Sunday, November 27, 2016

In Defense of Rural America

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not defending anyone's decision to vote for Donald Trump. If you know me in any context, you know that I am working day and night to try to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President. I respect differing viewpoints, but I believe there is a line where the question crosses from one of differing political views to one of character.

In theory, it's very black and white to me: a decent human being does not vote for someone who has threatened to force all Muslims to register with the government, who has suggested that Mexicans are rapists and criminals. That's an easy concept, in the abstract, and I have seen it voiced loudly, frequently and often viciously among the people at my side in the trenches over the past weeks.

I get it.

But, I'm burdened by reality.

I've lived in the rural Midwest for most of my adult life. I currently live in a county that went 59.32% for Donald Trump, and I suspect that number would have been higher had Gary Johnson not been in the running. During the years that I lived in the suburbs, one of my primary life goals was to get back to this small town. There were many reasons for that, but one of the most significant was the way people treated one another.

I heard what you just thought. I can see it in your head, that lily white little Mayberry town where everyone treats each other well because they're all exactly alike.

23.5 percent of my little Mayberry town is Hispanic. Our public schools were in the first wave of testing dual language education. Though the numbers are smaller, we are also home to African Americans, Asians of various descent and a small number of native Americans.

On my block alone there are whites, blacks, Mexicans and two Muslim families whose national heritage I do not know. By and large, no one gives a crap. And yet, there is a kind of ingrained racism in many.

My daughter works in a farm store, and several times each week someone--usually an older farmer--makes a snide comment about how he has to select English on the card reader. This is America, isn't it?

It makes her blood boil to the point that I fully expect that one day she will quit or get fired as a result of one of those conversations. Yet, having lived among these particular people for more than ten years and people like them for longer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if any of them had an elderly Mexican neighbor who didn't speak English, the vast majority of those crochety old farmers would bend over backward to help her.

It was in this town that my white, agnostic-Wiccan blend daughter met her autistic, Mexican, paganish boyfriend while they were both volunteering for a Christian charity that embraced them both with open arms.

I've heard that kind of dissonance described as hypocritical, but I think it's something else entirely. The person standing next to you is a person, regardless of race, color or creed. You hear the things he says and see the way he behaves and share a laugh with him, and it's impossible to miss the fact that he's more like you than he is different. You don't assume a man is lazy when he's working beside you--you observe that he is or is not. You don't apply statistics from possibly-biased news sources to determine whether the single mother who lives next door to you depends on welfare--you see her leaving for work in the morning. In the face of three-dimensional humanity, those superficial characteristics like skin color and marital status fade into the background.

Black, white, Christian, gay, Muslim, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Mexican, straight..those are concepts. It's easy to attach a stereotype to a concept, or to seize hold of the stereotype that's offered to you. In theory, it shouldn't be. In theory, the idea that black men are criminals should clash in your mind with the fact of the black accountant down the hall at work who plays chess with you during lunch. But concepts are different from individual human beings around them--just like the concept of a person who would vote for Donald Trump is different than the individual humans around me.

That doesn't make the things they say okay. It doesn't make the fact that they've elected a crazy man who seems to hate everyone except the President of the Russian Federation to the presidency okay. But, it does bear thinking about, because while that war is going on between the minorities and liberal activists on one side and the guys in white rural America who bitch about the card machine but don't think much about race when confronted with an actual human, the real enemy is largely unattended.

The guys who voted for Trump not believing he could do what he said, taking it as the same kind of rhetoric as bitching about the card reader, believing he'd be a change and another career politician was the last thing we needed--they're an easy target. But, they're an easy target because they're not suited up for battle. They're just going about their lives. They're guilty, perhaps, of not thinking things through to their logical conclusion, of making decisions in the abstract, of not considering those individual human who will be affected. They're guilty, perhaps, of focusing too exclusively on how they and their families will be affected and not giving enough consideration to the world at large. That's wrong.

But, it doesn't change because we villainize them. It doesn't change because we force them down off the fence and onto the other side.

There are more good people in this country than there are bad We can't spare any.

I haven't come to writing this post easily. Like many of you, I woke up on the morning after the election feeling like I'd been transported into a strange and hostile territory. I didn't feel entirely safe going outside, and I'm a white professional. That hasn't magically disappeared. I don't know how to tell which of these people around me is part of the "he says what we've all been thinking" brigade. It troubles me deeply that I might unwittingly be sitting next to someone who has been secretly thinking those things.

But here's what I know: these people around me, people the returns say overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, have been by my side stocking shelves in the food pantry, Christmas shopping for children in need, feeding the hungry, raising funds for any number of important causes, running food drives and coat drives and making nursing home visits and donating books and...(you get the idea) to help people of all races and religions.

And, they're people who take the time to listen. People who don't mind giving you a ride even though you live ten miles outside town. People who will offer you their umbrella to take with you, or the coat they're wearing.

They're imperfect, like all of us. Some of them have big things to learn about the world beyond the borders of their little towns and the harm that casual, theoretical racism can do. But we're at war. And, we have limited resources. Do you want to go to war with the guy who bitches about the card reader and then drops off a nice big check to the soup kitchen serving the Mexican-dominated trailer park, or with the ones who spray paint slurs on walls and assault people who don't look like them and gather together in back rooms to work out a viable plan for registering Muslims?

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Flipside of Empowering Racists

I've heard a lot of concerns voiced over the past several months about how Donald Trump's rhetoric has empowered racists to come out of the closet and vent their hatred. To a degree, I view that as a positive sign: if that kind of poison is roiling around in the brain of the person sitting next to me on the bus or working in my office, I want to know about it.

Others, though, have rightly pointed out that it is dangerous. The racism that's been unleashed isn't just about people outing themselves because they finally feel like it's acceptable to be a bigot--there's also violence. It's clear that more people are at risk since Trump started saying those things racists believe everyone was thinking, and especially since the election created the impression that the majority of Americans agree with him.

But something else is happening, too.

Something I've seen congratulated and celebrated again and again at an individual level, but not recognized as a trend.

Good people are coming out of the closet, too. People who used to mind their own business are speaking up for a colleague when a racist comment is made. People who haven't mentioned a gay brother or Muslim son-in-law in social media because there was just no reason to make waves have recognized that if those things make waves, the problem lies with the other person.

They're often small acts--a comment made, an action reported, a disagreement where they once would have remained silent. But they're spreading. Just as racists and sexists and xenophobes and whatever it is that we call people who get unduly fussed about other people's sex lives are increasingly showing their true colors in public, so are those who recognize that humans are humans...and that the broken ones are those who can't see that.

Those bigots who are feeling liberated right now may just be in for a surprise.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dear White People: Smile, Whether You Feel Like It or Not

I worked for legal aid in Georgia during the summer of 1990, and I saw many upsetting things. I saw large employers who paid training wages and no benefits for the first 90 days and then trumped up a reason to fire everyone before the higher rates kicked in and start over; prisoners with serious medical conditions denied access to care; manufactured reasons for keeping prisoners from the law library and even their own attorneys; restaurant management who apologized to white customers because there were "so many niggers" in the place and promised that they were working on it and much more... including a black activist who suggested to the crowd listening to him speak that perhaps they should kill me, since I was well-dressed and white.

None of that was the worst thing I saw that summer. The worst thing was the acceptance. The kind, smart, accomplished black women I worked with who comforted me and tried to get me to understand that the systemic racism was just how it was. The man who looked at me incredulously in a group of 15-20 people he did not know and confidently said, "Of course niggers are inferior." And, most of all, the number of black men who would avert their eyes, step to the side, even cross the street to avoid coming in contact with me as I walked along the sidewalk, and the way they would startle and look frightened if I smiled and said hello.

I learned that it was kinder not to greet them, though it never came naturally.

26 years have passed and, safely back in Illinois, I've chosen to assume that even in Augusta, Georgia, it is no longer shocking for a member of one race to greet another on the street. I've chosen to believe that no decent, hard-working adult feels he has to cross the street in deference to or fear of a member of another race.

Maybe it was even true. It was certainly true in my Midwestern world, where I'd never seen that sort of behavior in my life.

Like it or not, we woke up in a New America on Wednesday. Since then, I've been experiencing things that I'd never seen in Illinois before, that I saw only in the deep south more than a quarter of a century ago.

Wednesday afternoon, I shouted (at my dog, but he was out of sight) and a Muslim woman who happened to be driving down my tiny residential street with her child stopped her car and backed up, watching warily to see what I would do next. The next day, as I walked down the street alone, and elderly Mexican man stepped onto his porch a few houses ahead, saw me, froze with his hand on the door, and after looking at me for several seconds backed back into his house. This morning, a young Mexican man rounding the corner of his house saw me coming and simply stopped walking and stood perfectly still, half sheltered by the corner of his house, until I smiled and said good morning. He didn't answer, but he started moving again.

I'm not going to live in that world, and I hope you don't want to either.

So, what I'm asking is that if you're white, you remember that the onus is on you. As sick and afraid and angry and depressed and (insert every negative descriptor you know) as we may all be feeling, most of us white people aren't feeling directly threatened.

I find it unsettling, encountering another person on the street and not knowing what's in his or her head or heart. I feel a little bit like I've stumbled into an alien world where I can't tell the humans from the monsters. But, I'm not monster food.

I don't feel much like socializing. I'm not brimming with love for my fellow man right now. I definitely don't feel like smiling. But, I have to. And, if you're a decent human being who happens to be white, you do, too.

If your expression reflects how you're feeling in the wake of this election, every person of color, unpopular religious affiliation or alternate sexual orientation you pass on the street may reasonably believe you're making that face at him or her...and maybe it means you're hoping he gets deported, or that her "sick relationship" is finally torn apart, or even that someone would shoot him. Maybe that you could shoot him.

So smile, whether you feel it or not. Be friendly like someone's life depends on it, because it just might.

Note: I know the past couple of posts here have been unusual for this blog. I have a political/social blog, and of course considered keeping this content there rather than on my personal blog. In the end, though, I decided that there wasn't much that was more personal to me than the way human beings treat one another in the world around me. There are many other things going on in my life right now--a cool book project, a new granddaughter and more. But the biggest thing in my life right now, and I suspect for some time to come, is how I can do my part to make the people around me whose only crime is to have the "wrong" skin color or worship the "wrong" God or sleep with the "wrong" gender feel safe again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

If you are a minority in America this morning...

I’m sorry.

Like most people I know, I went to bed last night and woke up this morning sick and frightened. There have been many political candidates I disagreed with and even believed destructive over the years, but this is not that. I woke up to discover that I’d been crying in my sleep, something that has happened only a few times in my life and not for many years.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to do next, or how I’m supposed to interact with the people around me. My concern isn’t just the chaos and violence that is surely right around the corner, but also this horrible thing I have learned about the people I encounter in daily life.

But, I am a white professional. If I choose to, I can simply shut up and I will be safe and accepted among the people who voted to microchip you, deport you, bar you from an entire country based on the color of your skin or where you were born or the religion you practice.

I know my fear and uncertainty can’t possibly scratch the surface of yours.

I also know I can’t eliminate your fear and uncertainty. It’s well-founded. It may keep you alive. But, I do want to say two things that I hope you will hear and believe in.

The first is that you are not alone. For every person standing behind you in the grocery line who believes that Donald Trump said what we were all thinking, there is at least one who clearly sees that you’re a valuable human being who, in the most fundamental ways, is just like us. There are millions of people of all races and religions and ages and educational levels and shoe sizes who are prepared to fight for you.

The second is please, please don’t lash out. I understand the inclination, if you’re experiencing it. I think I might want to smash some things myself, if I didn’t feel so completely depleted. You will undoubtedly be provoked in a thousand ways in the days to come. But, those who provoke you know exactly what they’re doing. They want you arrested. They want viral videos that are edited to cut out the provocation and show only your angry response. They know there are millions of people in the neutral zone right now who can be turned against you.

Don’t let them frame the discussion. Don’t let them manipulate you into becoming the poster child for their campaign to amp up the hate, to mischaracterize everyone whose skin color matches yours or who wears the same type of clothing you do.

Watch your back, but do it with your head held high, and never forget that no matter how it looks right now, there are more of us than there are of them.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Well, this is embarrassing...

Every few months, I see a new bunch of my friends responding to that meme that asks you to list ten albums that changed your life. Often, they say that it's tough to narrow it down to ten.

I love music.

When I try to think of albums that changed my life, that just seems silly.

I can list my favorite albums for you. In fact, I've done that before. They include War (U2), Stealing Fire (Bruce Cockburn),  Armed Forces (Elvis Costello) and Rumours (Fleetwood Mac). I've been listening to all of them for decades. Sometimes they brighten my day or strike just the right note. Sometimes they bring back a memory that makes me smile out of nowhere, or create the soundtrack of a new moment.

Not one of them, so far as I can imagine, has had the slightest impact on the course of my life.

Recently, after the latest round, I asked my daughter (who would have trouble restricting herself to ten) whether I had an album that had changed my life.

She immediately said no. And then she smiled. It was a big smile, a happy smile, and yet somehow an evil smile.

And then she said, "Yes. There's one."

I said, "No."

But, I will admit that my eyes widened, and I may have put my hand over my mouth. Because, there was one album that literally changed the course of my life, and it

This isn't one of those guilty pleasure things. I actually don't like this album. 

If you've ever met me, you know that I am not the least bit self-conscious about being a hardcore Rick Springfield fan. I love his writing. I love him as a human. I even like a lot of his music.

Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet is his worst album. That's subjective, of course, but also kind of not. It's the lightest weight, the least personal and the most overproduced.

But, it was the first Rick Springfield album I owned. I did like it when I was 15...enough to buy the next album, and the next. Enough to find myself, at 7, sitting under a white on white poster associated with a much better album, typing on a blue portable Smith-Corona and thinking about one day writing a book about Rick Springfield.

Probably, if you're reading this blog, you know the rest of the story. No question that was a life-changer. But, I still really, really wish I had a different answer.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Something New

A new era is slowly dawning in my life. 

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that my daughter and I have lived and built our lives alone together for a very long time. 

She's turning 20 tomorrow, and though there's nothing magical about an official change of age, we've reached a stage of new pathways for both of us.

She didn't go away to college, and she hasn't officially moved out, so there's no clear, abrupt change like many families experience. But, change is in the air. And in my grocery shopping. And in that man I keep encountering at her side.

It's a whole new kind of journey, and one not everyone will be interested in, so I've given it it's own home. If you're interested in watching those roads diverge, or the lessons I learn as this stage of life unfolds, check out The Sporadically Occupied Nest.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Something Ordinary

So, life goes on.

We go back to work, do the laundry, slowly realize that there’s no longer a reason to panic when the telephone rings.

One day, Jesse’s mom points out to me that he’s been gone longer than he was here.
The timelines don’t make sense. He was only here for a moment. He was here as far back as I can remember.

I know this confusion is only a tiny fraction of the trauma and disorientation his parents are experiencing.

I’d like to end this post with some sudden sighting of a ray of sunshine, with a symbol or a moment or a morning of new hope. But, I don’t think it works that way in real life. I think the path to recovery is jagged, whether the injury has been small or large.

Ordinary things happen, whether you’re ready for them or not, and so I thought it was time to talk about some of mine, if for no other reason than that I don’t know how else to transition what I’m writing here.

I haven’t the heart to take down the Christmas tree because one of the dogs is so happy sleeping under it. I’m actually considering some sort of year-round indoor tree.

There’s a potentially exciting new client in the works.

Last night was a friend’s birthday, and the food was good and there was a lot of laughter.

I keep thinking Tori is all grown up and then she shows me something new. I begin to think it will always be that way. Maybe everything is. Maybe everything is just a little different from one day to the next, even when we don’t see the subtle shifting.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

After the Ceremony

When I posted yesterday, I said that I hoped to circle back to the ceremony. But then, last night, my 19-year-old daughter, Tori, showed me what she'd written. I think she's said it all, and she agreed to let me share it here.

It's Thursday evening. I'm sitting on the floor at my aunt's feet. She sighs. "This really sucks," she says. "Yes" is all I can say in return. 

What else do you say to someone whose son is in the wooden box on the mantle?

By now you've probably heard all about Jesse, the premature baby boy who popped into our lives one December and hung out just long enough to change everything forever. But unlike the stories you've heard, this one isn't really about Jesse. It's about me. It's about his moms. It's about his aunts and uncles and close friends he never got to know. It's about family. Real family.

It's 9 o'clock on Thursday morning and I'm watching my aunt pace around the church. The memorial service doesn't start until 11. There's a table with framed pictures of Jesse and his moms, a guest book is laid out in front of it. The church is being filled with flowers. At 10, other family members start to arrive. They all follow the same strange pattern, entering the room, beginning to cry, hugging the nearest person and then, somehow, coming away laughing. We sit down in a full church at 11 on a Thursday morning. No one is surprised except my aunt.

While my aunts sit together, wrapped in their son's blanket, I look around. I shouldn't be surprised to see that most of their "family" has no actual blood relation to them. After all, I have no blood relation to them. But that doesn't matter now. I am standing behind them in a church pew watching them cry, holding another of their nieces in my arms. Where else would I be?

"What happened at the service?" my aunt keeps asking later. She was too overwhelmed to know what happened during most of it. We tell her the most simple things, the core things that get filed away and for some reason never forgotten. People spoke, sang songs. Your niece talked the whole time. Your mother cried. Everyone compiles their scattered memories and start to form a whole picture. It's full of little things. Specific details that stand out to certain people and not others become mixed with perceptions. The conversations vary. Stories are shared about the baby, about hospital stays, about lives. Jokes about kids, jokes between siblings and old friends. There's chocolate cake and costume changes. 

Before I leave for the night, I sit down next to one of my aunts. As she wraps her arms around me and kisses my cheek, I hear my boyfriend's words in my head. "They want to be your family," he said, "I see it. You just have to let them."

As I looked around at the crowd of people, I saw proof of that. They all came from different places, different worlds, backgrounds, struggles, and yet, they were all here to mourn a child they'd never even known. All because of my aunts. Because of what they had built. Because they let us in.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Saying Goodbye

Yesterday was Jesse's memorial service, I don't have a lot to say about it yet, because the defense system my mind and body opts for in the worst of times can best be described as "total collapse," so I have no clear thoughts and no inclination to get off of my couch today. I will very likely circle back.

For those too far away to have been with us yesterday, I thought that I would share what I wrote about Jesse for the service. I also want to thank everyone who was following Jesse's journey for the overwhelming show of support, words of encouragement, prayers, offers of practical help and more. There is much beauty in the world, even in the worst of times.

A few nights ago, I was driving alone at night thinking about Jesse and I saw a shooting star. That seemed appropriate, because a shooting star is so beautiful and vibrant and active, and then it's gone too soon. But then you smile. Even though it was fleeting, seeing it somehow made you better.

Usually, when someone stands up to speak under these circumstances, it's to pay tribute to someone they've known for years. Jesse was only with us for 13 days, and I only knew him in glimpses through a window and the stories JoAnn and Julie shared. But, like many of you, I loved him with my whole heart during those 13 days. 

It's surprising how much you can learn about a person under those limited circumstances. The first time I saw him, I expected him to be tiny and fragile. He was tiny. But, Jesse had a powerful spirit from the beginning. Though he weighed less than two pounds, there was strength in the way he waved his tiny hands and kicked his little feet. At 12 1/2 inches tall, he thought he was ready to take charge. He made a valiant effort to remove his equipment, push away the pads over his eyes with the tiniest hand I’d ever seen, and even kick the occasional nurse if he didn’t like what she was doing.

He knew his moms, and responded to their presence, their voices, and their touches. And, in his short life, he brought out aspects of them I'd never seen before. They loved him, and he loved them, and for 13 days that circle of love was all that existed for the three of them.

13 days, it turns out, is enough to change the people around you, enough to start ripples that will keep moving outward forever.

Of course, we would all have preferred to keep him with us longer, to watch him grow and see where that fighting spirit would have taken him. But, if heaven is the perfection of love and community, then Jesse couldn't have had a better bridge. The outpouring of love, support, and prayers sent his way was vast and unceasing, steady and certain in a way that comes to pass all too infrequently in this world. He couldn't be better prepared for the next, where we'll see him again one day, his powerful spirit free of the struggles he faced in that tiny body, but just as loved.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The 13th Day

Most of you who have been following Jesse's story know that he slipped away from us on December 26, at 13 days.

Services will be Thursday morning at his mothers' church.

You can see Jesse's obituary and access the guest book here.