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

Heart Candle Flame DSC01573

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

 

Rainbow Visit

Rainbow in Cushing

Margy and I have been visiting with friends in a cabin on the water in Cushing, Maine. This was the view from the cabin the other day, as a rain shower passed through, quickly followed by bands of sunshine, creating a magnificent full rainbow.  It has also been a “rainbow” visit because we are lesbians of a certain age just hanging out and talking and laughing and sometimes bemoaning the state of the country.  While I would never want to lose the wealth that comes from loving friends of all ages and experiences, I have also been appreciating this time filled with the familiarity of shared life experiences.  It is a sense of being understood and understanding, that we “get” each other, from our coming out stories to the advertising jingles that got stuck in our brains long ago.

What is the role of identity in our social justice struggles?  Maybe too big a question to ponder while on this mini-vacation.  But we got talking about the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which was so empowering and life changing for so many women–including me–but has more recently been the subject of attacks from those who claim it excluded and oppressed Trans women.  And then I also happened to read an article posted yesterday by a friend on Facebook that raised this challenge:

Identity politics have made organizing in social movements almost impossible, as division and suspicion are increasingly encouraged and groups splinter as a result.

That article linked to another, by Lauren Oates, “How Identity Politics is Destroying the Left and Being Used By the ‘Alt-Right.”  I liked some of her points, but I couldn’t rest easy with her concluding question, which seemed to me to misunderstand our struggle to end racism:

It’s about whether you want the world to be perpetually hyper in tune to race — the position identity politics advocates — or whether you want the world to eventually be blind to race.

I don’t think the goal of ending racism is to eventually “be blind to race.”  However, she linked to another article from last year that offered a more nuanced and compelling analysis, Safety Pins and Swastikas by Shuja Haider.  I was particularly drawn in by his critique of the idea of cultural appropriation, since I have been deeply involved in raising that issue in regards to non-Native people’s use of Indigenous spiritual practices.  (In 1995, I first published the essay, Wanting to Be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft.)

He talks about how the Right has mocked it, “Among the many silly ideas of young leftists who want to appear good without the hassle of doing good, ‘cultural appropriation’ stands alone,” quoting the National Review.  But then, of more import, he points out that “the rhetoric of mainstream antiracism is itself susceptible to appropriation by the Right.”

The eligibility of people to make certain kinds of claims is dependent on the set of criteria that fall into the category of “identity.” Your right to political agency is determined by your description.  We’re left with a simple rubric for determining the truth-value of a statement. Who said it, what group do they belong to, and what are members of that group entitled to say?

…It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.

I am pulling these quotes a bit out of context, and I encourage anyone concerned with the struggle for justice to check out the full articles.  I would be interested in your thoughts in response to them.  I am genuinely curious about the role of identity in liberation struggles–it has been a compelling question throughout my years as an activist.  Hierarchy, power, liberation, alliance…How do we acknowledge our location? How do we come together with those whose struggles are different from our own?

Forgive me for this meandering thought journey, in which I haven’t fully unpacked anything. But before I conclude for now, I want to come back to one of the most hopeful examples of people working together, both acknowledging and moving beyond “identities,” to face the crisis of our country, the moral fusion movement started in North Carolina by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II.

Rev. Barber laid the groundwork for a state-by-state movement that unites black, white, and brown, rich and poor, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, religious and secular. Only such a diverse fusion movement, Rev. Barber argues, can heal our nation’s wounds and produce public policy that is morally defensible, constitutionally consistent, and economically sane.

This quote is from the description of Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction:  How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.  You can find out more about this movement at Repairers of the Breach.  Oh, let’s not forget that a rainbow is a sign of hope!

Small Bird Press

Version 2

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Small Bird Press is the name for my self-publishing adventure. I  considered several other names, but when Small Bird Press came into my mind while I was on a walk, I realized it expressed so much about the purpose of publishing my book.

First of all, small birds were among my most important teachers for the spiritual journey I describe in Finding Our Way Home. The small chickadee I held in my hands after he was stunned by flying into our window. The cardinals who kept calling me outside at dawn. Small Bird Press is a way to honor those teachers.

Secondly, I had submitted my book to several publishers, but was rejected.  Most of the time, they didn’t really say why, but one publisher was kind enough to say that though my writing was good, they couldn’t take on the book because I wasn’t well-known enough and didn’t have a catchy hook, so it would be difficult to market my book. I understand this is often the way of publishing right now. So I too am a “small bird.”

But I believe that even a small bird–a person who is unknown, or only locally-known– even a small bird can change the world. When we have a vision of how the world might be, when we seek to articulate that vision and live that vision, it can ripple out in untraceable ways to shift reality. I want to be that kind of small bird, to bring about changes for whoever might listen, to shift reality toward earth community, toward human beings living in mutually beneficial relationship with all other beings of earth.

So I am delighted to be publishing as Small Bird Press. And if the message is going to ripple out, it will be because those in my small circles who share my vision are willing to share the book with others in their own circles. Find out more about the book here: Finding Our Way Home: A Spiritual Journey into Earth Community.

And thank you, Margy Dowzer, for capturing my moment with a chickadee in your photo.

One Man Can Do So Much Harm

Yesterday, the governor of Maine vetoed the compromise solar energy bill that the legislature worked so hard to pass.  I feel so angry.  This one man is destroying thousands of potential new solar installations, all the jobs that go with it, and ultimately, adding to thousands of tons of carbon emissions because of his attack on renewable energy. I read today that even the utility companies supported this compromise bill. It certainly wasn’t a great bill.  A great bill would have added incentives and support for increasing our shift to renewable energy.  But it did provide a modest way forward.

But one man can veto it all.  It makes my blood boil.

Tomorrow there is a rally at the state house, and I know that many people are writing to their legislators to attempt to gain nine more votes from Republicans who previously have voted against the bill.  My state rep and state senator were both in favor, and I wrote to thank them. And I am writing this post, because sometimes we just have to rail against the powers of destruction and hope that the fire in our voices will turn the wind.

Signing the contract for our own solar panels has made this political side of the struggle very personal to me.  I was just realizing today that it has been almost nine months since we began this journey, our search for greener housing. The length of a human pregnancy: and it has felt like being pregnant.  The sheer magnitude of doing it all required a focus and energy that limited the other work I could do for the transformation of our society toward earth community. But now we are here, and the solar panels are about to be installed, and the baby is almost born, and I feel like a mama bear about it. I know that solar panels are not the be-all and end-all of the work we must do.  But they have become a sign and symbol of it for me.

I have to remember the vows I took when I gathered with other earth lovers at the Work that Reconnects with Joanna Macy last summer.  They give me strength on days like today.

  • I vow to myself and to each of you:
  • To commit myself daily to the healing of our world and the welfare of all beings.
  • To live on Earth more lightly and less violently in the food, products, and energy I consume.
  • To draw strength and guidance from the living Earth, the ancestors, the future beings, and my siblings of all species.
  • To support others in their work for the world and to ask for help when I feel the need.
  • To pursue a daily practice that clarifies my mind, strengthens my heart, and supports me in observing these vows.

I have to remember that we will not complete the work, but neither can we abandon it.  This is the next part of this spiritual journey. Whatever the outcome, to be fierce like a mama bear about this earth we love.  To be connected to the real Mama Bear, the Earth herself.  We are part of a larger Life, larger than one destructive man, larger than the destructive forces that threaten everything we hold dear.  I have to remember to lift up my voice and my arms in life and hope with all the green living things who are waking up in this season of new life.

Lifting branches

 

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.

 

Why find greener housing, anyway?

Oil furnace DSC01553We have to wean ourselves away from our dependence on fossil fuels. Think about petroleum. The industrial economy treats oil as a resource free for the taking, with a price based only on the cost of extraction and delivery. It shaped a world which became completely dependent on cheap oil. But we have passed the time when oil can be easily extracted, and now riskier and dirtier methods are required. Deep sea drilling like that which caused the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands mining in Alberta Canada that destroys the forest, and devastates the health of the people and animals of the region. Arctic Sea drilling. Burning oil for fuel will increase greenhouse gasses and bring our climate closer to disastrous changes.

I know we have to stop burning oil. But when I look at my own life I see how big a challenge that will be. Our home is heated by oil. I drive a car than runs on gasoline made from oil, to buy food and other needed items, and also to go back and forth to the congregation I serve. It would take several hours to walk to these destinations from my house, and there is no public transportation nearby. The whole structure of suburban life is dependent upon oil. My congregation is a suburban congregation, and almost every person who comes to worship drives there in an automobile. Without oil, it is likely the church, and my house, would not have been built in these locations. The whole geographic structure of our society has been shaped by oil.

And not only that—many material goods in our lives are also fabricated from oil. Plastics are made from petroleum, and there is plastic in every room in our houses. I write on a computer with plastic components. Alarm clocks, toothbrushes, synthetic fabrics, telephones, televisions—all from oil. Modern agriculture is dependent on fertilizer made from oil, and machines that use oil, and a transportation system that uses oil. The asphalt on our roads is made from oil. If oil disappeared tomorrow, the whole system would collapse. And eventually, oil will run out. That is one of the realities we are learning in our time.

None of us have the ability to undo our dependence on oil individually. It is too entrenched, too societally enmeshed. But we can begin to imagine some partial solutions—in fact, the technology to live without oil already exists. I was inspired when I learned about “zero-carbon” houses that actually generate more energy than they use. We may not be able to fully achieve such a goal, but why not try to get closer to that ideal?

I know that even if we succeed beyond our wildest dream—even if we create a zero-carbon home from which we could walk to most functions of our lives, even if we could afford an electric vehicle that we charge from solar panels for other transportation—oil companies will still be breaking open the earth in Alberta, and spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The children living near refineries will still be getting asthma. The ice of the arctic will still be melting, and thousands of species will go extinct each year. We need not only individual change, but a social will to transform our relationship to the earth. But I believe that each change we pursue as individuals also works its magic on that larger transformative process in ways that we can’t fully understand. And so we take the one step we are able to take.

In the Talmud it says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Meandering Toward Wholeness

If I can remember to be thankful about water, then I have the capacity to take action on its behalf as well. There are many people mobilizing on behalf of clean water. Thankfulness can be the beginning of restoring our relationship with water. And then the water itself will guide us into the next steps on the journey.

Stream DSC02225The path forward is never a straight line. I find hope in that. A river or stream meanders on its way to the sea. Starhawk explains that because of the friction of the river bed, the water on the bottom of the river moves more slowly than the water on the top. So it creates a spiraling current that wears down one bank and deposits sediment on the other, and then vice versa, as it move around and around in sweeping curves.1 Just so, our journey into a new relationship with all life on earth will meander—I imagine in this case, there is more movement at the bottom of our culture, while the top is going much slower. But since we are all connected, movement in any segment has a ripple effect on the whole.

For me, hope also comes with the choice to keeping taking steps, even small steps, in the direction of living in balance with the rest of our interdependent web. To keep meandering in the direction of wholeness. To keep learning from our elder siblings on this planet—learning from the plants, and animals, the soil and the seasons.

 

Photo by Margy Dowzer

Photo by Margy Dowzer

One summer, Margy and I purchased two rain barrels, as one step toward more conscious participation in the great cycle of water. We are collecting the rain-water that runs off our garage roof, for use in watering the blueberry bushes I planted in our front yard. We are learning about how high off the ground the barrels need to be, in order for gravity to pull the water all the way to the plants. We are learning that water in a rain barrel heats up rather quickly in the hot summer sun. We are learning how quickly a rainstorm can fill two fifty gallon barrels.

It is a very small step, especially here in our comparatively water abundant climate in Maine. No matter. Some people are taking bigger steps, and that gives me hope too. For example, some people are designing gray water systems that take the water from washing and showering and use it for the garden. Others are restoring rivers and lakes that once were declared dead.

All the earth is one earth. All the water is one water. We all belong to this great cycle of life. Each creative step forward will ripple out into a spiral momentum toward greater balance. I feel hopeful that so many human beings are embracing these deep truths and changing the way we imagine our futures.

Practicing the Power of Love

Sometimes we learn best by seeing someone else—to watch someone practice love in the face of hostility can create a light in us as we observe it. Once, when I was in my twenties, I saw a young woman named Nelia arrested in an act of civil disobedience. She refused to walk, refused to give answers to questions on any forms, refused to cooperate with the police who were arresting her. But she radiated such kindness and love to each person who interacted with her. She smiled, and reached out her hand to shake theirs, and told them her name, and asked about theirs. She spoke of why nuclear submarines were not useful for human beings, and invited conversation.

I don’t think I had ever been able to imagine this combination of non-cooperation and love, until I saw her doing it. Yet once I saw it, it seemed so simple. She was practicing the power of love, and it discomfited and engaged all of us around her. Her tenderness was compelling. Her vulnerability was profound, because the other thing about Nelia was that she is blind.

Make no mistake—it wasn’t about being nice to everyone or pretending not to notice the painful realities that cause suffering in our world. Nelia was practicing her simple acts of tender engagement right on the front lines of the conflicts that seem so hard to confront. She showed me what courageous, creative people can do in the face of violence, what the power of love can do.

Marianne Williamson, in A Return to Love, asserts that whenever we encounter another person, we always have the choice to see them through the lens of fear, or through the lens of love.1 Our lives are meant to be a school for learning to let go of our fear, and to choose more and more the power of love. This is not an easy thing to do. It may take a whole lifetime to let go of fear, to learn how to live in the power of love.

And perhaps there is not such a big difference between loving our enemy and loving our neighbor. Each demands the same respect for self, and respect for the other. Each requires seeing the utmost dignity in our selves and in the other.

Clergy Testify in Favor of Equal Marriage 2009

Clergy Testify in Favor of Equal Marriage 2009

Loving Nonviolent Action Is Always a Force for Human Dignity

When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.  

Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.

But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the  lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.

Wedding of Linda & Gloria Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

Wedding of Linda & Gloria
Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.

I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.

King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.