Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Civil Rights Hero and Writing a Racial Autobiography

Charles Avery is one of my heroes.

Mr. Avery was one of the foot soldiers during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's, and he is still a powerful voice for hope. 

When my husband and I were on a Civil Rights tour in the fall of 2018, our leader, Mark Swiggum, arranged for us to meet with Mr Avery and to hear his story. As a young student he organized a march of children to Birmingham from his small town outside the city, and they were arrested and taken to makeshift prison cells at the fairgrounds. He told us how they were packed in a small area, and it was cold and rainy, and utterly miserable, but they kept up their spirits by singing "They Shall Overcome." 

He told us how miraculously the rain stopped and blue skies appeared. This statement, it seems to me, is a glimpse into this man's essence. 

He was also jailed, along with Dick Gregory, whom he resembles, in the Birmingham Jail, where Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous letter. Many years later he received a pardon, which allowed him to get better jobs. 

One night last week we had the privilege of seeing Mr. Avery again, along with his daughter, Dr. Dina Avery, thanks to a Zoom meeting organized by Mark Swiggum, and once again I was moved by his grace, his hope in the future, his openness, his spirit. He used the word "wisdom," frequently, and there is no doubt in my mind that he is a man of wisdom. He not only speaks from direct and painful experience about what it means to be black in this country, but he speaks from his heart, asking each of us to dig deep and listen to and act from our hearts. What an honor it was to be in his presence again. 

A few days before this Zoom meeting a writer friend mentioned the concept of a "racial autobiography." http://whitesforracialequity.org/1-awareness-activity-reflection-questions/ The idea is to explore both your earliest and most recent events and conversations about race, race relations and/or racism that may have impacted your current perspectives and/or experience." 

As I read through the suggested questions, it occurred to me that Charles Avery and all those who were jailed with him would have no trouble remembering their first encounters with racism. From what I have heard in recent weeks and from other reading and listening I have done, most, if not all, African-Americans would have painful and scary memories from early in their lives about how they were mistreated because of the color of their skin.

I have to dig deep to recall how I first learned about racial disparities in this country, and I certainly have no memory of being mistreated because I am white. Quite the opposite. 

These are some of the questions suggested for my racial autobiography as a white person.
        *  When was the first time you realized you were white?
        *  When was the first time you realized you might be treated differently because you have white skin?
        *  When was the first time you realized people of other racial identity groups are treated differently?
        *  What were the messages you heard growing up about white people? African Americans? Latinos? Native Americans? Asian Americans? Pacific Islanders?
        *  Look at your friends, family, colleagues, key professionals or service people (doctor, dentist, lawyer, counselor, handy person, etc.) --what are their racial identities? How and why did you choose to know or work with these people? To which racial groups do the people you socialize with regularly belong? 

As I continue to learn about the history of racism in this country--past and present--I must learn about my own racism--where and how I learned and absorbed what I did. 

My father, who died recently at age 96, put together big notebooks of memories and details about his life, but there is nothing in there about being white, about his awareness of racism in his world. I wonder how many of us who are white and in our 3rd Chapter years thinking about how to share our past, our wisdom, with our children and grandchildren, will address these questions.

Perhaps we should. 

One more Charles Avery story: His father tried to register to vote several times, and would be so discouraged when, in order to register, he was asked questions like "How many jellybeans are in the jar?" 

Don't neglect to vote.

An Invitation
What key stories need to be included in your racial autobiography? I would love to know.  

You can read more about Charles Avery here
Also, I wrote about the Civil Rights Tour in the following posts: November 13, 15, and 20, 2018

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sabbath on the Patio

Welcome to our patio! 
The patio is where we entertain these days. Perhaps I should say the patio is where we gather for a physically-distanced time with one or two people. 

To entertain doesn't have the same meaning as it once did. Since we now only entertain outside, cleaning the house is no longer required. My husband and I are the only people who cross our threshold. I don't set the dining room table or plan and fix a homemade meal, for in these COVID-19 days, friends bring their own beverages and snacks. As someone who considers hometending a spiritual practice, I enjoy the preparations that comprise entertaining, but right now what is most important is being with friends and family and doing that in a safe way. 

So welcome to the patio, and yes, isn't the garden lovely? How fortunate we are to have this space. 

Discussions are lively. 

How are you and how are you managing this time, these challenges? 

Along with guessing about how long this will last and what the repercussions will be, we share what we are learning about ourselves; what has been most surprising or challenging or even easier than anticipated? Has this been a time to unveil new purpose or to let go of old baggage? What has lightened your spirits and what worries you the most?

We all seem to be eager to process and to hear how others are coping, along with thoughts about what is happening in our city, our country. 

What are you doing to understand, to become more aware? What actions are you taking? 

The current norm of shelter-in-place with its limited interactions and activities is replaced for a brief moment with connection, and these small, intimate face-to-face gatherings feel like a new version of Sabbath time. Sabbath is a time-out from what is routine, a time set aside for rest and reflection, and that's what seems to happen on our patio as we share our lives with good friends.

I recently finished reading a book about Sabbath called Soul Tending, A Journey into the Heart of Sabbath by Anita Amstutz, and in it she says Sabbath is "More than a rote ceasing of activity, it is also about being in a receptive mode for an infusion of God." (p. 117) 

That happens on the patio, and I suspect the fruits of patio time, of this kind of Sabbath are more than the pleasure of being with good friends.
My hope is that we integrate these Sabbath moments into a greater understanding of who we were created to be and how to live that in the world today. 

            Thus the first act of service is to bring love and
            healing to ourselves, gently and mercifully
            healing our own suffering and dysfunction. 
            Then we will bring less anger, confusion, and 
            pain into the world. We will have more space 
            inside us to face the others' suffering with 
            understanding, compassion, and mercy. We 
            become peace bearers and peacemakers. 
            Sabbath can offer us this sacred space for 
            our own healing, so we can return to the world 
            ready for our true work of repairing the broken 
            places. We experience and cultivate compassion 
            by spending time in the great and loving heart 
            of God. (p. 118)

Welcome to the sacred Sabbath space on the patio.

An Invitation
What kinds of Sabbath are you discovering and what are the fruits? I would love to know. 

NOTE: On Sunday, June 21, a piece I wrote several months ago was featured in the Monk of the World section of the Abbey of the Arts website. You can read it here.


Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Sorting: An Act of Discernment

I declined an invitation, a request to lead a book discussion. 

A few months ago I had accepted that same invitation, but then COVID 19 cancellations and lockdowns occurred, and the plan was set aside. Around the same time my family began the vigil with my father, culminating with his death early in May. Since then a good share of my time and energy has been related to "Dad Details." None of them daunting in and of themselves, but requiring time and energy and each wrapped in a delicate awareness of loss.

And part of that awareness is that in our family there is now no one between me and death. My brother announced days after Dad died, "You are the matriarch of the family." I am the oldest in our family now, even a few months older than my husband, and even though death doesn't necessarily follow birth order, I feel the weight of my years even more. I dared to say to myself, "You are the next in line to die."

I learned through reading an excellent book,  The Orphaned Adult, Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents by Alexander Levy, that my feelings about being "next" is not uncommon. 

What does this have to do with declining the invitation to facilitate a book discussion now that a new date has been set and now that we have all become used to ZOOM meetings? 

I feel an urgent need for discernment. What is it I most need to do right now? How do I live with purpose and authenticity right now? What will I regret not doing when I come to the end of my days? 

At the same time how do I respond to the extraordinary challenges of these times? How can I use my gifts to make a difference in even a small way? 

These questions require a process of sorting: writing in my journal, sitting in the quiet, praying, meditating, and sharing my thoughts and questions with loved ones. 

And, also, literal sorting. Going through the piles on my desk and other surfaces in my office. What can be tossed? What has been hidden that needs to be resurrected? What no longer has relevance or holds interest? What needs to be addressed NOW and what can be set aside? What makes my heart flutter?

I now have lovely boxes, neatly labeled and stacked near my desk, but the sorting process is still a work in progress. What is my inner voice whispering to me? How does what has been shuffled into boxes relate to what feels more like purpose, like call?

These are big questions, but the thing is, I am no longer 30 or 40  or even 60. I am 72, and I feel a need to be even more mindful of how I use my days, how I live my life.

While I will still be open to opportunities, to ways I can serve that are presented to me, and I still intend to honor my ongoing commitments, I need to return to some unfinished work--the memoir that has been in progress for a very long time. Plus, I have a new idea for a book of meditations about vigil times, and it feels important to pursue that. 

My heart is tugging me in those directions. I hear an internal refrain, "write, write, write  

I need to carve out more time to do that, and one practical way is to limit my blog posts. Although I love writing these posts, imagining you reading them and perhaps, thinking about the questions I pose, I have decided from now on I will post every Tuesday, but most weeks not on Thursdays. 

And I will continue to sort.

An Invitation
What is rising to the top of your life pile? I would love to know. 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Encountering Magic

Sometimes walking is an exercise in magic.

I always expect to be surprised when I take a walk, but usually the surprise is seeing a cat perched in a windowsill or someone painting their front door a bright yellow. At the beginning of spring I delighted in all the sidewalk chalk art, and now I notice the gardens, dressed up in new and brightly-colored clothes. 

I always check the Little Free Libraries I pass and am thrilled when I find a book I want to read, like I did recently when I found two Anne Tyler novels I have not yet read. 

One day this week, I saw something I had not seen before.

An arch across the sidewalk. Not a garden arbor like the entrance to my Paris garden, but a big pinkish red blown-up rubber arch, like a half of a gigantic inner tube. A massive beach toy with a unicorn's horn on the top.  

I suppose this was a decoration for a birthday or graduation party, but maybe somebody decided all passersby needed a smile.

Or, I wondered, was this a gateway to a magic kingdom?

If I stood underneath the red glow would fairy dust sprinkle on me? Should I stand there and make a wish or two or three? Would life be different, better once I walked underneath that curve and emerged on the other side? Was this a threshold to dreams of all encompassing love and justice? Was I pilgrim at an unknown portal? 

I had to bow my head in order to pass through, a humbling and reverent pose, and in just one step I was on the other side. No, the sun didn't seem any brighter nor was the sidewalk paved in gold, but somehow I felt lighter, as I continued my walk.

Normally, I take a different return route, but that morning I retraced my steps, like returning from the center of a labyrinth. As I approached the arch once again, I took a deep breath and gave thanks for the magic of unexpected passageways. 

The magic comes in the steps we take once we come to the other side. 

Once home I went up to my garret office and sat in my Girlfriend Chair for morning devotions. I opened to the "Morning Prayer" in a book of prayers by Padraig O Tuoma.
               We begin our day alone,
               honoring this life, with all its potentials and possibilities

               We begin our day with trust,
               knowing we are created for loving encounter...

               We make room for the unexpected,
               May we find wisdom and life
               in the unexpected...

               We resolve to live life in its fullness:...
               We will greet God in ordinary and hidden moments.
               We will live the life we are living. 

May we greet the magic of each day. 

An Invitation
Where do you find magic? I would love to know.

NOTE: The "Morning Prayer" is found in Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community by Padraig O Tuama. http://www.padraigotuama.com


Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Minnesota Nice?

Engraving on wall at the National Lynching Museum, Montgomery, Alabama

When my husband and I returned in 1974 to Minnesota, our home state, from St Louis where Bruce had gone to medical school, and I had taught high school English in an inner ring suburb, we couldn't figure out what was wrong. Something was missing. 

Soon we realized what was missing were Black people. We had become used to living and working in a much more integrated environment, and returning to Minnesota, we were struck by how white our state was. 

And remains.

But, I admit, with time I stopped thinking about that fact. I acclimated easily to the culture in which I had been raised--that of white privilege. 

I shudder now to remember that one of the classes I was assigned to teach at Webster Groves High School was called "The Outnumbered." I vaguely remember a series of paperback textbooks with stories and poetry and essays by minority writers. I don't think I had studied or been introduced to any of those writers in any of my college courses, but maybe there had been a Langston Hughes poem thrown in there now and then. And I certainly remember hearing Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech, but my awareness of anything beyond white male literature was severely limited. 

Many of my students were African American kids whose families had been able to move out of inner city St Louis into a suburb, where they hoped to find better schools and better living conditions. Now I wonder what business did I, a white woman educated at a small liberal arts college with a Scandinavian background, have teaching content so foreign to what I knew about life. I hope I was sensitive. I hope I was open. I hope I listened. I hope I learned as much, if not more, than my students. 

In recent years, all these decades later, I have despaired at the statistics about life for African Americans in Minnesota--the disparities in income, employment, education, health, and housing ETC. ETC, and yet Minnesota always scores high in church attendance, as well as  philanthropic giving. I have wondered, "What is our problem?" Aren't Minnesotans nice people? Do we not deserve our reputation as a progressive state?

The last few days I have seen many different lists of resources to read or watch. Several titles on the lists are books I bought before or after the Civil Rights Tour we went on the fall of 2018. I read some during that time, but it is time to return to that shelf. One of the books recommended, especially for Minnesotans, is A Good Time for the Truth, edited by Sun Yung Shin and published in 2016. 

I had read some of the essays already, but decided to begin again, reading with the eyes of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd.
I started with an essay by David Mura "A Surrealist History of One Asian American In Minnesota," in which he includes several explanations for why racial disparities in Minnesota are so great. 
             * The white people here are very white. To be white
             in Minnesota is different from being white in the South.
             A Southerner, whether a racist or not, knows that black
             people have lived in the South as long as white people;
             their history is intertwined...The issues of race don't 
             exist in Lake Wobegon, and that's the way white
             Minnesotans want to think of their state.
             * The white people here don't like controversy or
             conflict. They like insisting that things are just fine...
             So many white people here subscribe to the following
             tautological wheel: The only time we encounter racial
             tensions is when the subject of race comes up. So the way
             to keep away tensions is to not talk about race. If no one
             is talking about race, then that must mean racism no 
             longer exists.
             * The white people here like to think of themselves as
             nice people. ...The southern white author understands 
             that evil exists and evil has existed in their world. They 
             understand not only that white Southerners are capable 
             of being not nice but that they have been capable of
             great cruelties. But the Duluth lynching? That's an
             anomaly here. It's not really reflective of who Minnesota
             was, much less does it have any connection to what
             Minnesota is... pp. 53-54.


I remember when dinner table conversation turned political or even if anyone disagreed on a given topic, my mother would say, "Now we are just going to have happy talk." 

Apparently, that's Minnesota. 

We have a lot to overcome, and I hope we will help each other do that. 

An Invitation
What beliefs about yourself get in the way of creating positive social change? I would love to know. 

NOTE: I also recommend a more recent book by David Mura, A Stranger's Journey, Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing. 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Sustainability --And Books

What comforts you? 

Actually, that is not the question I want to ask. I don't know that we should be comforted right now. This is a time of necessary discomfort, requiring real transformation, but that is another topic.

Instead, what I want to know is what sustains you? 

Along with morning meditation, Sunday morning worship, walks in the neighborhood, and connection with loving family and friends, what so often sustains me is the companionship of a good book. 

These last few days Jayber CrowThe Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William Membership as Written By Himself, a novel by Wendell Berry, has been my companion. I have read a few pages while having lunch in my "Paris" garden and then returned to it, after leaving my desk and before fixing dinner. 

In the evening I moved into the snug where the windows were open, and I could hear the unmistakable drone of helicopters overhead and the blaring sirens on their way to who knows what. Sometimes I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, hoping, hoping, hoping, praying, praying, praying. But then I returned to the page, often re-reading a sentence or two or even a paragraph, but reading, reading, reading.

And then in the middle of the night after sleeping a few hours, when I woke up and knew that sleep was not likely to return immediately, I moved into the living room, Jayber Crow in my hands. Iwas struck by and yes, relieved by the silence. No sirens. No helicopters. I sat in the glow of one lamplight and read until I knew I could sleep again. 

I have read a number of books in the last month, but this one was more than a good read, a few hours of enjoyable entertainment or escape. Instead, this book in its exploration of love and community, spoke to my soul. Jayber says at one point, " I felt the presence of memories I could not remember," and that's how this book made me feel in both its specificity and at the same time its universality. 

           Maybe you don't have to love your enemies. 
           Maybe you just have to act like you do. And maybe
           you have to start early. p. 142

I walked the streets and roamed the countryside with Jayber and sat in his barbershop where he and his customers and friends commented on their world. I lived with Jayber and explored his life with him, and I hope I learned from him. I could easily wonder why it has taken me so long to read this book, but the timing is clear to me. I needed Jayber (and Berry's) spiritual companionship right now.

I needed this sustenance, and I feel sustained. 

I can't end today's post without mentioning one other source of sustenance in my life. Our backyard, faithfully sustained by the resident gardener. Glorious. 

An Invitation
What sustains you? I would love to know. 

More Favorite May Books
1.  The Likeness by Tana French. More than a mystery, but a psychological study.
2.   Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. Not quite believable story, but that added to its charm.
3.   The Weight of Ink Rachel Kadish.  Back and forth in time story about a woman who becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi in London in the 1600's and then the discovery of those documents in current times. Winner of the National Jewish Book Awards. Loved it.
4.   Good Grief, Healing Through the Shadow of Loss by Deborah Morris Coryell. I read this after my mother died in 2003 and it was helpful then, but now after my father's death, I gained even more from her insights and wisdom. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

What Can I Do? What Can You Do?

Let's get right to it.

I heard Robin Diangelo, who is an antiracist educator, on the radio yesterday morning, and she was frustrated with the question she hears so often from white people, "What can I do?"

I am quite sure I have asked that question myself. 

Her answer: If you don't know what to do, look it up. Find out. Google it, for heavens sake. 

There are ideas, suggestions, opportunities, answers everywhere. Your faith community. Your neighborhood association. Your elected officials. Non-profits already engaged in working to improve the lives of the poor, black and brown people. 

Here's one list more than one friend emailed me, and I have seen it, also, on Facebook. 


One of the items on this list is to read Diangelo's book, White Fragility, Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Read this book. If you have already read it, read it again.

She writes, 
         When white people ask me what to do about racism and 
          white fragility, the first thing I ask is, "What has enabled
          you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not
          know what to do about racism?' It is a sincere question.
          How have we managed not to know, when the information
          is all around us? When people of color have been telling
          us for years?...

          'Take the initiative and find out on your own.' To break
          with the conditioning of whiteness--the conditioning
          that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us
          from developing the skills we need to interrupt it--white
          people need to find out for themselves what they can do...
          Break with the apathy of whiteness, and demonstrate 
          that you care enough to put in the effort...

          So consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for
          people of color), and do your homework.  pp. 144-145

We are not helpless. There are things we can do and do now. And we must. 

An Invitation
What are you doing? I would love to know.