“I’m Sorry”

 

My first day at my new, Lynchburg, Virginia high school, a classmate confronted me: “You’re a Yankee, aren’t you?”

In a baby-blue shirtwaist, a white cardigan with pearl buttons draped across my shoulders, fourteen-year-old me nodded.

“I hate Yankees,” she snarled—and recited horrific facts and figures regarding Sherman’s march to the sea.

“But I wasn’t even alive, then,” I sputtered indignantly. “That was the Civil War!”

Civil?” she pounced. “There was nothing civil about it!”

Nearly sixty years later, what might I now say to that woman?

“I’m sorry, ” I’d begin, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book underpinning my careful words. “What Sherman did was unspeakable—well, no, that’s the wrong word. Because you and I, we need to talk about that bloody, horrible war. You and I need to talk about how that war was about maintaining a “peculiar institution.” Let’s talk about slavery, you and I. And I need to talk about the unspeakable injustice my Pilgrim ancestors did to the people whose land they stole. We both need to acknowledge our shared history of oppression. We need to own that our forefathers were the oppressors! So, to begin, Carole Fielder*, let me say this: I am truly sorry for what Sherman did.”

And I would mean every word.

*Voted Most Likely to Succeed by the Class of 1962

 

 

 

Upstream

“Umbro” (Shadow), Union Square, Somerville, MA, August, 2017

There was a time in my life when I told myself,”If I/we can just through this [insert Crisis of The Week here], I/we will be just fine.” This went on for years. Slowly it came to me: there’s always a crisis. Stop saying “If I can just . . . ” and start looking at why this keeps happening. Figure out how to protect yourself from constant fear and anxiety. Figure out what’s going on, upstream, to keep this constant flow coming, coming, coming? (And so, Dear Reader, I did.)

Nevertheless, it took Naomi Klein’s amazing No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics And Winning the World We Need to recognize that the scenario I once knew so painfully is everyone’s, now.

Here’s the bit that did it for me:

Experiencing Trump’s tsunami of Oval Office decrees—seven executive orders in his first eleven full days, plus eleven presidential memoranda issued in that same period—has felt a little like standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines. Opponents might swat back a ball or two, but we’re all still getting hit in the face over and over again. Even the widespread belief among many (or is it hope) that Trump will not last his full term contributes to the collective vertigo: nothing about the current situation is stable or static, which is a very difficult position from which to strategize or organize. (p. 135)

Precisely.

So how do we find our collective footing when we’re all getting hit in the face? (As I write this we are, again, on the edge of nuclear war with North Korea. Dear God! And I marvel that my computer allows me to write those terrifying words without shuddering—and turning itself off.) Naomi Klein offers us a handbook.

Let’s get started.

 

Thank you, Brother West

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; June, 2017

“I am here because somebody loved me,” Cornel West declared at last week’s Harvard Divinity School convocation. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person hearing his words who didn’t immediately conjure up sopping-wet, helping hands reaching out to someone in need in Houston. Many of us, I’m guessing, silently acknowledged life’s ever-present disasters*—and yet here we all were, safe and dry and ALIVE because, despite their inadequacies, the someones in our own lives had gotten us through.

Talk about inadequate! My words to describe how Brother West‘s declaration moved me will only hint at what I want to say! But here goes:

I felt not just the love of West’s parents and the congregants of Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church and all the loving people in his life—like his teachers; he spoke their names with reverence— that brought him to that (fancy) HDS podium last week, I felt eons of Love. I felt its enormous, glorious Power. I felt every single compassionate and loving act that every single member of our species had ever bestowed, shared, offered to another! Talk about welling up!

In the coming days and weeks, may you, may we find whatever ways available to us to connect with that Power. (We’re going to need it.)

 

*Some of them, like Hurricane Harvey, man-made. (Which makes them that much more devastating, right?)

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

Numbered

[Shipyard, Gloucester, MA; 2016]

On the thirty-first anniversary of the Challenger tragedy and the same, infamous day Muslims were being refused entry into this country, I saw “Hidden Figures.” That such an unlikely competitor to “Rogue One” has been such a surprising, box office hit for much of January; well, I just had to see it. Especially after hearing what Leslie Jones had to say!

It’s not a great movie. And yet it’s a great movie. “Based on a true story,” there are moments when I thought, “Yeah! Right! Never happened like that. No way.” (The Kevin Costner and a crowbar scene, for example. C’mon!) But hyper-aware of the Trump-era world outside that movie theater, it was easy to forgive Hollywood silliness. Because, dear God, do we need good fables right now! We desperately need stories that applaud, that celebrate grit and brilliance and math and science and sisterhood and the idea that when one of us succeeds, we all do. (Both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer say this at different times in the movie.) Because, as many brilliant people like Joanna Macy believe, what’s happening right now, as terrifying as it is, is actually the death throes of an Old Order. A new era is coming; I truly believe this (if Orange Fingers doesn’t nuke us all, first!).  And we’ll need uplifting (pardon the pun) stories to guide us as we move into that Brave New World.

Who Gets to Say What’s True?

[Friends Meeting at Cambridge, January 1, 2017]

Saturday I saw “Fences.” And one line from the Denzel Washington (Troy) and Olivia Davis (Rose) movie, set in Pittsburgh in 1957, hit me just as hard in 2016 as had the same line in the staged version—which I’d seen in 2009. Troy and Rose are arguing about their teenaged son Cory’s future. Troy wants Cory to get a trade; Rose believes if he goes to college on a football scholarship he’ll be able to make his way. So she says something to the effect of, “You’re just being stubborn, Troy. Things are different (for people of color), now. There are more opportunities.” But as the story unspools, and we’ve spent some time within Troy and Rose’s shut-off-from-opportunity world, even the most clueless white person has to admit: Nope. Troy’s not being stubborn. Oppression was real in 1957. And, sadly, in 2017.

Which makes the Pew Research Center’s Study on Race and Inequality required reading. For my white brothers and sisters.