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