Real Talk Isn’t Easy

There is so much we don’t share, or write or even talk about. None of it is simple.

Navigating the territory between personal and political is a mighty task. In fact, it’s not a task at all but a life — with aspects that are and deserve to remain private, while also bearing responsibility for standing up and speaking out. The word “discernment” comes to mind.

Synagogue, Friday night services, welcoming Shabbat in community. Someone dear to me whispers in my ear something about Hondurans trying to cross the border, being treated like criminals. It’s safe to say most of the congregants in this sanctuary believe Trump is a nightmare. Many are actively working in the local sanctuary and anti-racism movements. There are a handful of Jews of color, as well.

“I feel like they’ve stolen our country,” she says.

Outwardly, I nod. Internally, my mind immediately races, in a way I’ve become accustomed to. Statements like this send me in so many directions at once, and I’ve been working to recognize the shortcoming of my heightened reactivity. Among the thoughts that fire like so many overheated neurons:

1. Agreement. Yes. This is not the America we (want to) believe in.

2. Disagreement. No, that America has never been.

3. Agreement. The way this administration is treating refugees and immigrants is unconscionable.

4. Pushback: This country’s relationship to refugees and immigrants has always been ambivalent — at best. Relevant, since we’re sitting in prayer: We turned Jews away from Europe during WWII.

5. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This one gets me every time. I’m working with and on it.

6. They stole the country from us? No, Europeans stole the country in the first place. It has never belonged to “us.”

7. Who is “us” and what is “our”? As Jennifer Harvey writes: “there is no non-racialized woman.” It’s imperative to keep this front and center — no matter your gender.

8. My own privilege — an upbringing in an upwardly mobile, financially secure, white, Jewish family, with strong emphasis on the arts, on education, and on inclusion. I was not raised to be “colorblind” but I also faced very few obstacles and none related to my skin color, religion, or class.

9. My father’s historical memory of anti-semitism. My mother’s historical memory of integration.

10. The limits and dangers of choosing to see mostly or only what we want to see: i.e. progress.

11. The way “progress” is a myth that makes liberal white Americans feel less helpless about racism, and how this keeps the focus on white comfort and not on reality.

Oof. See what I mean? And this is just a tiny sampler of the way my mind gallops. Not particularly productive.

* * *

Another moment: My son got tearful one day, when he was working on a school assignment and eliciting my help. Some of the suggestions I made pointed back to how race might factor into one’s choice of where to live.

“You always do this,” he said. “Everything is always about race or politics.”

The kid had a point. There is a thing called balance… maybe. And yet how do I prioritize balance when the world is so imbalanced? This feels to me like one of the biggest practical and spiritual challenges of our lifetimes.

I won’t apologize for my voice — nor do I want to be reactive. No one, of any age, can drink from a firehouse.

And yet my own words come back to me, words Omkari Williams echoed back to me during our conversation on her podcast recently: Don’t look away.

How do I live, write, parent, and love without looking away, while also not becoming a person who cannot take a breath, who cannot slow her racing mind, who cannot see anything without the glaring filters of injustice?

If we are closed to connection with the very person sitting next to us in the pew, how can we truly care about the stranger?

It would be so nice to say, “Love is the answer.” But what does that even mean? Platitudes will not suffice.

Our rabbi and congregation have been focusing on the mandate not to oppress the stranger. And so to not become strangers to those in our immediate circles and spheres of influence becomes intensely important and sometimes, for me, the most difficult thing of all.

One thing I know is that this is not about me being “good” at something. It’s about keeping the focus where it belongs, which is not a single point. The focus belongs on so many places at once: The big picture, the systemic oppression that has never not been present in our country, the feelings and needs and thoughts of those under my own roof, and the ability to take care of my mind rather than allowing the ugliness of what we know to be true to splinter me into a thousand broken pieces.

Healing cannot happen without justice. Justice will not happen without real talk, and real talk is, frankly, not easy. We all have relationships to navigate, those who may not see as we see.

The less insistent I am about being right and the more intent on moral courage and righteousness — individually and collectively — the clearer the task becomes: To keep doing the work that none of us alone can or will complete. To keep widening the circles while tending to the ones closest to us. To keep asking hard questions and not looking away, not backing away from the moments that make us most confused or agitated or fired up.

To step into that fire and learn.

What needs to burn? What good are these ashes? How are we each other’s keepers? What is it to really listen?

So many questions.

* * *

Desiree Lynn Adaway frequently quotes these lines from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.

In “The Hate U Give,” which I saw with Aviva last night, Starr, the main character, also quotes these words, over a loudspeaker in a profound moment of claiming her voice. We both sat there in the dark theater, crying.

I will not let those tears be in vain.

I will not let those tears be white tears, crocodile tears, or fragile tears. I will not abdicate my responsibility to fight for freedom — yours, mine, my children’s, your children’s — even if it makes you uncomfortable.

And I will also continue to practice quieting my mind and seeing myself in as honest a light as I can — which is to say, learning when to be quiet, when to be curious, and especially to remember to listen to people of color, to those whose lived experience of oppression is daily, cellular, and immediate. To put to use my ancestral and generational memory, while also knowing my place as someone with so much privilege.

That’s what I’ve got this morning. Thank you for reading, for wrestling with me, for staying in this for as long as it takes.

As long as it takes.

The Privileges and Perils of Snowdays

Pearl wanted to spend the snow day playing over at his dad’s community, and since it was early in the storm, I agreed to bring him over there this morning (knowing that he may end up staying the night). We drove through campus at about 10 miles per hour — counting cars along the way (fewer than a dozen over three miles).

We talked about who gets the day off and who doesn’t, what work places are closed and which aren’t, whether businesses and companies necessarily put their employees’ safety first, and the fact that for people who are paid by the hour — as opposed to receiving a salary — a day like this can mean simply no money coming in.

The weather itself takes me back to my early childhood in Buffalo, New York; this is how I remember winter: swirling, grey, gusty, white, deep, powder, trudge, snowpants, sledding, fun. And I’m happy for all the happy kiddos who get to enjoy that today.

I’m also aware that for many folks, with or without children, extreme weather can be hugely stressful and sometimes dangerous.

I just read a Facebook status that someone’s husband had no choice but to drive to work — from a rural area, no less — lest he lose his temp job.

Another local friend shared a photo in which he seemed to be wearing every item of clothing he owned, as his building was without heat.

Frozen pipes, power outages, elderly folks who live alone, homeless shelters at capacity… I sit here in my apartment watching the chaotic conditions outside the windows, at once thankful for warmth, physical safety, and sustenance and also acutely aware that the growing intensity of storms in every season means loss, instability, and dangerous conditions locally and globally alike.

Sometimes I do wonder what the point is of reflecting on this stuff if I’m not actively offering solutions. It’s one reason I’ve stopped sharing as many news stories; you all know where and how to find them, and my clicking “share” willy-nilly isn’t going to change a thing when it comes to the latest tweet or injustice.

But who am I if I don’t reflect, if I don’t try to make sure my own kids are aware of the greater impact and implications of something as seemingly simple and even fun as a snow day?

And so it comes down to what I perceive as a moral responsibility for anyone living in relative comfort, with the privilege of employment that can withstand the weather and a warm place in which to ride out the storm: To stay awake to the inequities among us, to stay compassionate towards those more vulnerable to the elements, and to identify even small measures we can and must take to support and see each other through.

My America

Photo: Kayle Kaupanger

To all of my friends across the globe, to the north and the south. To the east and west: This is not the America I represent. My America has open arms, minds, and hearts. My America says, come in, how can I help? My America insists on justice for all and the beauty of truth. My America takes responsibility for its hypocrisy and sets about making things right. My America is accountable for so much death and destruction. My America makes amends. My America says I’m so sorry. My America says, we were wrong. My America says, here, let’s unmask the myths of opportunity and put all that love of money where our hungry mouths are. America, my America, says, we didn’t think of it first, or even second or third. My America says, let me redistribute, give you back your rivers and farms. My America says, I am a bully. I am an abuser. I am an addict. I am a victim. I am I am I am I am. My America says, it has been about me for too long. My America says, how are you? I’m listening. My America says, I was a kleptomaniacal sales rep thug wearing a nice suit. My America says, I’m checking myself into rehab. My America says, your body is not an abomination. My America says, all languages spoken here, translators will be provided free of charge. My America says, I am handing over the mic. My America says, you’ve heard enough from me. My America says, women always seem to come up with the best solutions. My America says, queer bodies deserve safety, black and brown bodies deserve safety, undocumented bodies deserve safety, children’s bodies deserve safety. My America says, I have been so arrogant. My America says, enough. Enough. Enough.

Freedom Comes with Responsibility

Image from the Google homepage, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Is this not what we teach our kids?
A kid fussing about washing dishes.
A mom tells her that a different mom
would shut that fussing down
and hand over a mop to do the floors next.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Roll call.
Raise you hand and be counted.
Does every voice matter? Yes.
And you know when this really starts
to become apparent?
When we stop using ours.
When we resign ourselves to powerlessness.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not threats or secrecy.
Not preaching to the choir
or sneaking out out the side door
of integrity when you don’t know
the next right thing.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Check yourself.
Hiding behind white or straight or cis is privilege.
It it a cowardly and self-serving
perpetuation of oppression.
But what about when safety comes into play —
is safety a privilege, too?

Freedom comes with responsibility.
I will not sit idly by.
My health insurance is not more important than your health insurance.
My kids’ education is not more important than your kids’ education.
My safety is not more important than your safety.
My spirit is not more sacred than your spirit.
My being is not more important than your being.
As long as “my” comes before “yours”
I will be tethered to distortions of freedom
by a rope that doubles as a noose.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Find your fight.
Comfort in community is not the same as comfort in complacency.
Pick one thing if you have to and be a beacon.
If your own light has been so dulled
that your sight is compromised, spend time each day
with the soft cloth of clear seeing. Take care of your own eyes.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
Not for the faint of heart.
Take time today and every day to honor those who gave their lives for this,
for this freedom to speak, to resist, to insist, to denounce, to stand up, to be seen.
Think about the thousands, millions who died, whose names are gone,
whose faces have been passed down through generations,
who had no choice in the arrival,
who did not come to this land by choice,
who did not come to this land for opportunity,
for did not come to this land as equals or heirs.
Think of those who were displaced and dismantled
whose land was stolen and bloodied and renamed.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
My life is bound up with your life.
My heart is bound up with your heart.
My “my” is tethered to your “yours.”
I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s safe haven.
You are your father’s son and your mother’s daughter.
Overthrow legacies of complicity and shine a light on injustice.

Freedom comes with responsibility.
For this is love.
This is our mighty task.
And we are living inside of history as it unfolds around us,
not as puppets or actors but as humans infused with more ability than we can ever know.
Do what it takes today and all the days to tap it.
To speak from that stream and to drink from that well
and to hold out your cupped hands
that another might splash cold water on her face.

We’ve got to keep waking each other up.
Freedom comes with responsibility.

Finding Refuge in Ourselves and Each Other

sundownI know better than to say anything external can make my life a living hell, but when Mani was very, very sick, I thought just that: Maybe her being very, very sick was making my life a living hell. In some ways, this was true. It was also making her life a living hell.

There was this one time, when I was writing about looking at that situation from someone else’s perspective, standing in someone else’s proverbial shoes, that I finally stepped into hers. Mind you, this was at a time when even a feather touch to her feet could send her through the roof with pain. No doctor could say what the source was of this peripheral neuropathy, but it definitely fell into the “living hell” category. I wrote and wrote. I got out of my own head. I got over myself for ten minutes, and then read her what I’d written. And it was one of those moments, a turning point — she felt heard and seen in a new way, and I felt less imprisoned by my own selfishness.

I spent the morning in synagogue. Not everyone, but many people were wearing all white, as is customary on Yom Kippur. I remembered for once to bring a tallit, or prayer shawl; when Mani and I got married two years ago, we ordered a two-person one from Israel, and they accidentally sent us two. So I brought the one that is all white and linen-colored. When we arrived (Pearl came with me and we sat in a row with my middle sister’s family; Aviva slept in as she attempted to fast), I lifted the tallit over my head as I’ve seen many others do. I did not say the actual blessing for wearing a tallit (Jews have a blessing for pretty much everything), but I did hover underneath it for a good long minute alone. And you know? It was a kind of paradise in there. It really was.

Under the tallit, I felt sheltered. I remembered that that space is always available to me, and asked myself in that silent place why I don’t take refuge there more often.

Same reason I don’t take refuge more often in general, comes the likely answer. On the yoga mat. In the woods or a bathtub. On a chair under a blanket with a book. Even in the kitchen, making a slow-cooked meal rather than a quick and easy one. So many places to find that readily available sensation of peace, and yet — I take detour after detour and then wonder, as if it’s some great mystery, why I am (fill in the blank — exhausted, headachy, grouchy, overwhelmed, etc).

The next hours were spend singing. Alternately sitting and standing. We got there when the sanctuary was pretty much filled up, so I did not have a machzor, or prayer book. And this was ok. It was paradise, too. Nothing to follow along with, no page numbers to keep track of. Just my voice joining with the ones beside, before, and behind me, following some ancient rhythms of collective responsibility and second chances.

This afternoon, Mani had a doctor’s appointment with her immunologist; he was blown away by how well she is doing — no wheelchair, no cane even, no epipen for over a year, and she has weaned herself off of some of the most hardcore opiates out there. (Can I get an amen?) He also brought up politics, and told us he’s been asking all of his patients for the past month or so who they’re voting for. We joked that seeing as we Jewish gay women who would very much like to stay legally married, he could probably guess.

While we were in the waiting room, I saw a post from writer Lesléa Newman in my Facebook feed. It was a photo of Matthew Shepard — his young, beautiful face accompanied by her words:

“In Judaism, the number 18 stands for life. Today is the 18th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. It is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This feels very significant to me. Matthew Shepard believed passionately in social justice. Let us carry on his legacy today and every day by working hard to make the world a more peaceful and kinder place for all.”

matthew-shepard
Seeing this the day after National Coming Out Day after spending the morning in communal prayer ushered me home to everything I hold dear: Being free to live one’s truth — and our collective responsibility to make sure doing so is safe and — better yet — embraced.

In fact, something Rabbi Weiner said this morning, while offering a blessing for those who rose with an intention to stand up and speak out for social justice in the new year, spoke to me so personally: Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired.

Sometimes a thing has to be broken in order to be repaired. This was certainly true for me of coming out. And I can’t help but wonder — with a cautious tinge of optimism — if it could be true for our country, too.

And yet, for many people, coming out is not safe. There is no place of refuge for this emergence, one that so often requires breaking with one’s own past in profound ways. There may not be a welcome committee imagining life in your shoes, or waiting with warm cookies and a toaster oven. For many people, to come out — be it along the LGBTQ spectrum or in other ways, as artists, as activists, as women with stories we’ve never shared, as speaking in fierce opposition to power, as spiritual — is not only scary but unfathomable.

And that is truly a living hell: To have to wear a mask inside of your own life.

As Yom Kippur came to a close and I heated up a bowl of homemade chicken soup to break my fast, as the light began to go down over the blaze of October leaves, I considered the ways in which I want to seal the year behind us and welcome the one just now beginning. As an individual, yes, one who takes responsibility for my words and actions and their impact on others. And as a member of a community — the Jewish people, the American people — who is also responsibility for doing my part to ensure that ALL of us have safe spaces.

If my wife is in pain, I must step outside of myself to imagine her experience. If my fellow human must hide who she is, may my words and presence contribute some small dose of safety to her emergence. Refuge should not fall into the category of privilege or luxury. It can’t be bought, sold, or traded, nor are some of us more deserving than others.

May 5777 — and November 8 — bring evidence that we will uphold this truth not only as self-evident, but as sacred and civic duty, individually and collectively.