Unimaginable

Margy and I finally had a chance to see the movie version of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical Hamilton.  We loved it. I have seen many reviews and commentary on the musical, and I love its capacity to get us thinking and talking about so many issues–I love its lyrical, historical, and political density.  Some commentary is highly critical of the musical, but I love what African-American historian Annette Gordon-Reed has said about how we can love art, and also enter a critical engagement with it.

(First indulge me in one ironic moment about how certain Broadway musicals have so much to say to audiences that can’t afford to go to Broadway. It reminded me of seeing Les Miserables many years ago in a theatre in Boston–my lover’s middle-class parents had given us tickets–and how weird it was to see this revolutionary drama about poor people, side by side with folks who were wearing their furs and jewelry. So Broadway, and most mainstream theater, has never been very accessible to my class location. But I am glad that this one was finally made into a movie.)

Some critics have chided Miranda for making the “founding fathers” more heroic than they were in actuality, and keeping the historical narrative focused on the white elites, despite his casting people of color as these historic figures.  I found myself having a different response. I was thinking about the musical as it speaks to our time, to the situation of black and brown people in 21st century America. The way I experienced it, in the casting of people of color, the revolutionary heroism which has often been attributed to the “founding fathers” is being visually and transgressively applied to black and brown activists of today, illuminating their struggle and their heroism.

I see it in the lyrics (and music) from the song, My Shot:

Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot…

Come on, let’s go
Rise up
When you’re living on your knees, you rise up

And then the parallels to our own times cut me to my core in one particularly poignant song–It’s Quiet Uptown. We see the Hamiltons grieving the death of their first born son Phillip (who was shot in a duel). And because the characters are people of color, I can’t help but envision the pain of the parents of so many black and brown children killed by police brutality today.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable
The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

The Hamiltons move uptown
And learn to live with the unimaginable

The pain is unimaginable, but Hamilton helps us to imagine it. And isn’t that the amazing power of art–to open our hearts and souls to the pain and joy of our different but shared existences?

Of course the musical isn’t everything to everyone–but as an activist who cares about social change, I found it emotionally inspiring and intellectually engaging. Oh, one last thought–if you are like us, and don’t already know all the lyrics to all the songs, it helps to turn on subtitles so you don’t miss a word.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Phillipa Soo as Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Disney+)

 

Bearing Witness

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As most people know by now, on May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite him begging for help, and saying “I can’t breathe.”  It was one more brutal death in a seemingly never-ending series of deaths inflicted on African-American men and women by police brutality enforcing systemic racism and white supremacy in the United States.

Because of the courageous video taken by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, people all over the world actually witnessed the horror of this murder. Thousands of people, in every state, and all around the world have taken to the streets to protest, day after day, night after night, to demand a change. The four officers involved at the scene have been fired from the force and charged with his murder, or the aiding and abetting of his murder. A first step.

It has been difficult for me to write during this. I asked myself–was there anything I could add to the condemnations of white supremacy that have already been said by so many others? And as a white woman–should I be speaking at all? This is a time to center the voices of people of color. But also, how can any of us remain silent? On a very personal level, initially I also felt very discouraged. I have been an activist for my entire adult life. I am not taking credit for anything, this has been my calling in the world. But these days, I have wondered, did anything change? How could we have struggled so long with so little progress?

Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote a song, released in 1988, about activist Ella Baker, using her words to express deep truths about the long journey of activism for racial justice. These excerpts especially move me:

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes…

Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons/ Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.

To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ and if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale.

The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young who dare to run against the storm.

These days, the irony of Baker’s words–we cannot rest–is not lost on me as I deal with a chronic illness that demands that I rest every day, that robs me of my capacity to show up to protest in the streets, or do very much of any other kind of activism. But her words also helped me to articulate one thing I could do. On Wednesday, I lit a red candle at 4 p.m., as a protest at Portland (Maine) City Hall was beginning, led by young activists of color. I offered my prayers and watched a live video feed for the two hour protest, and bore witness to the young people with such courage who dare to run against the storm. Maybe today, all I can do is bear witness in support of these young people, and in that way, “to be one in the number, as we stand against tyranny.”

As the protests began to multiply, in big cities and small towns, in countries all around the world, I felt a glimmer of hope. Sometimes, something breaks open.  Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, reminds us that the future is unknowable – and that’s a good thing. Why? Because it creates space for creative intervention. The lessons of history teach us that change happens in unexpected ways, and often in seemingly sudden, non-linear ways.

May the words of George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter Gigi prove to be prophetic:  “My daddy changed the world.” #blacklivesmatter

 

Awake in the Night

I wake in the night with pain in my heart for all that is happening in our country, and I feel utterly powerless.  How can we respond to a reign of terror?  How can we respond to cruelty after cruelty promulgated by people in power? Money grabs, land grabs, malevolent neglect, direct abuse, more power grabs.  I have been an activist most of my life, and I believed and hoped that activism might help to change the world for the better.  In some ways, it really has.  But the dream–of a whole society that was rooted in cooperation and mutuality, in care for all of its people–that dream feels lost in a nightmare of empire re-emerging like some multi-headed dragon from the flames of disaster.

In my feelings of powerless, an old friend comes to me.  Jesus sits with me in the dark night. He comforts me, strangely, by reminding me that in many ways I am powerless. I can’t control what “my government” is doing right now.  The idea that it is “my government” is an illusion, democracy has become an illusion, a thin veneer over oligarchy, over fascism.  But Jesus too was powerless: he and his friends had no political power.  He lived his whole life in the shadow of the Roman empire, and that empire killed him.  Yet he was able to respond, to act, to live a life.

How? He prayed, he taught, he healed the sick, he listened, he walked among the ordinary people, in the lowly places.  He recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Holy is upon me,
    that one has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
That one has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the time of blessing from the Holy.”

He didn’t concern himself very often with the emperor or king or governor–he was clear that those powers were evil. Rather, he went directly to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, those were the ones who caught the eye of the divine blessing.  And later, when he painted a picture of the end of the world, this was the measure by which all people were judged:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my relatives, you do for me.”  

There is a certain clarity in all of this. A letting go of all that I cannot control. A shift in focus to what is possible, what really matters. An appreciation for the heroes who are risking their lives to look after the sick, those who are bringing food for the hungry.  A remembrance of the One who is with us in the midst of our powerlessness. Thank you.

 

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Photo Source Unknown

Why I No Longer Support Leonard Peltier

For many years, I supported the campaign to free American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, who had been convicted, many said wrongly, of the death of two federal agents in a shoot out on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Even Amnesty International signed on to his case.  But after moving to Maine, I learned more about the murder of Annie Mae Pictou Aquash, and I began to have reservations.  I stopped my support, but didn’t really know how to speak about it.

Yesterday, via my friend Sherri Mitchell’s Facebook feed, I started to listen to a live feed of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls that was taking place in Montreal. Denise Pictou Maloney was testifying about the death of her mother Annie Mae.  I listened for an hour and a half, and then after she had completed, I went back to hear what I had missed at the beginning of the tape.

Anna_Mae_Pictou-AquashAnnie Mae was a leader in the American Indian Movement, originally from the Mi’kmaq First Nation at Indian Brook Reserve in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia.  I first learned about Annie Mae in the song by Buffy St. Marie, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, in which she sang,

My girlfriend Annie Mae talked about uranium
Her head was filled with bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hands and told us she’d died of exposure

The implication, the narrative, the story so many of us believed for many years, was that she was killed by the FBI.  But in fact, the truth later came out that she was killed by other AIM members.  In 2004 and 2010,  Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham were convicted of her kidnapping and murder.  They also implicated AIM leadership in her death, though no one was ever charged.  You can find out a lot more if you listen to the tape of Denise’s testimony, or even if you look up Annie Mae on Wikipedia.

Hearing the pain in Denise’s voice moved me to want to speak publicly this time.  It feels risky to do so, because, as a white person who tries to be an ally, a co-conspirator, with Indigenous people, I know that I will always know too little about all of this.  I do know that the FBI tried to sow dissension in the ranks of activist movements, especially those of Indigenous people and people of color.  This included planting informants within the movements, and also casting suspicion on dedicated activists to cause others to suspect that they might be informants.  This is one theory about the motive for killing Annie Mae.  Another theory claims she was challenging AIM leaders on their behavior, or that she had heard Leonard brag about killing the agents.  I don’t know the answers to that.

But I want to speak today, despite not knowing all the answers, because I have in the past spoken in support of Leonard Peltier.  Denise talked about how painful it has been for their family, every time there is more public support for Leonard.  So I want to interrupt my own participation in that process, (which most lately has been through my silence), and let my friends and colleagues know that I can no longer support Leonard Peltier’s campaign for release from prison.  And I also want to acknowledge how difficult a journey we make when we intend to be allies or co-conspirators.  We often make mistakes and get it wrong.  But that does not make it less worthwhile to try, to show up for what is right.

What I carry away with me today is sadness and anger.  Sadness and anger for the fall of heroes–the leaders we wanted to be better than they were, because the cause they fought for was so important.  Sadness and anger for the children and family and friends of Annie Mae, who have waited so long for the world to know the real story, and often feel as if their voices are not welcome because the truth interrupts the stories people want to believe.  Sadness and anger that in my ignorance as an outsider, I was drawn in to the narrative, and thus contributed to their sorrow.  Sadness and anger at the insidious complexity of colonization and oppression, and the brokenness within all of us left in its wake.

 

What We Are Here For

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“Life is the expression and fulfillment and celebration of beauty. This is what we are here for.  We’re not here to do anything else.” (Sarah Susanka in The Not So Big Life)

Perhaps this is an odd sentiment, when so much in our country is going wrong these days. Aren’t we also here for justice, for compassion, for interconnection?  But what is beauty anyway?  Is it the unexpected sighting of a wild raccoon near the brook during a morning walk?  Is it the fluid colors of the sky in the dawn?  Is it a coating of ice or snow on the branches of every tree and bush in the neighborhood?

Why do these things enliven our souls?  Perhaps beauty is the mark of an essential wholeness, a harmony we can recognize with our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our whole being.  If that is the case, then I believe beauty also includes justice, compassion, interconnection.  We recognize instinctively the wholeness within justice, within acts of kindness, the miracle of our interconnection.

Beauty has something to teach us about how to work for justice as well.  To express and celebrate beauty is to turn our attention away from the ugly hatefulness we deplore, toward acts of creating what we aspire to.  This is why I love permaculture and solar panels and work parties and gardens.  We are bringing into being the wholeness we hope for.  I am not saying that protests are not important as well.  On the contrary.

But as Rebecca Solnit promises, in her book Hope in the Dark,

…if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place… Make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit.

May you be a beacon of beauty today!

Prophecy, #5

To be a community of prophecy, to see what is happening, we must listen to the voices that are speaking the truths we cannot see ourselves. We must listen to history, we must listen to the earth, we must listen to people of color, and we must listen to the voice from within, the power in our spirits.

And then we must say what is happening, and act in accordance with what we know. I am reminded of the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

There are many ways to speak and act. I was inspired by the Hollywood actors and singers who refused to perform for the Inauguration—in this way using their influence and their silence, as a voice to send a loud message that they could not support the racism and misogyny of the new president. I was inspired by the woman who tendered her resignation from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, when they chose to participate—because she could not condone a presidency that went against all her values.

We have more power than we know. We can’t lose sight of that. It is so easy to get swept up in horror over what the leaders are doing, that we can forget to use our own power for good. African American lesbian activist Audre Lorde said, “Use what power you have to work for what you believe in.”

One kind of power is to march and protest, and it was heartening to learn that 10,000 people marched in the streets of Portland on Saturday January 21st—10,000 in our small city!  There were also more than 10,000 in Augusta, Maine. Hundreds of thousands marched in DC and many more in other cities around the world. That is a lot of marching power.

Myke in Hat

[Photo by Barbara Freeman]

Another kind of power is to knit, and I was thrilled to know that members of our congregation were knitting pussy hats for marchers. I wasn’t able to march, but they gave me a hat too.

Not everyone can march, but Michael Moore suggests that we all commit to calling our congregational representatives every day for the next 100 days. Or if that 3 minutes a day is too hard, call them on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, when congress is in session. 

Not everyone can put their bodies on the line, like those who go to Standing Rock to protect the water there. But some people have been moving their money out of banks that support the Dakota Access Pipeline, or the tar sands in Alberta, and opening accounts with local credit unions instead. We have only begun to explore how to act for justice in our time.

To be a community of prophecy is to see what is happening, to say what is happening, and to act in accordance with what we know. Not that it will be easy. We are in for some hard times ahead. As the great African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass once said,

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

This is what we are facing, dear ones. My colleague, Wayne Arnason, said “Take courage, friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear and the stakes are very high. Take courage, for deep down there is another truth: You are not alone.”

Custer’s Ghost Rides Again-Sherri Mitchell

Reposting from Sherri Mitchell Wena’gamu’gwasit:

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Sherri Mitchell

Custer’s Ghost Rides again- This time he’s riding in on the back of a big black snake. On December 5th, which is Custer’s birthday, the U.S. Army Corps is threatening to forcibly remove thousands of Native people and their allies from Sioux Treaty lands.

These lands were granted to the Sioux Tribe in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. The treaty was signed two years after Custer was sent in to kill all the Cheyenne and Dakota Sioux, so the U.S. could steal their lands. Custer failed, so the U.S. begrudgingly signed the Treaty.

Treaty law is one of the supreme laws of the land, second only to constitutional law. Treaties are signed agreements made by two or more parties. Legally, signed agreements cannot be changed without the written consent of all parties. Unfortunately, the U.S. has never been very keen on following their own laws, especially where Indians are concerned. In fact, the first U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding the tribes was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. In that decision, the SCOTUS used religious law, specifically the Roman Catholic Rules of Conquest under the Christian Law of Nations to justify the taking of Indian lands (see Doctrine of Discovery). So, it should be no surprise that they have summarily violated all treaties with the Indigenous nations of this land. The U.S. breached the Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1944, under the guise of the “Flood Control Act,” which was simply cover for the further taking of Indian lands for gold mining.

Now, nearly 150 years later, the U.S is back in Sioux territory with bigger weapons trying to complete Custer’s mission. And, they have chosen Custer’s birthday to make their stand. You get to watch as history repeats itself. The question is whether you will watch quietly or if you will stand up and do something about it.

On December 5th, the U.S. is going to honor their long tradition of stealing Indian lands and killing Indian people, by celebrating their most beloved Indian killer Col. George Armstrong Custer on his birthday.

They will do so by attacking Indian people on lands that the U.S. has taken illegally, using illegal amounts of force, to protect the interests of an oil company that is attempting to poison the drinking water of the Tribe. The term for this is ecological genocide, and it is being carried out through industrial and environmental terrorism at the hands of a U.S. corporation, and with the full backing of the U.S. government and police forces in violation of the U.S. Constitution and Treaty Law.

This is not only a stand for Standing Rock, it is a stand for life, and it is a stand for the Constitution and rule of law in this country.

If you are able, please go to Standing Rock and stand with the people. If you can’t go, then call ALL the numbers listed below.

Call:
Lee Hanse
Executive Vice President
Energy Transfer Partners, L.P.
800 E Sonterra Blvd #400
San Antonio, Texas 78258
Telephone: (210) 403-6455
Lee.Hanse@energytransfer.com

B. Glenn Emery
Vice President
Energy Transfer Partners, L.P.
800 E Sonterra Blvd #400
San Antonio, Texas 78258
Telephone: (210) 403-6762
Glenn.Emery@energytransfer.com

Call North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple at (701) 328-2200 to demand protections for protestors and an end to hostilities against them.

Call the White House at (202) 456-1111 or (202) 456-1414. Tell President Obama to STOP the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Call the Army Corps of Engineers and demand that they remove DAPL from their lands: (202) 761-5903

Water is Life

Water HearingToday, Margy and I took a break from unpacking at our new house, to join with over one hundred other people who packed the Maine Supreme Judicial Court hearing of oral arguments in an appeal against a 45 year contract for water extraction between Fryeburg Water Company and Nestle (for their Poland Spring bottled water brand.) You can find out more about it at https://www.facebook.com/events/905328636212245/

After the hearing, we stood outside the courthouse with signs, which is when I took this photo. Water is utterly basic to life, and should be treated as sacred, not sold to a corporation that has a horrible track record in so many endeavors around the world. I remember most recently, Nestle was continuing to extract water in California, during the worst drought in its history.  We can’t let these giants trample the common good of the earth, without raising our voices.

It was good to be with other human beings who get it.

Paper

Innu Ally Work filesIn my sorting and packing and decluttering quest, I was all set to start tossing old file folders from the basement into the recycling bin, but it is proving harder than I first expected. I haven’t looked at these papers for at least ten years (since we moved into this house). Because of my allergies, I would have to wear a mask and gloves to go through them.  So the simplest thing would be to just toss them out.  But when I start to take a peak, they are like windows into the history of my life as an activist.  Here is a whole file cabinet about ally work that I was involved in, related to the struggles of the Innu of Nitassinan in Quebec, most of it from when I lived in Boston.

Boston Political workThen there is the box I haven’t opened in over 16 years, with this evocative label: “Boston/and Peace Camp Time: Political Groups /Resources/Issues/Conferences.” I am guessing I threw stuff in there as I was packing to leave Boston, but I don’t even know what it might include.

I also have a box from over 30 years ago, simply labeled “Politics, Etc.” from the time I lived in Grand Rapids and Chicago in 1980 to 1984.  I’ve moved it so many times.  My intention to simplify is crashing into my interest in the older stories of my life.  When I look at these artifacts, I remember activities and connections and struggles that I had almost forgotten.Grand Rapids Political work

I think about moderately famous authors and activists whose collections of papers end up in libraries and archives.  But I am not famous, and who knows whether any of this would have any value for anyone besides me.  Do I really want to carry around boxes and boxes of old paper? I want to live in a small house, and keep doing activist work in the present rather than to document the activist movements of the past.  But I just recently read about how one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, saved everything.  Her papers are now available for research use in a library in California, I think.

When we give ourselves to the work of social change, we are “one in the number” (as Ella Baker said) of thousands of ordinary people lending our strength to a new vision.  Are our ordinary activist stories an important part of a history that someone may want to write in a future we cannot yet imagine? Or will that future itself be the only record of our work that is needed?

I do have some boxes of paper that I have already labeled “Archives.”  I would probably sort things differently if I had time to do it today, but when we moved to Maine, I made some filing and sorting choices about what to save and what to toss.  It is just that that sorting never gets finished, and some things came along without that kind of careful attention.  The boxes I always feel absolute clarity about saving are the boxes of my journals and writings and poetry.  During our last move, I even purchased archival quality boxes in which to store my old journals.

When I go deep inside, I know it is okay to let go of some of this paper; but perhaps it is also okay to wait, to bring along some of these old boxes, stash them in another basement or attic, and revisit them in a quieter time.  I don’t know.  What do you think?

We are planning to move in two and a half weeks.

 

New Story – New Questions

I have been reading a fascinating book, Charles Eisenstein’s The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I am only part way through, so I don’t yet know what my final experience of the book will be, but I am loving the questions he is exploring. He asks about all the underlying assumptions and unexamined perspectives we hold in a world defined by separation. We believe we are separate selves, with humans separate from nature, earth from heaven, people from each other. What might it look like to redefine our world and our beliefs according to a profound interconnection? I have been exploring that same transition in my life and in my writing, and welcome the way his questions take me deeper into a new way of being.

For example, how much are we motivated by the feeling that unless we make something happen, nothing will happen? How is this undergirded by a belief that we are tiny separate beings in a dead, uncaring universe? What if the universe is utterly alive and we are one aspect of its aliveness? Might there be an unfolding process in this living universe that we can rely on, and attune to, and participate in? Then we can pause, we can wait until we are moved in our deepest (inter) being to act. We can lose the idea of “urgency” and “force” and “guilt.”  Eisenstein suggests we might  transform our whole approach to activism.

I keep reading.

The stones of the Burren.

The stones of the Burren.