Grappling with Radical Honesty in Reactive Times

Image: The Daily Don

I’ve started this sentence six ways to Sunday. I keep watching the bird feeder instead — the elegant mourning doves, who seem to wait their turn while the littler sparrows and finch peck away, unlike the blue jay bullies who, while beautiful to look at, just barrel in and take over the joint.

The reason I’m hesitating is because I want to write about some things I’m observing as more and more people wake up to the atrocities our government is committing, and I don’t want to fall into the self-righteous, liberal white people camp that shames others rather than opens doors to real dialogue, learning, growth, and action.

Does that mean I should just keep quiet on this front? May it go without saying that I, like you, have an ocean of unconscious bias to discover. I’m doing this by reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and other white people who are also reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and each other.

When I don’t hear a political peep from religious friends, I wonder where they stand.

When friends are suddenly outraged, calling this “a new low,” I wonder where they stand..

I simply wonder.

Maybe they are active in their place of worship or community in ways they choose not to share on social media. Not everyone is public or visible in their activism.

Maybe they are working through their own trauma. Maybe maybe.

I realize lately, I am still more bound up in “niceness” than I care to admit.

I do not want to alienate people who may indeed be grappling with their privilege and not sure what steps to take.

I do not want to alienate those who I’ve come to know in writing groups or school yards, just because they aren’t publicly taking a stand against policy brutality.

I do not want to assume what I don’t know.

I know many, many good people. I say “good” meaning: Compassionate, civically engaged, hearts-in-the-right-place people. Cycles of outrage on social media, if not coupled with tangible, organized actions, achieve little more than to exhaust us. And an exhausted “us” cannot sufficiently keep going, keep fighting.

Let me bring this down to earth. Yesterday, Mani and I sat talking for a long time, about how to take care of our lives, how to direct our time and money as we can to suffering right here in our town, and at the same time not look away or check out from what’s happening in our country. If it’s true that one-third of Americans are vehemently against this government and working in some capacity to dismantle the structures and systems that have brought us to this day, one-third of Americans actively condone and support white supremacy, and one-third don’t care (which blows my mind, I might add — we talked about this part all on its own for a quite a while), then that means those of us who give a shit are in the minority.

Bottom line question here: Is there any possibility of righting this ship enough to truly change course?

We’ve been moving in this direction all along.

So that is another thing I find myself baffled and frustrated by: The number of people popping up and asking, “How?”

How is this possible?

How could this happen?

How did Trump get elected?

How can “they” get away with this?

How did it get this bad?

These are not useful questions. They are ignorant questions.

And yet, I grapple. Because I know that I am ignorant in so many ways.

And I am also not ignorant in others.

My people, my ancestors, came to this country to escape persecution, too.

Jews were denied entrance to the U.S. before the Holocaust.

My ancestors happened to arrive fifty or so years prior to WWII. They arrived at Ellis Island. They were poor. They came with trunks and the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language. They “worked their way up.” They experienced discrimination as Jews, yes, but not so much so that they weren’t ultimately able to benefit from the “American Dream.” My sisters and cousins and our children are all direct beneficiaries in some capacity or other of the fact that our white-skinned ancestors, Jewish notwithstanding, arrived on these shores.

So often right now, I read or hear, “We are a country of immigrants.”

I want to say, Yeah! Hear, hear!

But I cannot in good conscience cheer for this sentiment. It’s a noble truth and a slice of America — but it’s far, far from the whole story. And to not continuously redirect our attention at this time to the scope of harm America’s wealth and apparent stability rests on is to stand in the most dangerous blindspot of all.

We do need hope. We need hope and we need all hands on deck and we need all of us to be awake to this unfolding nightmare. And we also need to stay focused on all the ways we — those who have enjoyed relative ease, comfort, stability, and opportunity as Americans — have looked away. We have looked away from the fact that the person cleaning our hotel room cannot collect social security, because service jobs were negotiated out of that deal. We have looked away from the steady proliferation of prisons and policies disproportionately directed to devastate communities of color.

So yes, when someone is newly upset or sharing about children being ripped from their parents’ arms, parents being deported to countries where violence and poverty make life untenable, I wonder. Is it better to begin somewhere than nowhere at all? Yes, I suppose. It has to be. And at the same time, where have you been?

Of course all of this is also my way of checking myself. Where have I been?

And this is where what I fear is shrillness in my voice must soften. Where I must stop to take a breathe and step off of my soapbox. Where I must acknowledge that I don’t like being shamed. I don’t like it when people make assumptions about my values or actions.

Right.

None of us likes that.

These are incredibly reactive times.

How do we continue to organize, do the work, address 10,000 emergencies at a time, and get enough sleep, care for those under our own roofs, and weed our own literal and proverbial gardens?

Reacting, yelling ourselves hoarse, unfriending and blocking — on the one hand, probably not the most effective route. Certainly not a sustainable one. And we need sustainable, because we are in for a very, very long fight here. One that has already been happening for 400 years and shows no signs up letting up anytime soon.

On the other hand, coddling apologists, bowing to so-called civility when the word itself is such an affront, such an insult, such a hypocrisy, will also not do.

I admire people who stay steady. Whose flame seems to burn brightly. Those who neither flare nor flicker.

It could be that raising children, paying attention to the ways in which I can be of use in our own community, and continuously seeking to see past the blinding benefits of whiteness, are true forms of radical action.

It could be that owning the fact that I can be judgmental as fuck is a good start — especially because it sucks to admit it. I am judgmental about the people who do not appear to be saying or doing a damn thing about a damn thing. There, I said it.

It could be that worrying less about being nice and more about being radically honest would be a good place to hang out.

It could be that so many of us are truly struggling to stay grounded right now. That so many of us DO see the truth of our country, and this horrific moment as a completely natural evolution of a deeply unjust system.

None of this can wait. It can’t wait until November 2018 or November 2020.

And I know we all have to figure out what’s for dinner tonight, and the dog needs to go out and the bills need to get paid and little Timmy just rode a two-wheeler for the first time!

To live your life and take care of your own does not have to equal complicity.┬áit’s not a binary equation. It’s real life.

But to be merely silent in these times is to say, I choose to look away — because I can.

Don’t look away.

Look in the mirror. Look to a friend you trust. Look to a book that challenges what you were taught to believe about the Land of the Free. Look to the sky that covers us all. Just look.

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?

The Reunion, Part Two

After she read the piano reunion story on my blog, my mom pointed something out. Something that changed either everything or nothing about the emotional experience I’d had just hours earlier: We didn’t have a Steinway & Sons.

The baby grand at The Arbors had never been my piano after all, and what I perceived — and at the time wholeheartedly believed — to be a reunion with a childhood instrument was nothing of the sort. At least not in the way I had imagined.

At first, this struck me as almost desperately funny; there I had been, weeping, playing my heart out, on a keyboard it turned out I had never so much as laid hands or eyes on before.

But then, something else fluttered into me, something akin to shame. I felt sheepish, as if I’d done something wrong. Did I need to recant what I’d shared about how moving that thirty minutes had been? Was there something like a lie, a hint of fraudulence, tied up in my story, now that I had learned the truth? Other questions swam past, too: What had happened to the piano my parents had donated there? Where is it now?

Needless to say: All day, I’ve been considering perception.

I believed it to be my piano. Clearly I wanted, even needed, for this to be true. The experience of playing it had given something back to myself, of myself. In sitting down in that empty room, at what I thought was the piano that had witnessed me grow up, in doing so in the place where two of my grandparents lived their last years, time reached around its own body, performing a bind of sorts, clasping its own ends together and holding me safely inside that gentle grasp.

The tears that spilled weren’t, ultimately, about the actual piano, but for everything it had represented to me over the years, from earliest childhood to adolescence, to young adulthood and motherhood, through death and divorce and becoming and remarriage. As my hands hovered over and moved across those keys, something in me settled, as if the waters in me had quieted, revealing depths I’d always known were there.

It is said that we see what we want to see, and this may be a fact. For nearly 11 years, I was married to a man, devoted to our commitment and growing a family together. Coming out shattered that, but it didn’t make my life a sham. It took me some years to fully believe and embrace this, to let go of guilt or self-doubt, and not to punish myself for having lived an unconscious lie.

Deception is not the same as ignorance. Had I written about the piano reunion with the knowledge that came later that it wasn’t the piano of my youth, that would’ve been manipulative and dishonest.

But my experience had been authentic, untouched by any such knowledge, and this leads me to believe that the reunion stands. Maybe it was a reunion with some cherished part of my past, myself.

And in that case, my perception provided me with a potent gift, the gift of believing in meaning and memory, in the power of presence and practice to witness us as we grow and transform over the years.

In the end, the piano itself is nothing more than a symbol of time’s passage, of returning to roots and of letting roots go, of arriving at a place that exists only within, where the music has always lived, like an underground spring with no name.