Thursday, December 31, 2009

FOR ANN-MARIE CLARK, 30 DECEMBER 2009

When I came home from the hospice I loaded up the dishwasher as I heated up a meal of leftovers: some paella from Christmas day, alu gobi from Sunday dinner, roasted turnips and yams from Monday, and a bit of leftover Chinese take-out.

I listened to NPR as I ate: stories about the attempted bombing on the Northwestern flight, the new health care proposal, WWII conscientious objectors, and more. I scrubbed the stovetop as I listened. “It’s your turn to clean the stove,” I told Ed days ago. After heavy use over Christmas, with the kids home, and lots of friends over, the stovetop was greasy and crusty. I’d spent half an hour scrubbing it after Ed’s department party at our house, and didn’t want to do it again. But now Ed was in New York visiting his parents, and the stove still dirty.

I gave in and cleaned the damn stove, not willing to hold out for ideology any longer. I gave the stovetop my all, wiping away not only the most recent grease, but even old stains from months past. I took out a metal spatula and scraped away at the ceramic top.

I held you in my mind, Ann-Marie, as I scrubbed. After a year battling melanoma, and a remission I cavalierly assumed was permanent, your body broke out in cancer again, no longer responsive to treatments. Slowly, you let go, and after you came home from the hospital for Christmas, it became clear you were ready for hospice.

When I visited you today, you were well along the path. Unconscious in your bed, even my cold hands coming in from the December frost didn’t startle you. Head back, mouth open, one hand rested on your chest. Several of us gathered and sang for you, songs you knew well from the song circles you’d been attending and hosting for years.

Be like a bird
who halting in her flight
on a limb too slight feels it give way beneath her
yet sings, sings, knowing she has wings


Members of your meditation group came and chanted prayers. I offered a eurythmy Halleluiah. We shared Ann-Marie stories, talking about how much you love to laugh, how good a friend you are, what a compassionate therapist. Where would I start? After 20 years of friendship, what story would I tell? I chose to stay in a deep, rich silence, standing beside your bed, imagining where your inner work was leading you.

Driving home, however, I remembered an incident you were part of. It was at another hospice, where a student of mine lay dying, and several of us from the song circle gathered to sing for her. However, when we walked into the patient’s room, I realized this was not my student, and that in fact, I didn’t know this person at all. After a few confused minutes, we decided to sing for her anyway. Some friends and family members were in the room, and they encouraged us to stay. We realized that it really didn’t matter that we didn’t know this person, and in fact, we could’ve walked into any room of the hospice and offered to sing. On the way home, we laughed heartily over my blunder, while appreciating the magic that had transpired. Her family was so appreciative, and the patient responded to us in her own way, by raising her arm and turning her head.

And now we are singing for you. After all your years mothering, dancing, singing, cooking, healing, now you are still. You are leaving this earthly plane, you are leaving your young adult children and your husband, and hundreds of people who love you. You are on a journey we can only observe from a great distance, wishing you well, singing you songs, and chanting prayers.

Back at home, I keep scrubbing the stove, a privilege and burden of the living. Your hand, Ann-Marie, that I held as I sang, will never wield a spatula or kitchen sponge again. In your hospice bed, you have completely transcended dirty stovetops, unread emails, difficult clients, floods, and earthquakes. You are finished with walking along the Milwaukee River, dancing in the kitchen, writing poems. But death, too, is a good place. For you, my friend, my soul-sister, I scrub the stove spotless.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

RETHINKING CHRISTMAS

How do you take the most commercialized, commodified holiday of the year and truly make it meaningful for yourself, your family, and your community? This Christmas I am especially struck by the Christian message of humility contrasted with the secular message of consumption.

In Christian liberation theology, we are invited to identify with a Jesus who is poor, oppressed, and alienated. We see Jesus as a figure who enters suffering willingly and transcends it. At Plymouth UCC we recently watched an interview of black liberation theologist Dr. James Cone with Bill Moyers.

Do we identify with the oppressed or with the oppressor? James Cone asks. Do we identify with those in power or with the powerless? Our answer may affect how we choose to commemorate Christmas.

A Facebook friend recently mentioned how much she loves Christmas in Manhattan, and several people chimed in with “thumbs up” and agreement about the beautiful shop windows on Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t help bursting the bubble. “Seriously?” I commented, “I try to stay away from all that.”

Didn’t we have our crash? Aren’t lavish window displays soooo 2008? Do we still identify with the wealthy and powerful, having suffered at their hands, losing jobs and houses and health care and more? Do we still long for luxury, knowing how fleeting it all is, and knowing that the environment or developing nations have been exploited to produce many such goods? Remember GW Bush’s “haves and have-mores”? Surely we are over all that.

If we take Jesus’s suffering to heart, how does that affect the celebration of Christmas? Thankfully my kids, young adults, have matured beyond the hunger for new toys that used to dominate the holiday, and we have been able to keep the gift exchange low-key.

So how do we honor the holiday without the commercial trappings? How do we celebrate Christmas as common people, working people, simple people, honoring Jesus, who was born in a shed, for God’s sake?

As soon as my teaching obligations ended for the year, I went into a sewing frenzy. I set up my sewing machine in the dining room, went through my piles of scrap fabric, and sewed: 2 pairs of yoga bloomers, 6 yoga mat bags, 5 pranayama bolsters, and 1 one grocery shopping bag, so far. When the kids were little we used to make dozens of candles to give to friends. I find that making things serves as a wonderful foil to consuming, which can often feel more like destroying. Instead of destroying we are creating. We also used to make handmade Christmas cards, loving inscribed with personal messages. Since the kids have gotten older, this tradition fell by the wayside, but I’m determined to send cards again this year. I also made quite a few cds of my favorite podcasts over the past year, from favorite public radio programs such as Speaking of Faith and Radiolab.

We celebrated Christmas day with our second annual film festival, with each member of the family selecting a film. I invited my whole local email list of 200 friends, and quite a few came by, including Jews and atheists, those without family in town, and several members of my favorite demographic—older single women.

Not only at Christmas, but throughout the year, can we take on the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressor? Can we live like Jesus each day? Can we identify more with those who suffer than those who inflict suffering? Can we stop imposing suffering on others and instead be willing to take it on ourselves? What about people of color and women, who are already at a lower level of privilege, can we still embrace suffering? Is it appropriate to do so? Please consider all these questions with me, and examine them through these Holy Nights, and let me know what you come up with.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

EMBRACING THE OTHER: A talk given at Unitarian Universalist Church West on 25 Oct 2009

Like all of you I am a seeker of truth. I don’t have all the answers but I have a lot of good questions. So the question I pose today is: how do we embrace “otherness” within ourselves, our families, neighborhoods, schools, cities, nation, and planet? How do we honor difference while recognizing our inherent unity?

As social beings we are trained to look for allies, build coalitions, and come into community. Our development and survival as complex social animals depends on this skill. Like other primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, we become more independent as adolescents and at that critical time, go off to find our communities. I have 3 young adult children, ranging from first year college to recent college graduate, so I have been observing and trying to support from afar this rite of passage of moving out of the parent home and establishing community elsewhere.

The dark side of socialization is that we are trained, some might argue “hard-wired,” to be wary of “the other”—the people the next town over, the Minnesota Vikings, the rival high school. We may even dislike the grocery store across the street from the one we usually go to—“the staff there is not as nice” or “their vegetables look old.” In a consumer culture and economy, we’re even trained to cultivate such judgments about products. “Oh, I only drink such and such water”; “I will only use this brand of toothpaste.” These preferences or judgments are often more or less harmless.

Especially in times of duress we cling to community. We may hunker down, and surround ourselves with the familiar and comfortable. If you are of European ancestry (white) and you grew up in a town or city of people who look like you—your teachers, your banker, your pastor, your grocer, your doctor—a Lake Wobegon of racial homogeneity—and now your town is unrecognizable—perhaps there’s a bodega on Main Street, and next to that a Chinese restaurant, and the grocery is run by an East Indian family, and your doctor has a foreign accent and a name you have difficulty pronouncing, your high school alma mater is now ¾ African American, and worst of all your job has been shipped overseas to Mexico or China—your growing discomfort makes complete sense. Like I’ve said, we are social beings, and if our colony is shrinking because jobs are moving away and peers are aging or dying, then we have strong reason for concern.

But when this growing discomfort turns into fear, when our amygdalae fire up and we click into reactive, emotional brain mode instead of analytical frontal lobe brain function, then things can get ugly. This is when fear of the other kicks in. And all too often, the other has brown skin, may be an immigrant, may worship differently from you, and is poor. Take one look at the health care debate, at the “tea parties,” the conservative backlash that was all over the media this summer to see how fear of the other manifests in mainstream culture.

The message on my telephone answering machine quotes Laura Ingalls Wilder, who said, “Persons appear to us according to the light we throw upon them from our own minds.” If the light from my mind that I throw to you is distrusting, you will look suspicious to me—maybe like that image of Obama in white-face painted like “The Joker.” If the light from my mind is fearful, you will look threatening to me, like suspecting any man of Middle Eastern descent a terrorist.

That is, our prejudices shape the way we view and experience the world. Our prejudices can be conflated with intuition or the sixth sense or “energy” and can contribute to our survival and well-being. But they can also be overactive or oversensitive, like an overactive immune system that results in chronic allergies. We can develop an “allergy” to the other, especially if we have been hurt repeatedly. “I’m never going to that store again.—they overcharged me,” we may say, or “I never take that street—there are always people running across it.” We may feel rejected or endangered or exploited by the other.

But if “the light we throw upon them from our own minds” is loving and trusting, we will not fear difference. Thus there are many white people who are not attending anti-Obama rallies. Why are they not concerned about, as conservative protesters vaguely attest, “the direction our country is going”?

For instance, I would guess that not many of you have attended the anti-Obama rallies and have little anxiety about a black man running our country. Why is this? I attest that it’s because you have learned, and are learning, to embrace the other. Of course this is a path, not an action. We have to practice embracing otherness over and over again, more and more deeply.

Now political and social progressives may ask, why even accept the distinction of otherness? Aren’t we all the same underneath superficial differences? On a biological/genetic level, race does not even exist. And class is utterly malleable. Why even acknowledge difference or otherness? Aren’t we perpetuating stereotypes and separation? Aren’t we post-everything now? Post-colonial, post-modern, post-racial, post-feminist?

True, race has no biological basis, but as a social construct, we see its effects in the US and all over the world expressed through status, rights, and differing levels of privilege. We have to acknowledge these differences in order to dismantle them. To say we’re post-racial is to live on a street where there are 5000 square foot mansions mixed with 500 square foot trailer homes and to claim they are the same. Deep down inside, they are all houses, one and all. But of course they are not the same, otherwise the residents of the mansions would gladly trade with the trailer home residents. The residents of both types of homes are equal in human worth, but not equal in social, cultural, and economic privilege.

Studies among macaques and baboons indicate that lower status monkeys have more cortisol in their bloodstream—that is they experience more stress than higher status animals. It’s easy to understand why this may be if we stop and think about it: they have less access to food, their offspring get bullied more, they get swatted, they get food pulled away from them, they have little choice in mating, they have to sleep in uncomfortable vulnerable spots.

But I’m not here to convince you of white privilege and the racial gap in the US. That data is straightforward and readily available. You can just GTS: “Google that shit.” (One excellent website: United for a Fair Economy, faireconomy.org)

As an Iyengar yoga teacher, my job is to help people become more aware. Aware of our bodies, actions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Aware even of our organs, our breathing, to make the unconscious more fully conscious.. If we are really observant and honest with ourselves, we will notice that we experience different comfort levels in various settings. For instance compare your response to driving on North Avenue at 130th Street in Brookfield to North Avenue and 27th Street in Milwaukee. On N. 27th Street do you check your locks? Do you roll up your windows? Does your heart beat just a tad faster? Does your breathing subtly alter? This is our bodies experiencing otherness, experiencing difference. Of course if you drive here everyday, you don’t experience otherness here. My friend Young Kim is at Fondy Market and I’m sure he feels at home in the neighborhood. But this takes practice, repeated effort, trust and relationship-building.

I believe our task as evolving social beings is to make ourselves more comfortable with discomfort. I believe we should deliberately place ourselves in situations out of our comfort zone. Once that becomes comfortable, go to a new place and push the envelope further.

For instance, if you are white, place yourself in situations where you are the racial minority. Go to a black church, shop in a black or Latino neighborhood, ride the city bus, go to a foreign country and stay in a hostel or a 2-star hotel instead of a 5-star resort, work for an organization run by people of color, move into the central city where thousands of beautiful houses wait for refurbishing, teach for MPS.

But go not to convert, but to be converted. Go not to lead, but to follow. Go to educate yourself, not to educate others. Go in humility, not in pride. Go not to be loved, but to love.

The only way to dissolve the fear of difference is to immerse yourself in it. We have to acknowledge difference before we can dissolve it. I cannot stress this step in healing enough, especially to well-meaning liberals so eager for unity that huge, glaring differences in privilege are overlooked.

In order to embrace the other, we must embrace the other within. What does it mean to embrace the other within ourselves? In the film “Traces of the Trade,” a white family is in Ghana, researching their family’s legacy in the slave trade. They meet with a group of school children and engage in frank discussion with them about their ancestors’ role in slavery. A girl asks one of the white men, “Are you not ashamed?” Meaning, aren’t you ashamed to show your face here after what your family has done to our people? He is speechless for a moment, and then responds to the child, “Yes, yes, I am ashamed.” For that moment he has come face to face with the other within.

Can we be present with our own shadow without indulging in defensiveness or self-flagellation? Can we witness ourselves with discernment but without judgment? At Alverno College, we have “Love Your Body” week. Often I will ask my students to try, for our entire 2 hour class, to not pass judgment on themselves, to not harbor a single negative thought about themselves. As women, it’s practically a social obligation to publicly criticize ourselves.

Can we just be present with compassion? Not even forgiveness, not yet, we mustn’t rush to resolve and put a bandage on wounds that have not yet been cleaned. Can we just be there, standing in our own shadow, standing before the mirror, seeing what we see with utter honesty?

As we practice embracing the other inside we can also practice embracing the other outside. These inner and outer practices are necessary and complementary. Rudolf Steiner writes,
In search of yourself,
The world contains the answer.
In search of the world,
The answer lies in you.

In order to embrace the other, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, humble, and contrite. We have to make ourselves servants, and not expect to be leaders. If we accept leadership, it’s as servant-leaders.

One white artist friend commented that she wants to move into Milwaukee’s north side where she can have space for her art studio and keep living expenses low, but when she drives through those neighborhoods, kids throw empty cans at her car and she feels unwelcome. Another white friend who is married to a Palestinian Christian says that although she converted to Eastern Orthodox to marry him, she feels unwelcome in their church. One white teenage boy felt hurt at summer camp with Mexican boys who spoke Spanish to each other whenever they wanted to exclude the white kids.

All these are stories of white people experiencing resistance to the dominant culture, which they represent. In the US and arguably around the world, the people on top, although changing, still tends to be white. It makes us extremely uncomfortable to admit it, but we live in a white supremacy. White privilege continues to pervade every institution.

Not to justify the kids throwing cans, or the Palestinian Christians who didn’t notice the girl sitting by herself, or the Mexican kids talking only to themselves, but I say, “welcome to my world.” In the US, and quite sharply in Milwaukee, people of color routinely, daily, constantly put themselves into contexts where they are the only, or one of few brown people in a white society. I’ve had many a metaphoric can thrown at me since childhood from white people. I’ve had many white people ignore me, afraid I might not speak their language or have anything in common with them. I’ve had many occasions when white people speak in coded, idiomatic, colloquial language I did not grow up with and do not understand. But when the tables are turned onto white people, it’s such a new experience that white people may feel extremely discomfited, threatened, and even angry.

Instead, I beseech you, be there in that discomfort. Soften your heart, soften your breath, let tears come. Welcome this discomfort, be humble. In this place you are in solidarity with Palestinians in refugee camps, in solidarity with occupied Iraqis, with Native Americans in impoverished reservations, with generations in poverty in our own cities with no jobs, no health care, no way out. Be there. When I teach yoga, I coach my students to stay in that asana with discernment, with compassion, with steadiness, without judgment, with integrity. Be there. Stay there. Feel what you feel.

Only to the degree that we can feel what the other is feeling can we heal. That crumpled can thrown at the car can be viewed as an energy projectile. Instead of interpreting its meaning as “F- you,” can we instead understand it as, “I dare you to feel what I am feeling. I invite you to feel what I am feeling. I beg you to feel what I am feeling.” Only to the degree that we can empathize with another can we heal.

Otherwise we just pass the pain around, like a virus. I have a friend who works in MPS high schools teaching restorative justice. She told me an absolutely heart breaking story. A boy assaulted a teacher and the police were called in. A skillful and compassionate teacher was able to talk with him and calm him down. The police were able to escort the boy out of school without handcuffs. However on the way out of the building he ran into a girl, 9 months pregnant, whom he knew. He went up to her and punched her in the stomach. She began having contractions and an ambulance was called. The boy was handcuffed and taken away in the squad car.

Whatever the boy was experiencing that day, he passed on to the teacher. He was able to calm down but not to fully process the pain, because then he passed it on to the girl and her baby. The baby will bear trauma, and where will that pain go? The pain of the boy is also our pain.

We must stop the cycle. We must stop, witness, and hold the pain, process it, then transform it. We transform it into philanthropy, political action, vegetable gardens, artwork, blogs, and so forth. In this manner, we are all called to be bodhisattvas. We are here to heal. It is that simple. As we heal ourselves we heal the other, as we heal the other we heal ourselves.

To close I have a prayer by Rabbi Harold Schulweis:

God is not in me nor in you but between us.
God is not me or mine nor you or yours but ours.
God is known not alone but in relationship.
Not as a separate, lonely power, but through our kinship, our friendship. through our healing and binding and raising up of each other.
To know God is to know others, to love God is to love others, to hear God is to hear others.
More than meditation, more than insight, more than feeling, between us are claims, obligations, commandments: to act, to do, to behave our beliefs.
I seek God not as if God were alone, an isolated person. He or She, a process, a power, a being, a thing. I seek God not as if I were alone, a thinker, a mediator, a discrete entity.
I seek God in connection, in the nexus of community. I pray and celebrate the betweeness which binds and holds us together.
And even when I am left alone, I am sustained by my memory of our betweeness and the promise of our betweeness.
God is not in me, or in you, or in God’s self, but in betweeness and it is there we find the evidence of God’s reality and our own.

May it be so.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

CROWS, GATES, AND WHITE PRIVILEGE

Recently on NPR, Robert Krulwich did a piece on crows and their ability to recognize humans. The story featured two researchers who band baby crows, then undergo outright hostility from the crow community. The crows yell at the men even if they’re on the other side of town or playing tennis, circling overhead and scolding.

One researcher decided to wear a caveman mask when he banded crows, and noticed that every time he wore the mask the crows would find him and scold him. So he tried getting others of different sizes and gender to wear the mask, and sure enough the crows scolded them too. He tried a Dick Cheney mask, but the crows didn’t respond to it. He even tried wearing the caveman mask upside down. The crows would twist their heads around to peer at the face then start scolding again.

The researchers concluded that the reason why crows recognize humans is because their survival depends on it. Crows have to learn who the friendly and unfriendly people are. One person might feed them, another shoot them. Humans, on the other hand, have a difficult time telling crows apart. On NPR they created a crow lineup of photos and sure enough Steve Innskeep couldn’t tell them apart.

As a person of color I’ve learned to size up people pretty quickly, and to gravitate toward some and stay clear of others. You could say, like the crows, that my survival depends on this evolutionary skill. As an Asian woman, my survival may not be staked as high as an African American man’s survival. However in a white-dominant society, those who do not fit the mold have learned to watch their backs.

But white privilege means that Caucasians don’t have to recognize me. I can be just one of those nice/smart/sweet/petite Asian girls. After all, unless I’m their surgeon, the survival of whites in America doesn’t depend on my being friendly to them. In a white supremacy, whites can pretty much go where they want, avoid neighborhoods that make them uncomfortable, and say and do what they want without having to expend effort getting to know people of color.

How many times have I not been recognized? Once I taught a poetry workshop and afterwards a white student told me there was another Peggy Hong in Milwaukee who was also a poet. He saw her perform a few weeks ago and thought I should meet her. No, I gently corrected him, there is not another poet named Peggy Hong in Milwaukee. Yes, he insisted, indeed there is, what a wild coincidence, and on and on. Even though he’d just spent two hours looking at my face he could not recognize that I was the same person he’d seen previously, OR he was assigning my name to another Asian woman poet, thus conflating us.

Another time, I said hello to a white neighbor at my child’s school event. We’d lived across the street from him for six years and he stared completely blankly at me. Even after I explained to him how we knew each other—I’m Meiko’s mom, I live at 4061—he drew a blank. In fact we teach at the same college and I’ve seen him around campus, but I didn’t even try to explain this to him: too much work.

Many people in their most honest moments admit they have difficulty telling people of other races apart. One needs continuous exposure and lots of practice. Why bother if you don’t have to?

And finally we arrive at Skip Gates at his home in Cambridge, where his neighbor failed to recognize him entering his own house. Lucia Whalen was walking down the street from her workplace at Harvard Magazine at 7 Ware Street. An elderly woman stopped her, concerned about the men on the porch of 17 Ware pushing on the front door. Lucia Whalen decided to call the police to let them know of this unusual occurrence. Apparently neither woman recognized Dr. Gates, neither as a public figure nor as a neighbor.

Many such incidents, taken in isolation, seem unrelated to race. But after the 5th, 10th, or 20th similar event, one would be in denial not to see a pattern.

Every Asian American child has had the experience in school of kids or teachers mistaking them for someone else, or of being lumped together with the other Asians. Teachers can often get away with not really knowing their students individually, but students must know their teachers. Just as students have to know their teachers and their pet peeves and predilections, people of color have to know the white people around them.

Gates stated in an interview that when he moved to Lexington, MA, he marched himself down to the police station to introduce himself. I live at this address, I drive a Mercedes, I work at Harvard… to make sure the police would recognize him. He admitted he had not introduced himself to the Cambridge Police and that he should have. But should that really be necessary?

I also went down to my local police precinct to introduce myself. On an ordinary Saturday evening a few months after we moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor called 911 on us for a “suspicious vehicle,” a front storm door ajar, and a blinking light at the door (installed by the previous owner, it has been blinking for years, perhaps decades). My 18 year-old son was home alone and luckily found a bank statement to prove he hadn’t broken into his own house (his driver’s license didn’t have our new address). Lucky too he didn’t have friends over, especially, God forbid, black male friends.

After a series of frustrating phone calls with the police about this incident, I wrote a letter to them, explaining that I was an artist and activist who often hosted large gatherings of diverse friends. I also explained that we are a mixed-race family and that my young adult son lives with us. I delivered the letter in person and had a meeting with the captain of the precinct for a full hour. How many white people have to hold meetings with their local police department in order to avoid arrest or harassment?

Just as crows recognize us, can we also recognize our human brothers and sisters? Dismantling white privilege means giving everyone the same right to be truly seen, truly recognized.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A POST INAUGURAL VISIT TO GRACE LEE BOGGS: URBAN GARDENING AS RESISTANCE

At Bush’s 2004 Inauguration, the city was packed with protestors. There was a carnival atmosphere with street theatre, marches, gigantic puppets, musicians, and constant call and response chanting. We stood packed in line for hours to be allowed to view the parade from a tiny section. (The rest of the parade route was virtually vacant.) Despite the hours waiting, there was never a dull moment.

This year, I wondered what we would do in line all those hours if the city wasn’t filled with protestors. Would we chant, or sing, or dance, or just stand there like cows? What was our role, now that “our guy” was in office?

I went to DC with a hope to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinians and pressure the new administration to change their policies toward the region. I expected demonstrations and rallies and vigils to protect the children of Gaza. Instead I found a city too busy celebrating. Everyone from Asian Americans for Progress to Democracy Now! to the SCLC was preparing for their $100-$1000/person galas. The left was in party mode.

Sure enough, on the morning of inauguration, thousands of folks stood patiently, obediently, and quietly in line waiting for our gates to open, clutching our precious purple tickets. Every once in a while someone would start a chant of “O-BA-MA!” or “Fire it up, ready to go!” But the chants would die out in 10-20 seconds from lack of response.


Instead what we found in our section was a sense of entitlement. “I’ve been here since 5am and you cannot cut in front of me”…..”I’m going to call my brother about this….he’s an agent!” Some people started to get claustrophobic and paranoid: “I gotta get out of here…what if someone does something crazy?” By 10am people began complaining. Little did we know that the reason we were stuck was because the purple gate had been closed due to a nebulous “security breach.”

But also, out of this chaos, community began to emerge. A young guy from California discovered that the logjam of people emerging from the metro was trying to get past us but getting stuck. He suggested we open a channel for them to pass through so we could also move. He enlisted help and 8 or 10 of us coached a line of pedestrians past our section. “Come on through! Watch your step…Single file….Keep moving!” we urged. This spontaneous grassroots effort shifted the energy and made it flow, made us active instead of passive, and helped others in need.

Gradually the cork popped and we broke through, only to find out we had to walk another half mile to the yellow gate. Many of those who’d stuck it out to this point became discouraged and left. It was already after 11am, and many had been there since before dawn.

Later that night we packed up to drive all night to Detroit, to make our pilgrimage to the legendary activist Grace Lee Boggs. The Boggs Center that day turned out to be a hive of activity, filled with activists and artists from far and near. Grace engaged us all in conversation, eager to hear reflections on the inauguration and how it related to our other projects and activities. At 94, she remains incredibly sharp, curious, deeply engaged, and attentive. She took notes on our comments for her column, for god’s sakes, as if what we had to say was as significant as her own opinions. I shared with her my question and concern about the left getting comfy if we’re not in protest mode. What can we do now?

Grace described how in the 1960s, civil rights workers went door to door asking people what their grievances were. “That’s old school,” she said, “Now we have to ask: what does our community need? And build from there.” She showed us the stack of books she’s working through which have to do with education, and shared with us that more and more she’s concerned about healing: healing ourselves and healing our communities. Grace summarized her own work as building community out of chaos.

We talked extensively about urban renewal through agriculture. How growing our own food and composting our own waste could lead to self-reliance, greater well-being, and vibrant communities. Gardening is the new protesting! Composting is the new resistance!

Where do we plan to go from here? Will we stand like cows at the inauguration gate, comfortable in our privilege and level of entitlement while getting nowhere? Will we watch Obama from afar and criticize him for not enough change fast enough? Will we withdraw into our cocoons, hypnotizing ourselves with cable TV and Facebook, smug in our electoral success?

The Obamas are in the (White) house. What will we create together? How will we transform chaos into community? Who dares to stop us now?

Friday, January 23, 2009

WHY INAUGURATION?

On Saturday evening, we loaded up 2 cars with folks ranging from 13-45 years old and drove through the night to Washington DC. It snowed from Wisconsin to Maryland and we braved whiteouts in mountainous Pennsylvania, crawling at 25 mph, to finally get to my cousin’s house in Bethesda at noon on Sunday.

The 4 high school and college kids crammed into a guest room, tucked into sleeping bags. I slept on the living room floor, and Yvette and her son, Ramsey slept in another guest room.

During the 3-day whirlwind of inauguration and related events, we barely slept and barely ate. I barely did my yoga practice, early one morning before we left for the Civil Rights Prayer Breakfast. We had no time to read, no time for the kids to study for their upcoming final exams, no time to cook a decent meal, no time to check email. Meanwhile, my son Malachi got kicked off the Shorewood High School varsity basketball team for missing 2 practices, according to a text message from his coach.

Let me tell you, we sacrificed a lot to get to Washington for January 20, 2009. Why bother?

I’d never been tempted to attend an inauguration. I went to DC in January 2004 as a civic duty to protest the results of the election made controversial by Diebold et al, and to demonstrate with tens of thousands to declare, “Not my president! Not my war!” But I’d never gone to celebrate a presidency. When friends asked why I’d want to be at such a mob scene for a centrist politician, I answered that I just wanted to be there to breathe the air.

The buzz could be felt as far north as the swing state of Ohio. Stopping to buy gas around midnight outside Cleveland, I asked a woman in line, an African American in her 30s, if she was headed to inauguration. Now, I’m not the type to start up conversations with strangers in public places. I’ve watched my father-in-law chat up strangers in restaurants and such, and have attributed it to a certain level of coziness and familiarity, which comes with being a white man in a patriarchal white supremacy. But in that moment at the rest stop, I spontaneously reached out to this woman.

“Yeah, I’m headed down to DC,” she answered, with 5 children in her mini-van, ranging from 3 months to 7 years, driving by herself through the night to her mother’s in Baltimore while the kids slept.

I talked to other strangers at other rest stops, which became more crowded as we got closer to DC. We met folks from all the midwestern swing states, running on adrenaline just like us, to get a glimpse of the man we’d elected. We all shared a mission, as if we were all, hundreds of thousands of us, attending the same national convention. We shared an intimacy as well as a sense of national solidarity, honking at the cars with Obama signs in the windows and giving a thumbs-up on the highway.

I experienced a sense of belonging, which was new to me. As an immigrant, a person of color, and a woman, I’ve sometimes felt triply marginalized, a consummate outsider. This time, I felt I was attending my own party. No longer outside looking in, but an integral part of a national milestone.

In the car, we researched how many degrees of separation were between each of us and Obama, and learned that almost all of us knew someone who knew Obama, so only 1-3 degrees divided us. My brother was in his 7th grade class at Punahou, Yvette know someone who worked closely with him during the campaign, Cindy’s hairdresser’s friend coordinated locations for his campaign, and so forth. Somehow we all felt we had a piece of him, that he was our brother, our friend, our neighbor.

At inauguration itself, the moment that moved me to tears was not Obama’s speech, Alexander’s poem, nor Lowry’s prayer. The moment that moved me the most came at the least expected time. As the event was closing, Ramsey and I walked downhill into the crowd during the singing of the national anthem. I watched thousands of people with their hands on their hearts singing the song I typically ignore, the same way I try to tune out the flight attendant’s seat belt instructions so I can read my magazine. Who even likes the Star Spangled Banner, with its militaristic imagery and valorizing of battle? Plus, as an immigrant and Asian American I’ve always been “other,” never completely at home in the USA.

But looking into the faces of the multi-racial crowd, their eyes glued to the jumbo-tron, and lips moving in unison, I felt at that moment for the first time ever, that maybe this IS my nation, my home. It was frankly shocking to see Asian Americans so earnestly singing this vexing song, but I, too, as my tears flowed, engaged in that moment of belief that the promise of America just might include people like me. Can we be the land of the free?

Let’s get to work, friends.

More later….

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A New Year’s Resolution

Is it possible to feel, to truly experience and understand, the suffering in the world today? Even though I lead a protected life in an American city, can I go right out to the psychic knife edge of existence and put myself into the shoes of someone in pain, in trouble, in crisis? If we are one in spirit, how much can we feel each other? How far can we go with empathy?

And as I increase my capacity for empathy, can I hold someone’s pain without being swallowed up by it? Is it possible or ethical to hold someone and simultaneously keep them at arm’s length?

In the past I’ve allowed myself to become ill by taking on the suffering, trauma, and unresolved pain of others. In 2009, am I ready to go back out to the edge and not fall over, be overwhelmed, drowned, or ungrounded? Can I be with someone, near or far, named or unnamed, and be a friend or midwife through the pain instead of an enabler or rescuer? Can I experience this oneness as celebration rather than struggle? As lightness rather than heaviness?

These are my questions for 2009: my hesitant resolution.

“You’re brave,” my friend Marcia said, when I told her my resolution, “’cause you’re asking for suffering. And you’re going to get it if you ask for it.”

Well, we’re going to get it even if we don’t ask for it. But by asking for it, I’m making it conscious and willful. Unconscious suffering gets masked as shopping, partying, workaholism, and numbing out in front of the TV or internet. Unconscious suffering gets passed over and passed on, endlessly returning as part of a cycle. Unconscious suffering allows me to stay the same, and the world stays the same. Conscious suffering means I take on the questions and experiences that remove me from my comfort zone of the knowable and familiar, venture into new terrain, and hopefully come out transformed. Through conscious suffering we wrestle, dance, gestate, transform, and mold an experience into something completely different. We process it.

This is the key to changing society and the troubles of the world: to take the trauma which is ancestral and global (here in America we all carry the trauma of genocide of the indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans and much more) and to process it and heal it. As my friend Susan Winecki says, “I must bring forth into the light what lies dangerously hidden behind me in order to take the venom out of it and make it human, just like me. I believe this must be done with every living being–trees, toads, lichen, etc. All must be seen and touched and brought into relational awareness–and then we realize that we are the world, that the world is us and our duty to life is to heal that part of ourselves that we project onto others, to heal that part of ourselves that is our own darkness begging to be seen and touched and brought into light. As I heal myself, as I love myself, the world is healed.”

If I hold someone’s suffering I also hold their joy. Maybe this is what will sustain me in 2009. Certainly we can all increase our capacities for joy. Certainly we can celebrate with one another!

Here is a message from the Hopi Elders back in December, 1999, which could not be more relevant now:

"There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

"At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all, ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.

"The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves!

"Banish the word "struggle" from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration.

"WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR."

Oraibi, Arizona
Hopi Nation