to her three. I write about the life and death issues too, just different ones.
It is my turn and my mind is blank.
“I love you!” I exclaim to my surprise.
She beamed as she autographed my book. “Come to Woodstock,” she wrote.
Safekeeping: Some True Stories From A Life. Anchor Books: NY. 2000.
A Three Dog Life: A Memoir. Harcourt, Inc.: NY. 2006.
Thinking About Memoir. AARP Sterling: NY. 2009.
What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir. Scribner: NY. 2015
The Road Home. Delta, New York, 1997.