when an old friend doesn’t give up on you

This afternoon I had tea with an old friend. I am in awe of how powerful it is to be in someone’s presence who has known you for many years, and really knows you. Knows that your circumstances and your story and your struggles are not you and don’t define you. The ability to pick up where you left off after not seeing each other in years is not something to be taken for granted. The ability to hold one another and hug after sporadic phone call catch-ups is not something to be taken for granted.

I met this friend my first week of college. Our lives took very different paths, but our core beliefs stand strong. I find myself reflecting on the glory that is finding a kindred spirit. Finding “my people.” It doesn’t happen all at once or in a big group the way we are often told. But it’s there, and even if geographical distance is a challenge, today made me remember it doesn’t need to be a defining factor in the relationship.

I am so grateful to the people in my life who didn’t leave when it became really hard. When I became a symbol for something most of us never want to think about if we have a choice. Many did not stick it out. Hard times test friendships, and today I make the conscious choice to dwell on those that still stand by side, not the ones I grieve. That is how I can keep going.

thank you thank you thank you

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mary oliver live-tweets and why i need poetry

I have been down. I  have been in a funk. I have not wanted to write new material for my blog in the last week. But I have also not wanted to stop my regular postings. I decided I would dig back into my files and find some older writing to share. The majority of my writing is written in prose. Sometimes poetic, sometimes more in essay form, but generally prose. However, I found myself automatically going to the “poetry” file on my computer and finding a couple of poems to share on my blog.

Why poetry? Why did I turn to poetry when I wasn’t feeling my best but I still wanted to engage with my writing and invite others to do the same? Because it is shorter than a long-form piece that nobody has time to get to the end of anyways? Perhaps. But I think there is something that draws us to poetry when our souls are hungering.

Recently Krista Tippett of the On Being Radio Podcast interviewed renowned poet Mary Oliver in Florida. The interview was live-tweeted by an On Being staff member, and some of Mary Oliver’s quotes resonated deeply with why I felt drawn to my poetic work when I wanted to share something but felt my reservoir for new material was running a bit dry. Here are some of my favorite quotes that were tweeted:

“I got saved by poetry and I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

“I believe poetry is convivial. It’s very old, it’s very sacred, a community ritual. When you write a poem it’s for everybody.”

“I have no answers, I have some suggestions. I know a life is more interesting with a spiritual part to it. So I cling to it.”

“People are more apt to remember a poem and feel they own it. They speak it to themselves and it becomes like a prayer.”

When I am down or lost or low I crave the sacred. I crave ritual. I crave the natural world. I crave prayer. I crave community. Many times I don’t have those things set up in place for me. But in composing my blog in the last week, I turned to poetry, and now Mary Oliver has helped me to see why. One final quote from the interview: “Poetry is a pretty lonely pursuit. I used to say that it was talking to myself.” Maybe when I feel lonely I look to poetry. Writing in general can be lonely, so when we seek out other writers in the form of their work, we create a mini-community to guide us along. I like the thought of being part of Mary Oliver’s poetic community. I like that thought very much.

P.S. I encourage you to explore a wonderful interview between Krista Tippett and poet Dr. Elizabeth Alexander discussing why humanity craves poetry, especially during hard times.

strait of gibraltar

tomorrow i will cross the border.

we all began there

somewhere

human beings

Became.

slavery became there

people

flesh and bones

stolen

taken

violated.

today

people journey north

from Mali, Algeria

across the desert

–for forty years?

they make it to the border

of Morocco

and with luck

they cross

with luck

they catch a boat

with luck

they don’t sink

with luck

they live a life in europe

of racism

prejudice

ignorance

violence

with luck?

i am packing

and in my backpack

is Frederick Douglass

Audre Lorde

Angela Davis

Martin and Toni.

i travel with a heavy heart

knowing how easy my journey will be

i travel

in return

to a continent i know

i once lived on

generations back

my ancestors

all of our ancestors

were once there.

i travel with a Jewish star

metaphorically tattooed on my arm

to a Muslim country

while Israel and Palestine

play with bombs.

i travel as a spiritual seeker

starving for religion

ritual

of any form.

but also

i travel afraid

of what I represent

my white face

my hebrew name.

we all began there

but i don’t have the memories

i didn’t suffer there.

tomorrow i will cross

the border

set foot on a continent

the skin of these feet

has never caressed

and i will close my eyes

and ask for forgiveness

and ask for ritual

and open my eyes.

ode to pete seeger

Pete Seeger died last week

and the year is 2014 and

i am home with a nasty condition of healing-needed

and can’t seem to do much but list

the songs i would like to learn on the banjo

to keep him alive

not the man but

the time when there was juice pouring out

of a person who had so much to say and

insufficient years to say it all. i feel i have the time

and the years

and the loads to express

but i don’t have the clarity to say it just right

and so i list

and wonder if what i have to say about

violence and healing

could ever mean something to people the way

Pete meant something to so many

did Pete wonder

if people would give a crap what he wrote?

or did he just have to chase it out of his mind

before it chased him into the sea?

i am chasing something that will devour me

if i don’t win

but what is it

and where is it going

and will anyone care?

and how I wish I had a friend like Pete

to read my poems and tell me if they are just plain horseshit

or if maybe I should keep going

life lessons learned washing dishes

This morning I woke up to a mountain of dishes in the sink. We made chili last night, but I was exhausted after dinner and gave myself permission to leave the kitchen a mess, set my alarm early before work, and get them done in the morning.

This morning I really wished I hadn’t done that. I was still exhausted, nervous for the day at work, and on top of all that, now completely overwhelmed by all the dishes. I wasn’t sure how I could do it all. Life in general has become very overwhelming.

Then I took a deep breath, and started with the dishes already clean, in the dish rack. One by one I put them away in their cabinets. And suddenly, the mountain in the sink looked a bit smaller.

I needed to make space for the cleaning before it could begin.

*

Lately I feel my world is very small. It feels strange and unlike me, because before what happened I felt the world was very large, and I felt my life was infinitely possible…that I was infinitely possible. I have made my current life very small because that is what has felt safe and necessary for my healing process.

And after finishing (!) all the dishes, I understand why.

I need to make space for the healing. To clear out the parts of my life that do not serve the healing process. Then I can begin to pick away at the mountain of dirt that needs tending to. And when there is space and healing enough, my world will feel large again. I will fill it back in. I have to believe that. I must.

quotes in tribute to dr. martin luther king jr.

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I pulled some of my favorites books by African American authors off my bookshelf. I am sharing some quotes from these treasured works in tribute to MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, Social Justice, Racial Justice, and Liberation for all. I stand in strong solidarity with the marchers and protesters today who are linking the legacy of Dr. King with the current injustices as seen recently in Ferguson, Staten Island, and so so so many other places. I stand in solidarity and I mourn the loss and oppression of good and innocent people and I celebrate the incredible work and contributions in every walk of life that African Americans have been making for centuries. NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE.

“Martin Luther King, Jr., had asked us to do something really hard. Many people felt he had asked us to do something impossible. He had asked us to embrace nonviolence as a way of life. When he died by the gun, for many, many people, in the Movement and out of it, there was a feeling of release. We can’t do it, many felt; we can’t live as nonviolently as Martin Luther King, Jr., did (and once again the white man–in the person of King’s assassin–has demonstrated why.)…Our communities did erupt in violence, many of them; several went up into flames….The rage, the laughter, the feeling of being relieved of a burden too noble for mere persecuted humans to bear. And underneath everything, the longing for the presence of the Beloved. Deeply missing him. The one who loved us and saw us and stayed with us, knowing he would not survive his blatant love for us; not survive his vibrant, dancing life.” Alice Walker, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 169-170

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue.” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail

“In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any single sub-society–Black or gay–I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look “nice.” To be liked. To be loved. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.” -Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, p. 181

“Black people are victims of an enormous amount of violence. None of those things can take place without the complicity of the people who run the schools and the city.” -Toni Morrison

“YOUTH

We have tomorrow

Bright before us

Like a flame.

Yesterday

A night-gone thing,

A sun-down name.

And dawn-today

Broad arch above the road we came.

We march!”

-Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, p. 65

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” -Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

“And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'” -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream Speech, March on Washington, 1963

cultural appropriation: the importance of saying “i messed up”

I was sitting at work (at a local independent bookstore) and noticed a group of four college-aged people pointing and laughing at my book on display. I watched as I heard one say, “that’s just wrong.” And I cringed because I agreed with them. The cover of my book alone could be the parody cover of a book about cultural appropriation. A white girl wearing Indian clothing surrounded by dark-skinned Indian boys and a subtitle: “The Memoir of an American Teen Who Dared to Be Different.” More like the story of a white girl of privilege who had the opportunity handed to her by her parents to live abroad during high school.

Still hours later, I feel a sinking feeling in my stomach. I have often been the person to point out books, movies, posters, advertisements, etc. that are incredibly racially (or otherwise) problematic. If I had never seen the book before I probably would have had a similar response as the visitors in the bookstore today.

But I have seen the book before. I wrote that book. I wrote that book one year before I learned the term “white privilege” and devoted myself to educating myself as much as possible about racism, global and national white supremacy, and my own privilege.

Do I feel shame that the book is mine? Yes. Do I think it is important for white folks to acknowledge that the things they did in their “past lives” (before “waking up” to unpacking their own white privilege) and to be open about it–yes. We can’t take back what we did or who we were. We can use those experiences to push other white folks to wake up. My reflections about my own writing almost a decade ago can be painful, but they can also show how much my thinking and consciousness have changed. And is that not what needs to happen for white folks to finally get on board with fighting racism and oppression? A shift in consciousness? I would say yes. I would also say yes to documenting and sharing our missteps along the way. As a writer, I will always try to speak my truth. But my truth changes. At the time when I wrote the book, I knew what I knew. I did my best. Now I know I can do better. I think the urge for white folks (especially those with class privilege as well) to try to pretend that we are and always were perfect anti-racist activists or allies or however you identify–I think that is not only is impossible, but it is completely unproductive.

About an hour after the college students left the bookstore, a young teenager walked in and picked my book up off the shelf and when her dad came in behind her she said to him, “Dad, someone wrote this when they were fourteen! Maybe I could write a book!”

I couldn’t help but smile. When we are young we don’t know everything there is to know about injustice, especially coming from white, privileged backgrounds. But if we practice finding out voices early, then hopefully we will “wake up,” and when we do, we will be practiced at using our voices in the medium that feels most comfortable. I hope that teenager goes home and starts writing. I hope it serves her now, and I hope it serves her ten years from now, when she realizes she thinks completely differently then she did when she was younger.

Here’s to being honest as much as possible. As a writer. As an activist. As a person.

“africa doesn’t need a savior. america needs a savior.” + reflections on my time in india

Some very important points are made in this NYTimes Op-Doc, An African’s Message for America, featuring a Kenyan activist, Boniface Mwangi, discussing with high school and college students the impulse to volunteer abroad, especially in India, Africa, and the Middle East, instead of investing in local communities back home. Watching the film led me to reflect on my experience living with my parents in a boys’ orphanage in India when I was fourteen. I strongly recommend you watch the op-doc by Cassandra Herrman (only six and a half minutes.) First I will share some of the quotes I found especially important. Then my personal reflections about my time in India follow below the quotes.

Boniface Mwangi: “I can’t hold myself back when there’s injustice. I can’t.”

Duke University Student: “There is a clear sense of glorification and there’s a sense of this faux-heroism and then I’m here doing very similar work and people aren’t as excited by it.”

Boniface Mwangi: There’s a quote, it’s a Nigerian quote. ‘Until the lion has it’s own storytellers, the hunter will always be glorified.’ That’s what we need in Africa, we need the people who live in Africa to tell their own stories.”

Student: “The problem is how you frame the issue. You’re not going there to save anybody. You’re going there to save yourself….these experiences played a part in them getting a job. So they are the people who benefit, it’s not Africans.” 

Boniface Mwangi: “As you try to save the world, you’re neglecting the issues at home….If you abroad you think America is all rosy and beautiful and things work. And cops do their job. And then you come here and realize that cops lock up innocent people. You come here and realize that cops discriminate against people of color. They shoot them. They arrest them.”

Boniface Mwangi: “I think that Africa doesn’t need a savior. America needs a savior.”

*     *     *

When I was fourteen years old I lived with my parents in a boys’ orphanage and Hindu ashram in Varanasi, India, for nine months. That was in 2006. In high school and college when I began studying critical race theory and racial justice politics, I felt a great deal of shame about this experience. That we did something wrong by going.

I can’t speak for my parents, but it is my understanding that their intention was never to go there and save the orphans or the people of Varanasi. They were seeking a spiritual experience with their spiritual teacher in the most historically spiritual place of his lineage. They knew they were going for themselves, and that was okay. They also were going for me, because as parents they knew it would be a profoundly life-changing experience for a young teenager to have, which of course it was.

I remember watching the children of the orphanage get attached to our family and other westerners who visited temporarily, only to see them leave, and I knew it was unsustainable. I wanted to be absolutely involved in the children’s daily lives for ME, because it made me feel more alive, and it gave me the feeling of a big family and of siblings that I didn’t have growing up. But that wasn’t what was best for the children. Since our visit many changes have occurred in that place, and it is now run much more by people who live in India permanently, and there are clear boundaries set for western visitors.

I wrote a book about my experiences during that year, titled The Year of a Thousand Colors (for sale locally at Booklink Booksellers in Northampton, MA, and also on Amazon.com here) and I have experienced a lot of shame about the book. Not only because I wrote it when I was fourteen and therefore I have grown a great deal as a writer since then, but also because it is clear evidence of what some might call a selfish thing that we did.

And yet, that experience led me to return to the United States, begin volunteering at a domestic violence shelter when I was sixteen, join racial justice movements, become a radical activist and community organizer….

I do think travel changes us. Being white, upper-middle-class, my eyes were opened by my experience in India. I came back home desperate to uncover where there was injustice in my local community. Of course you don’t have to go to India (or even leave your town or city, most likely) to experience this eye-opening if you are from a privileged background. But because white supremacy and segregation and gentrification and so many other things, injustice is often (intentionally) kept hidden from those growing up steeped in privilege.

I can’t change my story. And I also can’t suggest that people, especially young people, don’t travel, because the cliche is most certainly true–travel opens one’s eyes to the realities of their homelands. That said, I think the point this Op-Doc makes about intention is very important. If you are traveling to a place you believe has less than you, FIRST learn about those in your local communities that have less. Then spend a great deal of time interrogating what “less” means. Less money? Less infrastructure? Less safety from police and state violence? How do you define “having” and “wealth.” Very important to think about before going abroad. (And this self-interrogation will likely change how you see home, too). And finally, know why you are going. You are going for yourself. And if that is what you need to do in your life journey (as it was in my family’s when we went to India) then it is okay. But be authentic. And when you come home, don’t pretend injustice isn’t present here. Don’t be a savior abroad, but be careful how you are a savior here. How the “faux-glorification” spoken about in the Op-Doc exists in U.S., too, for young people from privileged backgrounds who work in “community service” or “underprivileged communities” (I use quotes here because they are heavily racially coded terms and extremely problematic).

Perhaps someday I will write a second edition of my book with a deep reflection on what it means to live abroad, and what I have learned about the experience since then. For now what I can say is that without a doubt, the people I encountered in Varanasi saved me, and led me to the path I am on today. I did not save them. Thank you Mr. Mwangi for your work and for forcing viewers to ask themselves hard questions. The hardest questions lead us to the most important work.

poem for mean minds

brain won’t stop

go go go

i’m bad

the world is bad

humans are bad

i’m in danger

the world is in danger

i should be better

i should be more 

i am not enough

i am not enough

i am not enough 

brain won’t stop

*

i know i am the observer 

i am the one listening to these thoughts

i am the consciousness able

to write them down here

but they are so loud

the trees are so quiet

i would like to be a tree

i would like to know myself

to be more than just

an observer

i would like a quiet brain back