Feminists & Goats

Over dinner one evening, Paul wondered aloud about something he’d watched while eating lunch. Unless he tunes it to English Premier League Football, the TV in his office’s break room is generally showing HGTV or the like, so he’s come to know all about Tarek and Christina el Moussa, house flippers once married to one another, but alas, No Longer.

With the end of their marriage and show, Tarek and Christina are now busily working on independent ventures. A recent show featured Christina doing a photoshoot. In a bikini. And here is reason #852 why I love Paul: watching the attractive Christina promoting her new venture by showing as much of herself as is allowable on daytime TV, Paul wondered if he’d soon see an ad wherein Tarek was doing a photoshoot, clad only in swim trunks or, if we’re to have true parity, a speedo? Would he have Revenge Abs? Realizing that men don’t have to promote their work with revealing photoshoots, Paul wondered aloud that night at dinner, Why are women still putting up with this?

In the wake of a celebrity breakup there always follows an article on the woman showing the ex what he’s missing with her Revenge Body. As I was googling Tarek and Christina I found this article about her Revenge Body.

When we moved to South Carolina I faced the debacle of getting a new Driver’s License, for which I was required to produce: my birth certificate, my first marriage certificate and/or something proving I had a right to my first married name, then my divorce decree, followed by my new marriage license and subsequent government-issued ID in that name. Upon our return to Texas a year later, I dragged it all back to the Texas DPS to get my old, still-current Texas license reissued. All of which had Paul wondering aloud why women are still changing their names upon marriage? Given the giant pain in the a$$ it is to change one’s name in a day when we are no longer exchanged for a certain number of goats and thus, traded from father to husband as property, why do women still take their husband’s names?

The old argument was women retained their married names upon divorce because their children bore that name, and I would concede that point if we were still living in the 1950’s, but we aren’t. Having worked in Education and dismissed from campus literally hundreds if not thousands of students, I can assure you what their mother’s names are makes no difference to us whatsoever. It all comes down to a) who is listed by the enrolling parent/guardian as authorized to take a student from campus, and b) if they have ID to prove they are who they say they are. Period. That’s it. If you’ve listed Mr. Peanutbutterandjelly as an authorized contact and granted him permission to take your student off campus, and he has government-issued, picture-bearing identification proving he is, indeed, Mr. Peanutbutterandjelly, your student can leave campus with him.

Paul’s and my marriage is quite traditional, but our blessing is we choose that, rather than society imposing traditional roles upon us. I might do more cleaning and he may do more handyman things, but it’s based on inclination and skill, rather than traditional gender roles.

As we neared the end of binge-watching The White Queen and subsequently gobbling up the actual history of the time, Paul remarked of Margaret Beaufort and Queen Elizabeth Woodville that for all their lack of autonomy they, like so many intelligent, capable women before and after them throughout history, still found ways to exert influence and shift the course of events. How much might such women have accomplished if they had rights? Birth control? Equality?

Fast-forward to the 20th century and the epic battle between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as deliciously told in Feud on cable channel FX.  Fueled largely by a male studio head who felt convincing performances could only be gleaned if they kept the two leads perpetually at each other’s throats.  What followed was the kind of emotional guerrilla warfare only old foes can make, strike-counter-strike, hitting with unerring accuracy the ancient, never-healed wounds in each other. What took my breath away was the lack of respect for them as Academy Award-winning, acting professionals. Would Jack Warner have suggested such a thing if the stars had been, oh, let’s say John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart? I sincerely think not.

Here we are in 2017 and in Texas we have SB 25 looking set to pass the legislature, a bill allowing doctors to lie to or withhold information from a woman they believe will abort if informed of birth defects/issues with the child she’s carrying. Think about that: a doctor can LIE to a woman by omission, and is immune from prosecution for doing so, thus removing her autonomy to make her own healthcare decisions, and possibly affecting her for her entire life. Doctors will be legally permitted to treat adult, rational female human beings as children, incapable of making sound choices over their own lives.  Left unanswered is who will pay the staggering costs of raising all those profoundly disabled children?

It seems we are not so far removed from trading our young women for goats after all.

 

A Gift in Hidden Figures

hidden-figuresIf you haven’t seen the film Hidden Figures, go do so immediately. Also, if you don’t want any spoilers read no further but go see the film and then come back. Therefore be warned: SPOILERS AHEAD.

There, I’ve done my spoilery duty.

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It’s Valentine’s Day and I am grateful my valentine loves going to the movies as much as I do. We have a system worked out that grants me any kind of gooey, sentimental chick-flick or weird art house film in exchange for tolerating any of his peculiarities in the form of, oh let’s say, the Resident Evil franchise.

Hidden Figures is a remarkable film in every way I can think of: great (and long overdue) story, fantastic performances, excellent direction and storytelling, and for me, the gift of a revelation. It came in the form of that damn coffee pot.

Bear with me while I take a little detour. It’s weeks later, just this past Sunday and Paul and I got up, sipped our coffee and read the morning news. As the news lately has a tendency to do, it engendered lively discussion until I just couldn’t anymore and said I can’t talk about politics anymore. It wasn’t like we were disagreeing – we weren’t but I just couldn’t.

Before we headed out to church I apologized and explained that since the depression of the election lifted slightly, what I feel a terrible lot of the time since the inauguration is anxious, sincerely scared, and on the verge of tears. While I’m trying to keep my head out of the sand and stay informed and active where it is helpful, sometimes I have to call calf-rope on it and give myself a rest. For the first time in my life, I am truly afraid for both my country and personal freedom.

Later, while driving to church I wondered out loud to Paul, Do you think this weird anxious feeling I have so often now is what Black people feel like, oh, every time someone follows them through Walmart? Or pulls them over? Like, all the time. This is their reality, a low-level, sort of baseline anxiety? A need to always have one’s guard up, almost everywhere, lest one get slapped in the face with it again?  Paul agreed this was entirely possible; I’m thinking my Black friends will let me know if I am right or wrong, or somewhere in between.

You see, I was thinking about that damn coffee pot, as I have repeatedly since seeing Hidden Figures. While we were watching the film I knew the bathroom issue would be a plot device and it was. But the bathrooms and drinking fountains were big, ugly, institutionalized racism; the coffee pot…. that coffee pot was small, petty, and deeply personal. There was Katherine, her mathematical genius’ brain feasting on complex calculations towards a first ever goal, shoulder to shoulder and day after day and hour after hour with everyone in that room. One day, she needs a cup of coffee to fuel her efforts and all eyes are upon her, silently saying, oh no you don’t.

(At this point in the film, I involuntarily scolded them with an audible, Really?)

The next day she comes in to find a crappy old peculator one of them probably pulled out of a junk box and labeled, “colored” and they all turned again and smugly stared at her, to see her reaction as they showed her her place. Here, I literally flinched and Paul squeezed my hand and whispered, “Why are you surprised?” and I wasn’t surprised, per se, I was disgusted more than anything at how pathetic and small a thing it was to do. What did a cup of coffee cost them? Was it that she touched it? They didn’t eat at diners where black hands cooked their food? And Katherine, who I envisioned had maybe let her guard down just a little, if only because they were all working so hard on such ambitious, never-before-done stuff…. only to be reminded in the most classless way possible, if there is even a classy way to do such, that she was not and never would be quite accepted by them. She was tolerated, so long as she didn’t step outside their conception of her “place”.

When I worked at a High School with a large African American population, there would occasionally be a kid in trouble who’s parent took the tack it was solely because the student was Black, and was deaf to all evidence of behavioral issues in the classroom, even when the teacher who’d written them up was themselves, Black. It’s hard to work with them, because they arrive with a preconceived set of notions and expectations, and I imagine that it is hard to do otherwise when one’s own life has been one of repeated racist experiences. As the SRO on one campus explained, “I never look for racism, it’s more I’m just not surprised when it happens”.

How hard would your heart be if over your life you were subject to an avalanche of coffee pot situations?  It’s death by a million tiny cuts.

The gift I got from that damn coffee pot is the gift of making it personal. Invested as I was in Katherine, the filmmakers gave me the gift of seeing through her eyes and heart, as clear as if she’d broken the fourth wall and said directly to me, “This is what racism looks like, up close and personal. This is the tiny, niggling detail of racism rather than the flash and size of a burning cross, or a “Colored” bathroom. This is the day-to-day, soul-killing stuff.”

My gift to you on this Valentine’s Day is to suggest we’re in a time when attentive listening, careful watching, and unreserved loving is necessary. Listen to hear rather than to answer, watch for the truth especially in unexpected places, love unconditionally, and pray without ceasing. We’ve never needed it so much.

 

 

 

 

Weekend Coffee Share: Election Edition

If we were having coffee, I tell you that looking back over my many years and several election cycles, I cannot remember one where my heart has been so heavy, about which I felt such dread, quadrupled on Friday when FBI Director Comey injected himself, once more against all policy and procedure, into the mess.

On the one hand we see a capable woman with a ton of baggage, sadly a lot of that baggage is more her husband’s than her own. Unfortunately as full of hubris as her husband, she is not a particularly likable candidate. But she is smart and capable, measurably more honest than she is created for being, and I don’t think she will run the country off a cliff. I do believe she can continue the incremental changes we need to make our American society a fairer one, where folks of every color and creed have a shot at success.

On the other hand we have a spray-tanned narcissist who has campaigned as a friend of the common man, despite abundant evidence to his status as the ultimate insider (the privileged upbringing; “small” million dollar starter loan from his wealthy father; the unpaid contractors; the multiple adulteries; his continually availing himself of US bankruptcy law; the thinly-veiled racism;  misogyny; the gross advisers; the bromance with Vladimir Putin of all people, St. Ronnie preserve us). It is easy to poke fun at his supporters, casting them as fools in his likeness, but I think that is both unfair and largely incorrect. True, the guy shouting “JEW-S-A” while making KKK hand gestures is not his best representative; however, Trump has tapped into some very real unrest and anger among decent folks for whom the economic recovery has not worked. Their jobs went overseas and they’re not coming back, and the jobs they took to make ends meet don’t allow them to provide for their families in the manner they were accustomed, and to which we Americans feel entitled. So we cannot dismiss them.

But I really do fear what a Trump presidency would do to Women’s and Minority rights, not only from Trump himself but from the Alt-Right who surround him, notably Mike Pence. Pence’s record in his home state of Indiana and during his 12 years in Congress sought to turn back the clock on women’s rights 50 years at least.

What really drags at my heart is this: there is a surging undercurrent of anger in our country. Some is from women, and it’s about damn time that we collectively stood up and said we’re done, so very done taking 3/4 of our due. But the other portion of that anger lives among our minority brothers and sisters and it is absolutely equal in righteousness and long overdue. If we don’t do something to correct the areas that very much still exist, holding them back from equal citizenship, it is going to turn violent. It’s going to run up against that violent undercurrent at Trump rallies and bring out the worst in all involved. People will die and nothing will improve.

Through all of this ick I keep praying, knowing God hears me. I know I am not alone, I know so many people who are praying for Love to win the day, and I try to remain open to it being in some completely unexpected manner. Holy Spirit is nothing if not unpredictable, and so much wiser than I ken.

I feel helpless and I hate it. So I walk about the world trying to be loving to all those I encounter, making eye contact, being sincere rather than reflexive in the usual exchanges of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.” I’m paying compliments, letting folks go ahead of me at the store, and tipping well. Does any of that make a whit of difference? I don’t know, but aside from supporting my candidate and voting in a thoughtful, prayerful manner, I just don’t know what to do.

This I can  do: I appeal to women, and all my brothers and sisters of color to be of good cheer and VOTE. Our system works when we work it, when we get off our butts and to the poling place certainly now during the election year but also and especially during the off-years, the congressional and senatorial elections where the real governance is done. Let us band together in vigilance, sending a clear and unmistakable message that representatives who do not represent us will be voted out. Every. Single. Time.

Together, we can make a difference. I will be praying for you, for us and please say a prayer for me, too, because I think without our votes there is a flood coming, or maybe it’s a fire, and I fear there are not enough of us acting out of love to weave a fabric stout enough to stop it.

If we were having coffee, I’d tell you I just can’t wait for it all to be over.

#weekendcoffeeshare

(Be the) Candle

img_5389-2My daughter earned her degrees from the great University of Texas, Austin and one is a Bachelors in Women’s and Gender Studies. I love our conversations, even when her clear-headed feminism dispels my own long and closely-held bullshit. Maybe especially when she dispels my culturally ingrained, but ultimately diminishing, bullshit.

I was raised to expect praise, get validation for being pretty, skinny, funny, and amenable. Don’t make waves. Don’t call attention to myself. Don’t be a tattletale. Don’t be a party-pooper. Go along to get along. Don’t take abuse, but understand that if I dressed too provocatively, or was in the wrong place, abuse might find me and it would be my own damn fault.

My daughter and some years of counseling have been as candles illuminating the unintentionally sick thinking my mother instilled. I don’t blame my mother and have long since forgiven her, for how can one blame another for being a creation of his or her culture? How can I blame her for dying young and never having an opportunity to understand the myriad ways we institutionally blame women for the sins of a male-dominated society?

Now a harsh candle shines brightly on one of the most odious men to walk the planet, a man so entitled and privileged he claims his wealth and celebrity enable him to do anything without permission to any woman he deems attractive. I’ve listened, stomach churning, to the bile generated throughout this caustic campaign cycle but along with the far more eloquent Michelle Obama, something the Republican nominee for President said yesterday shook me to the core. It was when Donald Trump said of People Magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff, who in company with several other women has accused him of sexual assault or at the very least, unwanted sexual advances, “Look at her. Look at her words. I don’t think so.” No woman could mistake his inference.

It was all in the tone, and I think most women have known that guy. The guy who flirts with you constantly but never in public, never out in the open, because you’re just not fine enough for him, for who he believes he is: better than you, cooler than you, more popular than you. He wants you, but is almost embarrassed by the wanting, because you’re less-than. This usually happens in Middle or High school. The vast majority of men outgrow it; the ones who don’t become predators.

My first was in Middle school. He was tall and blonde, one of the popular boys. While pretty, I was unmistakably Uncool. But he flirted with me all the time when no one else was around and one day, when we’d stayed after school to work on a theater set, he shoved me up against a wall where no one could see and without my consent, felt me up. And of course I never said anything because who would believe me? Who would believe the handsome Lothario of Stacy Junior High School would want to be with plump and terminally uncool me? And what was she doing alone with him between buildings anyway?

The second happened on a Friday night during High school, at a party I should not have attended. A guy who held me down tickling and groping me until I screamed, until I managed to plant my feet in his chest and hurl him against a wall. And everyone laughed. “Oh look, she’s maaaaad!” Like it was funny. Like it was ok for a male to continue touching a female who has said, in no uncertain terms, STOP. I couldn’t count on my sister females to support me any more than I could tell him to go fuck himself for doing that to me, lest they as well as I be forever consigned to the Mortally Uncool. Because the most important thing was being seen by Male Dominance Culture as Cool, no matter how skeevy it made you feel, no matter how much in that moment you desperately need a brain-bleaching. You see, this is where it starts, this is the foundation of women keeping their mouths shut because to Say Something might ruin their chances of promotion, of being able to support themselves or their families. This is the start of culturally gaslighting women, perpetuating the sickness and imbalance of power in male-female relationships of all kinds.

 

Donald Trump is simply rich male privilege writ large. This stuff has been happening forever, and women haven’t spoken out about it in the decades since they gained the right to vote because we worked too hard to gain a foothold in the workplace and in the voting booths to risk it by calling out men on their bullshit. (And yes, I know it’s not all men, not even most, but it is still a too-large proportion.)

What kind of bullshit? The bullshit that results in light sentences for male athletes when they assault incapacitated women behind dumpsters after frat house parties. The bullshit that silences young women on our college campuses, giving male athletes a free pass to use them for their own gratification. The bullshit that a male celebrity can portray himself as America’s Daddy while drugging and raping women. The bullshit that says “She was asking for it” because she wore a short skirt. The bullshit of school dress codes that send girls home from school for wearing tank tops and somehow makes them responsible for the thoughts of boys. The bullshit that confers upon women the moral responsibility for society while constraining their rights of control over their own reproductive systems, and charges them more for maintaining their health.

So this is my rallying cry: Sister Women, the bullshit stops now. Let us be candles for each other, casting our flames upon the slime wherever and whenever we see it, making it shrivel, dry up, and blow away. Let us compete with each other less and bond with each other more. Let us be the reflector of each other’s candlelight. Let us be each other’s safe place in the train car or sidewalk to and from work, in the workplace, at the clubs. Let us teach our daughters and sons to respect women as equal human beings. Let us sing the praises of the legions of parents, male and female, who have raised respectful men who call out the lie of “locker room talk”. Above all, let us speak up, speak out and let our candlelight shine on the bullshit wherever we find it.

I am here for you. I have your back, and I’m counting on you to have mine and most especially our daughter’s and granddaughter’s backs. The bullshit stops here, replaced by the warm glow of our collective candlelight shining on a more just world where all God’s children may flourish, where no girl or woman need stay silent out of fear of reprisal in all it’s nasty, diminishing, bullshit ways.

Women, we are the candles. If we won’t light the way, who will? Stand up, speak out, and shine, shine, shine!

Truth and Reconciliation

Three days after my 18th birthday, my father attempted suicide. His business had failed, he felt he had failed, and he waited until I was old enough to take charge of my, and my mother’s, life. He did not succeed, thank God, but it was in the aftermath the real madness began. Unable to deal with the shame of a suicide attempt (not his first, we learned), my mother spun a tale of “exhaustion” to tell the neighbors and family. As soon as he was stabilized she was lobbying the hospital to release him. California law stipulates a suicide attempt results in three days mandatory commitment to a mental health facility, but my mother was an insistent person and they buckled before her as everyone always did.

I was furious. What the fuck do we do now, I asked, hide the steak knives? We aren’t qualified to deal with this. He might get help if we let him stay the three days. We need to know why this seemed like the answer for him. All my arguments fell on deaf ears and I seethed, knowing we were merely pasting a band-aid over a gaping, festering wound, allowing it to scab back over and it only become worse. How long until it blew open?

This story is not related here to engender sympathy for myself – I don’t feel bad about it anymore. I learned a lot from it, I still learn from it, and long ago I forgave all parties, even myself. It’s a story of an American girl that bears some resemblance to America itself. In the wake of murdered Black civilians and murdered Police Officers, I find myself thinking our collective wound will never heal until we face the systemic causes. Here are a few which haunt me:

Institutionalized Racism:  Death upon death upon death in our streets. Nearly every day I hear the news of another young, Black man shot by police. Next comes the grieving and the posturing, the devastated family on one side, those who would paint the deceased a thug, a miscreant, a criminal on the other, and the line remains firmly drawn between the races. In the wake of a tragedy both sides want easy answers, fast, and so we yell and shout and stamp our feet, pointing fingers at each other. But there are no easy answers because it’s deeper, it’s systemic, and we’re refusing to look honestly at the institutionalized racism which will be awkward at best, excruciatingly painful at worst, to reveal and heal. But this is what we must do, I feel certain of it.

Legacy of Slavery:  We must stop denying the painful legacy of Slavery in this country. I’m white and I don’t have the education to say exactly what that legacy entails, but I imagine it is fiercely complicated. In my gut I know that treating human beings as property, abusing an entire race and breaking up families over generations – casting human beings adrift – has to wreak havoc and cause all manner of mayhem, with ugly ripples flowing out over time and generations. It didn’t disappear with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. A phrase used by my beloved friend, Freda Marie, an Episcopal priest and wise-woman of color, “Generational Depression” has stuck in my head for a few years now; I think we all need an understanding of what that is. We white folks need to acknowledge such things exist. I can relate this to my mother’s hatred for the English and love of the IRA, though she was 300 years and 10 generations removed from Ireland. Hate gets passed down with the recipe for potato salad, it is one of those ripples transcending time and space until we make a conscious, vigilant choice to stop it.

How We Police the Citizenry:  Let’s review training of our police forces, make sure they have the tools and training to de-escalate situations, handle the mentally ill – ironically, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has been doing exactly that, with excellent results, making the shooting in Dallas even more tragic (at least for me). Let’s take a good look at funding community policing or “beat” cops, who walk neighborhoods and know the residents, each able to see the other as unique human beings and potential allies, rather than immediate foes. Cops in cars with no connection to the neighborhoods they serve fosters an Us Vs. Them mentality on both sides.

Failure of the Educational System: We’ve created a pipeline-to-prison in our Educational system, and no one can tell me this isn’t true because I’ve seen it, up close and personal; I know it exists. When I see dead Black teenagers, I see kids I loved on my campuses and it cuts me to the core. I live in fear of hearing a familiar name on the news. One size does not fit all and so we must address failing schools one by one, neighborhood to neighborhood, providing for those in need and overhauling the education system – and let’s listen to the Teachers when we do. Testing is not the answer. Creating a safe space populated with dedicated Teachers, a place where open discourse is encouraged, and everything is fueled with quality nutrition would be a good start. This will cost money or, as I prefer to look at it, an investment in our collective future. No matter what color they are today’s children will be making decisions that affect all of us when my generation are drooling on ourselves in Assisted Living facilities. I want them to have educations which enable good decision making.

Speaking of Prisons:  It is distinctly unhealthy to have a privately-held, for-profit prison system, it destroys the humanity of those on both sides of the bars. There is no incentive to feed them properly, still less to institute any kind of rehabilitative programs. Considering the United States holds the dubious distinction of having the most incarcerated citizens of any NATO country, we need to a) review sentencing guidelines for non-violent crimes, especially the ridiculously harsh ones engendered during the ill-advised and failed “War on Drugs; and b) consider that failing to give an inmate hope for his or her future through quality rehabilitation efforts is to doom them to recidivism.

This is of course not an all-encompassing list. I could go on into housing, health care, mental health care. Each subject thoroughly explored will turn up more issues. But eventually we’ll hit the end, if only we’re strong enough to start digging.

My dad never faced or was encouraged to face his internal demons, and I find it not at all coincidental he died of a massive heart attack 18 months after his failed suicide attempt. What I see in our society is an infection I fear is coming to a critical and perhaps irreversible state due to our collective failure to examine the causes of it. We slap band-aids on the wound, but never do the thorough and hard work of diagnosing the actual causes. To do so will require bravery, and a sharp lancet. It requires we start telling and listening to Truth, even when it hurts. To reject the Truth is to allow our country, this grand experiment founded on the bravest and noblest ideals, to commit suicide.

In South Africa (and other places, too), Truth and Reconciliation Commissions were established, permitting those on all sides of injustice to tell their stories free of reprisal, in order that all could heal and move forward together. I believe our country must look squarely at our old, festering wounds: the legacy of slavery; religious intolerance;  xenophobia; misogyny; and horrible, blatant racism in our justice system. We must hear the stories so we may drain away the poison and take away it’s power to hurt. Then, we may begin to heal. Only in this way, I believe, can we move forward together and realize the greatness I believe exists in the collective American consciousness. We have, in the wonderful diversity of our population, fertile ground to grow a truly great society, but it will take incredible courage. We will get this courage from each other, Black, Brown, Yellow, White, and every wonderful shade in between.

black and white unitedI am prepared to face uncomfortable truths in the hope it propels me and us forward, to a greater peace and understanding. I hope, ask, and pray you will join me.

 

 

 

 

Choosing the Birdsong

Maybe because in the wake of Orlando, I needed inspiration and so listened to David Foster Wallace’s address to Kenyon College, captured in the small book, This is Water,  but I’ve been thinking a lot about choice.

All of life is a choice. I know this is not revelatory information I am dropping here; if you’re a fellow blogger, or a reader of blogs, I imagine you discovered this long ago. We writers write to put our thoughts (because we think a lot) into some solid form, where we can look at and ponder them lest a squirrel cross our path and we lose the thought for all time. And contemplative types (in my experience) know about choice. That we have the power to choose what we take from a situation, how we react to it, what we do with the bits and pieces of our lives, good and bad.

Which isn’t to say we always choose well, or at all. Our strength and vigilance waxes and wanes. There is a lot of noise and tragedy surrounding us. There are a lot of folks invested in keeping the volume of rhetoric turned way, way up and thus, keeping all our lesser emotions ginned up, too.

For me, the noise sometimes becomes so overwhelming I simply shut down and isolate myself from any input at all, which can be healthy as long as I don’t stay there too long. If we shut down completely and choose not to choose, we make the choice of allowing Life to happen to us, with no exercise of our own freewill. For some, this feeds an unhealthy need for abdicating responsibility, or martyrdom, rather than gaining the strength of taking responsibility and with it the power to change that which is not pleasing, or is harmful to ourselves and others.

Behind my backyard are several large pines and a couple of cypresses, home to a variety of birds and some squirrels. In the early morning hours I take my camera with my zoom lens, and a cup of coffee and sit out there, hoping to take pictures of the birds. I’ve done this often enough that I find I listen for their calls, so I know where in the trees they are and can concentrate my attention on that area, my goal to get a nice, clear, sharp picture of any and all of them in flight, wings spread. It eludes me. I have ever so many nice pictures of them sitting on the power lines, or some of the lower branches, the bird feeders or fences, but none of them in full flight, wings spread and markings clear. But I keep going out there anyway, confident that God’s Guardian Angel of Photographers will help me get shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings in whatever cosmic agreement needed to render a sharp, clear, noiseless photo of a bird in flight.

On the other side of the pines and cypresses is a well-trafficked city street. It’s pretty quiet at 6:00 a.m. but the noise from commuter cars soon increases, not overwhelmingly, but enough you know a road is out there. This morning as I sat with my coffee and camera, Ivan the (recently) Terrible in the chair next to me and Blanca snuffling along in the grass, looking for rocks, it occurred to me that I had been so intent on listening for the birds, identifying Cardinals here, Mockingbirds there, a tiny Warbler, too, that I hadn’t noticed any road noise at all. Which of course brought it smack-dab to the forefront of my attention, but in the preceding hour I had heard nothing but birdsong.

With so much hate and vitriol sounding off in the continual feed of a 24/7 news cycle, it is important to make healthy choices, both for ourselves and the world around us. Informed we must be but while always exercising care in choosing our sources, eschewing the shrill and seeking the calm, ever questioning those invested in kindling our anger, and paying heed to the softer spoken, gentler words appealing to our love, patience, and kindness.

We can choose the birdsong.

 

(Un)Safe

It was 4:45 a.m., and the door from my bedroom to the back yard was open just far enough to let Blanca and Ivan go in and out. As I lay in bed listening to crickets and the odd cicada humming, I was warm, comfortable, and safe, enjoying the peace of not-quite morning.

After these last few days of hearing the horror of Orlando, all the talking heads dissecting and analyzing and looking for reasons why, why? it happened, these days of not being able to form a truly coherent thought about it, a memory came unbidden from a long time ago. A very young, very pretty me piled into a car with my equally young, very handsome male Gay friends and headed up to LA to dance the night away in one of the Gay clubs. There I could dance all night without ever having to shake some weird guy who wouldn’t go away, or worry I’d hurt someone’s feelings if I turned down a drink or a dance, had no fear of being cornered or stalked. I was in a place and among people where I was 100% accepted just for being exactly who I was, nothing more, nothing less. And so I danced, laughed and partied free of all concern, because I was safe. Maybe all those in Pulse on Saturday night were feeling that way, too, the more so because unlike white, straight me, it might have been the only place they really were safe, until a bad man with a sick head and a semi-automatic weapon shot his way through the door.

While 49 innocents died from the bullets fired at Pulse, everyone who was there sustained a potentially mortal wound in their loss of feeling safe, of having one place they could go where it was 100% okay to be who they are. Here in our country where in 29 of these United States, it is still legal to fire someone for being Gay. Here, were it is still legal in 30 states to refuse to rent to someone because they are Gay. Where county clerks twist religious liberty to flout Constitutional law and refuse to issue marriage licenses to Gay couples. Here, where televangelists of every ilk use their freedom of speech to spread hate against fellow citizens. Here, where parents feel righteous about throwing their children away, determining the child’s inborn sexuality is either defective or sinful. So for me, this national tragedy is more than even the lives lost and the horrible, devastating ripple effects of their loss – it’s about millions of my fellow citizens, my brothers and sisters who don’t and can’t feel safe. Anywhere. This was stolen from them, from all of us, really. Because as well as killing 49 innocent human beings, Omar Mateen showed us how illusory is the safety any of us feel.

The furor will die down, here in our nation where such horrors have become commonplace. But I will not be silent about these things:

  • the need for universal background checks for anyone who wants to buy a gun, with no exceptions for gun shows, online purchases, inter-family sales;
  • the need for 30-day waiting periods for anyone who wants to buy a gun;
  • on the no-fly list? you’re also on the no-gun list;
  • ability (with proper documentation) for families/domestic partners to “red flag” an unstable person so they can’t get a gun;
  • outlawing the sale of high-capacity clips;
  • term limits for Congress and Senate, so they can’t stay long enough to get too cozy with the NRA and other lobbyists; and, importantly,
  • recognition/legislation rendering it unconstitutional to deny housing, employment, marriage or adoption rights, based upon gender identity/sexual preference, basically, recognition that a citizen is a citizen is a citizen, and it is not our business who said citizen loves provided everyone is of consenting age.

I don’t want to take away guns but I think we must acknowledge that high-capacity clips (magazines) permit sick individuals like the Orlando shooter to create a lot of carnage quickly. Loopholes in background check laws for online and gun show sales allow no time to weed out the mentally unstable, or those who pose a terrorist threat. We must recognize the cause-and-effect of weapons in the wrong hands = dead people.

Citizens always wondering when and where the next atrocity will occur does not seem to me the thoughts of a free population. When a goodly number of our citizens must spend their lives looking over their shoulders for the next act of violence, have to lie in order to earn their daily bread, or refer to their life partner as “roommate” is simply caging them in invisible prisons. The idolatry of guns in our country is steadily and not so slowly putting bars around all of us, the bars of fear and hatred.

I am optimistic enough to believe we have the love and intelligence in this great country to grant all citizens’ equality, and also to make hard decisions about our collective safety. But I am also too old now to worry about being liked for my beliefs, so while I will of course offer my prayers for the victims of Orlando,  I will also be vocal about supporting my LGBTQ fellow citizens equality, and about our need for reasonable action with regard to guns in this country.

I do not wish to be in continual mourning; I wish us all safe.

From Hot Dogs to Hope

The following is an editorial/article I wrote from my church newsletter.

Resurrections: Moving Beyond Hot Dogs, Providing Hope for Homeless Couple

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Nichols, Director of Resurrections Ministries, and a team of seven more Resurrections faithful, for lunch. I was curious about a new venture they’re launching and Larry suggested meeting the rest of the group would prove informative.

chiliResurrections, dedicated to “Provide, Feed, and Serve” the homeless of South Carolina, is an outreach ministry and if you’re in downtown Columbia late on a Saturday morning or early afternoon, you’ll find them on the corner of Taylor & Huger feeding anywhere from 100 – 150 homeless people hot dogs, chili, chips, fruit, and desserts. Originally known as Founders of the Feast, they re-branded as Resurrections in 2012 when Larry Nichols stepped into the leadership role. St. Simon & St. Jude (SSSJ) helps serve the meal about every six weeks. It’s a feel-good ministry, costs one nothing to help, and does a little good in the world. At least, that’s what it looks like to the casual observer.

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Larry Nichols

But like Jonah, I think Larry couldn’t escape the voice of God, or at least a novel idea the team began discussing over the last year. Working with the homeless over time, they came to know them as human beings and realizing the myriad issues each faces in getting off the streets. Though there are many helpful religious, governmental, or other philanthropic organizations which exist to assist the homeless, many do not perfectly match the criteria of any or all and thus, shuffled from one agency to another, they eventually fall through the cracks and spend potentially years living on the streets. This is where the Resurrections team sees themselves stepping in, providing a safety net in the form of a team capable of reacting to the nuances of each individual case, unbound by a rigid set of rules.

The lunch was organized as a status check for a couple the team is helping, who I will here call Mary and Sam. One by one they provide the details of the efforts each has made with the couple over the last week or so: doctors and counseling appointments for Mary, disabled from a horrific accident in her youth and diagnosed with PTSD from years of abuse; unraveling useless documentation from a TV lawyer in order to get Mary disability funds; working to get Sam’s driver’s license up-to-date; coordinating repairs on their temporary housing; getting Sam to a doctor to follow up on nerve damage to one hand that leaves him in crippling pain (though does not prevent him working, which he does).

My head spinning from the list of issues facing this couple, I notice among the group a sort of wry humor, a deeply human understanding of their need to help rather than enable, and a buoyant positivism, even while gaining the understanding it’s not enough assisting Mary and Sam with paperwork and transportation, they must also reeducate them from thinking like homeless people. “One issue with helping the homeless is that we don’t ever get the full story at first,” Larry explains. “It’s not that they’re necessarily lying – sometimes they just don’t know, or their thinking is confused. They don’t think things through. Their thinking becomes survival thinking: where is my next meal? Where will I sleep tonight?”
(For information on mental health issues among the homeless, go to http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/Mental_Illness.pdf)

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Some, not all of the Team

I ask how they vet someone they think they can help, and Larry says they get background checks – which turned up some minor legal issues for Sam in another state – and there must be no active drug or alcohol abuse. Along the table, humor surfaces again as they explain there is a sort of sixth sense for knowing whether or not they are being conned. While remarkably non-judgmental, all admit  it can be sometimes frustrating working with the homeless, no matter how worthy, or how strong one’s desire to help.

Asking the obvious question, given they had been discussing this forward leap for over a year, I ask the group why this couple? Why now?

There follows a few seconds of thoughtful silence until Katie, who had attended the counseling appointments with Mary, offers, “For me, it was about their desire to be off the streets, especially her,” Heads nod vigorously along the table. “She seemed so broken, but I knew I could help her.”

“If you meet them, you’ll understand,” is Jennifer’s explanation, and the rest sketch a picture of a sweet-natured, guileless woman and a man who lovingly accepts her exactly as she is.

Larry mentions that a great deal of the work they do with this couple or any homeless person is challenging and changing their way of thinking, which Katie illustrates by reminding the group to each work with Mary on shedding her habit of persistently apologizing. Years of abuse have left her apologizing for everything, and part of her healing process will be relearning, or perhaps acquiring for the first time, confidence in herself.

Theirs is a tough love, these advocates, just like in any family. Larry points out, “Carole, you’ll have noticed that everyone at this table is strong enough to say “No” when they need to. We could do all of these things for them, but it would last only about half a second.”
Jennifer concurs, adding, “Having this group helps all of us. We get frustrated. We have all put in a lot of work into this couple, but we can come together here and express our frustration.”

These are not dewy-eyed do-gooders rather, all are pragmatic professionals, some but not all retired or semi-retired. Their professions and skills are widely disparate: a paralegal; a PhD in Education; a Veteran/Teacher; a former prison Warden; a medical practice consultant. What they share is a love for this couple, and a vision for the future.

Another name comes up, the potential next candidate for the group to bring in off the streets. He had sent Jennifer a text at 3:00 a.m. to let her know he’s back in Columbia, and he wonders if she can find someone to help him learn to read. She elaborates for me, “Probably because of my background” (Education) “I see so many homeless who I feel certain have un-diagnosed learning disabilities.”

“And because of that, they dropped out, didn’t graduate,” agrees Missie, the Paralegal.

They discuss documentation, since this effort has been learn-as-you-go, and they have learned more than they ever expected. Larry reiterates something he mentioned to me over the phone, the need to create a template and send it out to others, so more homeless can be brought in off the streets.

The final bit of business is finding a name for their group. Suggestions are thrown out, none of which stick. We pay our bills and those who work scatter back to their offices. I stay behind with Larry and Arthur, pondering how many other lives might be positively affected through this group’s dedication to walking with the homeless through the oft-times labyrinthine issues which put them on the street.
“That’s exactly the point of this,” Larry says. “We’re going to create a template to send out to other organizations to use so they don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” and I wonder to myself if he realizes how far out of the belly of the whale he is.

Driving home, I consider what I saw the first time I served at Hot Dogs for the Homeless: a bunch of homeless people, a bunch of church people serving them food and offering clean clothes. It was lovely; it definitely is being Jesus in the World. What I didn’t know is how much went on behind the scenes, how many obstacles stand between the homeless and security, or how eight people with a single focus, the skills each already possess, and a whole lot of love can change a life because they choose to do so.

Katie probably said it best, “She seemed so broken, but I knew I could help.”

My First Political Rally

It was a bit of an anti-climax, actually.

It’s not like I didn’t have time, transportation, and belief in the cause, so I couldn’t think of one good reason not to attend the Planned Parenthood rally on the steps of the capitol of South Carolina.

The purpose of the rally was in protest of House Bill 3114, which would make illegal all abortions after 20 weeks with no exception for cases of incest or rape. Thus, a twelve-year old raped by her father would be forced to carry the fruit of that unholy union to term. And I just can’t believe we are still talking about this stuff in 2016 America.

At first I was afraid I’d never make it there, as a horrendous car accident had the freeway shut down. I texted my daughter while parked in the jam. This is an abridged version of the conversation:

“So I’m on my way to my first political rally, joining Planned Parenthood protesting HB 3114, which would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape or incest. Paul asked me to try to not get arrested.”

“OMG church lady in pink getting hauled away in handcuffs! That would be newsworthy!” I think she was a little too entertained by the idea of her mother’s mugshot.

It’s not like I’m “pro-abortion”. Is anyone? But given the Constitution, given my alleged status as an equal citizen of the United States, given that this is settled law, and especially given the sick way we think about and treat sex in our country, I am very pro-stay-out-of-my-uterus. From useless abstinence-only sex-education in schools, to TRAP laws eliminating access to affordable womens health services (so much more than abortion), to the abandonment of mother and child once the babies are born (you can’t buy diapers with SNAP), there exists a terribly noisy minority seeking to control women through their reproductive organs. And again, in the year 2016, I just can’t believe we’re talking about this.

There were around 100 of us; many had clearly done this before and had made posters and signs. It was heartening to see a few men there supporting the cause.

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SC Rep. Mia McLeod

There were an equal number of male and female legislators speaking out against the Bill, the men in particular calling on women to run for office and increase the number of women making law.

But my favorite was Representative Mia McLeod, who introduced HB 4544 requiring men seeking a prescription for Viagra to submit to a waiting period, provide a notarized affidavit from a recent sexual partner attesting to his inability to get and maintain an erection, and undergo counseling and stress tests “to ensure the health of the patient”.

“It was never about erectile dysfunction,” Ms. McLeod explained, in the same way that HB 3114 and TRAP laws have nothing to do with the health and safety of women.

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SC Senator Marlon Kimpson

It’s about power and control and a gross, willful misinterpretation of constitutional law, explained State Senator Brad Hutto.

Interestingly enough, on the way to the rally I was listening to NPR (of course) and Gloria Steinem was being interviewed, promoting her new eight-part documentary Woman on cable channel Viceland. She stated the most violent societies are those where a premium is placed on controlling women/women’s reproduction and a cursory glance around the globe makes me dead curious about exploring the data behind this statement, because along with the radical Mideast, the United States appears to be, for my money, a terribly violent place and particularly for women, three of whom die daily at the hands of a domestic partner. Ms. Steinem went on to state that the safest societies, both past and present, were those where parity exists between the sexes.

This is why I recoil from measures such as HB 3114, bills that implicity, if not explicitly state, Oh sure, we’re all equal except for 50 % of the population. So we’re going to “protect” you by imposing our religious values upon you, using discredited science and the First Amendment to do so. That is not religious liberty; that is religious tyranny, and if Sharia law repulses you, please understand that willfully using the freedom of religious liberty guaranteed you by the First Amendment to impose your religious values on your fellow citizens amounts to the exact same thing.

So off I went, and standing in the brilliant hot sun of a Southern spring afternoon I chanted along with the rest, having only one moment of terror when four buses emblazoned, “Christian Tours” rolled by, afraid they would disgorge hundreds of angry zealots who would then shout down common sense. But they were headed elsewhere and the only protesters were a lovely young woman who pointedly rolled adorable twins past us, asking, “Aren’t they beautiful!? Their momma chose LIFE!” to which our organizer, Alyssa Miller, sweetly responded, “At least she had a choice!”

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A small contingent of the Fourth Estate

The second naysayer was an old man carrying a life-sized cross over his shoulder and wheeling along a portable PA system. He mounted the steps and tried to erect his cross in front of the speaking legislators but was gently escorted back down the steps by one of the police officers on duty. Re-shouldering the cross, he wheeled about 30 yards away, took to his mic and tried to talk over the legislators, but again the police officer politely dissuaded him. Finally he rolled down to the curb, picked up his mic and exhorted us all to repent lest we burn in hell eternal.

And then it was done. The news crews snatched up their mics and packed away heavy cameras in lightening speed and were gone. I walked back to the parking garage a couple blocks away and went home. Did my presence make a difference? I don’t know. Probably not. But my voice and my vote are all I have, and I have no patience for those who bemoan the state of affairs yet do nothing to change it. So I raised my voice. It’s what I can do for my sisters who might not have the advantages I do, such as access to healthcare and the support of a loving spouse. For them, for my daughter, I raised my voice.

Semantics: Because Words Matter

My friend Cynde had a genius Facebook status the other day, one which sparked good conversation and got me thinking – she really helped crystallize something in my head which has been swirling around for a long time, specifically, what we call something, the words we use, make a difference in how we feel about them.

Cynde declared war on “tolerance,” likening tolerating human beings as taking the same attitude as tolerating lima beans in her soup, or nuts in brownies, that tolerance of fellow humans was akin to holding one’s nose and eating the spinach, but complaining about it later. Her brilliant, simple assessment flipped on the light in my head, and I realized what’s been troubling me about tolerance: it’s not the same as respect, not by a long shot. I told you – she’s a genius!

It was the lima bean reference that put the point on it for me. Flash back a million years or so when I was a child and eating a big bowl of my mother’s chili (which I loved, by the by). It was thick and rich and yes, it had beans but it also had squishy stewed tomatoes, which I loathed. As a child I disliked all tomatoes on principle because the seeds look vaguely larval, and never mind that tomatoes were the basis of so many things I loved, like spaghetti, pizza, and Campbell’s tomato soup (with grilled cheese sandwiches, of course). So I’d bitch and moan and ceremoniously fish those stewed-tomato particles out of my chili, depositing them with a great deal of attitude and flair, into my mother’s bowl. She could eat them if she liked them so much. As a teenager, the rough side of my mother’s tongue and wicked-fast backhand taught me to shut up and tolerate them, so I no longer fished them out of my bowl but rather pointedly left them there after all else was eaten, or gagged them back with a grimace and undoubtedly some vigorous eye-rolling.

But a funny thing happened on the way to maturity: somewhere down the line I gave tomatoes a chance, probably when I encountered a farm-fresh or home-grown one, ripe and juicy and delicious all on its own. I moved from tolerating them, with the underlying resentment of their very presence, into respecting them, and finally liking them a whole bunch.

What Cynde helped me realize is that when we say we tolerate a person or people whom we deem “other,” what we’re really doing is holding our noses and deigning to permit their co-existence in our sphere without bitching about it to their faces. And that’s kind of condescending and icky, really, because of the implicit, if not explicit resentment that comes with it. Respect is different; respect carries no resentment, respect says “You’re different than me but that’s ok because we both bring gifts and value to this thing called Life, and that’s cool.” It’s my opinion that if we stop tolerating the folks who are “other” in our minds and work towards respecting them, we’ll flush out and banish a lot of hidden resentment and anger in our collective life.

There are other words and phrases grating on me, and which I believe make our lives unnecessarily difficult or sometimes purposefully obfuscated, like Human Resources. Once upon a time large businesses had a Personnel Department, and it dealt with People. Somewhere down the corporate road, I suspect hand-in-hand with lay-offs and outsourcing and maximizing efficiencies, humans became commodities, just like copper, pork bellies, or frozen concentrated orange juice futures. It’s so much easier to lay off 20,000 faceless human resources in order to maximize efficencies and guarantee stockholders a fat dividend check, than 20,000 actual personnel with faces, families, and lives.

Lately I hear the term “Food Insecurity” being bandied about. Meaning hunger, right? Children living with food insecurity are hungry. I know this, because I’ve actually met them, the kids who don’t qualify for Free and Reduced lunch, but who’s cafeteria account runs dry about three days before their mom gets paid. When they came into my office looking for snacks, those children were hungry. Saying children are food insecure is somehow less scary than saying, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, that they are hungry. What I’d like to hear someone say is why the hell are they hungry? followed closely by, how do we immediately ensure they are no longer hungry?

Perhaps it is part of whatever societal infection has everyone insulted all the time. We’ve become such delicate little flowers we can’t stand to hear something called by it’s name. It’s like political rhetoric, how they string together a lot of nice-sounding words that, when analyzed, really have no meaning. “Make America Great Again” –  what the actual fuck does that even mean? But the crowd roars and applauds, never questioning, buoyed by their collective anger and turning it on anyone who appears “other”. I find it all extremely worrying.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been told I could have phrased something better, made some ugly truth somehow more palatable to the ear. But I was the kid who ripped the band-aid off quick, who jumped into the water all at once rather than bit by bit. At times of crisis in my family, I was the truth teller to my mother’s fantasy-spinner. She hid from the horrible reality of things, while I preferred to look the enemy in the eye, stand and fight, but I’ve always hated the judgment of others when I do. I guess at my advanced age it’s just time to own being the person who calls ’em likes I sees ’em, and stop being so worried about what others think of me.

Cynde, loins girded and sword drawn, I will fight by your side any day, challenging all purveyors of obfuscation, bullshit, and meaningless rhetoric, beginning with myself because I’m sure I’m full of tolerance where respect would serve better.