29 January 2009

Dangerous Beauty

I burned my finger last night.
Looking at it this morning, rubbing my thumb over the numb blistered tip,
I remember another time I burned my hand.
Maybe 50 years ago now. Then, as last night, the light mesmerized me.
It was so beautiful, I lost my head. I had to touch it.
Last night it was the ignitor of the old oven in my apartment.
Back then it was the lively, popping wand
we called a sparkler. The light was white and yellow and gold and red
and brown and orange and pink at the same time.
Marvelous. Irresistible. Beautiful.

28 January 2009

When You're Ready, I'm Here

There was a great article by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times the day after the inauguration. "Nation's Many Faces in Extended First Family." If I'd written it the title would have been something like "Many Faces of the World Family in the First Family Tree" but it doesn't matter. The important thing is that the article presents a potential starting point for a public conversation or awareness I've longed for for a very long time.

I've been knee-jerk quick to take the soapbox when someone referred to Barack Obama as the first African American president. "He's not just African American!" I've shrieked. "What about his mother and her blood line?!" (I blogged about it two years ago in a post entitled "Identity.")

As the dark-skinned mother of a man whose father has white skin I've taken the whole thing extremely personally . In the face of resistance, ridicule, disgust and cynicism, I

My son, grandson and daughter-in-law on vacation last summer
persisted throughout my son's childhood, demanding that none of his heritage be erased or taken for granted. When asked to declare his racial identity (on the myriad forms parents complete at the beginning of each school year), I chose "mixed" or checked both "white" and "black" boxes.

His father explained to me before Wade was born that "black is dominant" so our son will look black and people will see him as black and so we should refer to him as black. I didn't argue. (I assiduously avoided arguments and alarm clocks while I was pregnant.) Someone else explained that by law in America, the child's official racial identity must match the mother's. I didn't argue.

Later I heard about a so-called one-drop law that makes everyone with a black parent or ancestor Black. Which ever way I looked at it, the explanations begged a hundred questions but I was pregnant and determined to minimize my stress level for nine months for the sake of the baby.

Many years later I happened to catch a PBS series on race that changed my life. The program was entitled "Race: The Power of an Illusion." It was my first exposure to the science of "race" and to the idea that there is no such thing! I immediately requested the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco purchase the complete series on cassette and I wrote a curriculum entitled "Final Conversations on Race in America" to include in their Religious Ed course offerings.

The class met in the evenings. Scheduling became a problem for the group of 9 or 10 adults who enrolled and the class ended after only 3 meetings. With a little retooling to update the material, I might offer the class again some day.

Getting closer to inauguration day, I listened to people of all colors refer to Obama as African American and observed the intense emotional significance attached to the label. I temporarily stashed the soapbox to take a look at things from ground level. It obviously means a lot to a lot of people to think of Obama as the first African-American president. It obviously means a lot to me to think of him as the first openly mixed "race" present of the U.S. and the family as the first brown-skinned first family. And no doubt we all have deep, heart-rending histories to support our projections.

The sight of the First Family, hell, the very thought of them does stir prideful identification in me: I've never been happier or felt more worthy and powerful in my life. "Yes, we can" and without excluding anyone, I simultaneously feel my membership in that we-of-color group.

A white guy surfing my couch last week explained the attachment to the "first Black president" label as the byproduct of past suffering. He tried to explain it to me but I couldn't get my head around it that day (in large part because I didn't want to....) Now I can. Years of oppression--whether self-inflicted or from without-- make my heart swell with pride now. Every denigration has been disproved. Every negative stereotype has been shattered. The relentless self-loathing must be tempered now with this beautiful, bright, strong reality.

Still, I long for the day--and I know it will come--when the significance of skin color in human affairs is on a par with eye or hair color. And perhaps some day, if the Earth survives, extraterrestrials will move among us. Entities who have no eyes or skin or hair and thus defy our racial naming conventions. Will their arrival usher in at last the final conversations on race?

27 January 2009

Barack and Us

Note: I'm cleaning up at SITC today and discovered several never-published posts, including this one from June 2008. It's obviously unfinished but I don't want to throw it out. So I'm publishing it just to make sure it lands in the archives.

I live mostly outside the loop of popular media. Typically, it's the after-buzz, the response to an event that catches my eye and provokes a Google search to find out what people are talking about. Today I was forwarded Dr. Boyce Watkins' blog commentary on Fox News' reference to Michelle Obama as Barack's "baby mama." (Note: When you follow the link, there's a YouTube interview at the top but I'm referring to the blog post below it.)

I forwarded the piece to someone else and, in the response to my forward, learned about Rev. Pfleger, a priest at the center of another precipitating event that I missed.

As some of you know, I am so tired of race talk -- as it commonly presents -- that I could just lay down in dirt and cry. My recent Meyers-Briggs designation notwithstanding, the "race" conversation is one instance in which I am NOT enamored of process; I am ready -- knees-shaking like a lost-in-the-desert-crazy-thirsty-ready-for-water kind of ready -- for a purposeful, productive, advancing discourse on "race" in America.

So I appreciate the intimacy and nuance of Dr. Watkins' analysis. I agree with him that it is critical to consider the subjectivity of the Judge on the day when Dr. King's dream is realized and we are judged on the "content of our character." Surely the character of the Judge--not to mention his/her life experience, education, personal theology, value system and cultural heritage--must be taken into account when his/her verdict is pronounced.

Watkins points to the place beyond racism where something he calls "racial inequality" is the issue. He defines "racial inequality" as
what you have in a society after 400 years of social, political and economic exclusion. Some might argue that "racial inequality" is a feature of racism; I agree. Still, isolating this aspect makes possible a deeper, more relevant conversation; it moves us beyond worn-out hysterics about the horrors of slavery and the barbarism of the Ku Klux Klan, and makes a space for acknowledging the interface of class and race and the real-time lived experience of being colored in America today.

Among the several other provocative ideas mentioned in Dr. Watkins' piece is this thought:
While I encourage Senator Obama to keep running his excellent campaign, I also encourage all of us to be clear about just how much we are willing to denounce or let slide in order to get to the White House. ...we must be careful about meeting every unreasonable demand of a country that is sick with racism just because we are seeking their love and approval.

26 January 2009

A Prayer for the Nation

Someone sent me this prayer today (thanks Kathy). I wish this one had been offered on Inauguration Day instead of the one Rev. Warren wrote. Anyway...

A Prayer for the Nation and Our Next President, Barack Obama

By The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire

Opening Inaugural Event
Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC
January 18, 2009

Welcome to Washington! The fun is about to begin, but first, please join me in pausing for a moment, to ask God’s blessing upon our nation and our next president.

O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will…

Bless us with tears – for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women from many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless us with anger – at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort – at the easy, simplistic “answers” we’ve preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth, about ourselves and the world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience – and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be “fixed” anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility – open to understanding that our own needs must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance – replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences, and an understanding that in our diversity, we are stronger.

Bless us with compassion and generosity – remembering that every religion’s God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable in the human community, whether across town or across the world.

And God, we give you thanks for your child Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, and inspire him with Lincoln’s reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy’s ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King’s dream of a nation for ALL the people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our Ship of State needs a steady, calm captain in these times.

Give him stirring words, for we will need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him the strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters’ childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we’re asking FAR too much of this one. We know the risk he and his wife are taking for all of us, and we implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand – that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in this impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity and peace.


20 January 2009

Party Girl

Feels like a long time since I went to A Party. A member of the New Orleans Couch Surf network extended an invitation to an inauguration party a few days ago and I thought "Why not?" My social circle is minuscule these days and it's not likely to revive or expand if I never go out.

I boarded the streetcar after my class at KIPP to make my way to the ferry and then to Algiers Point. As the car passed my usual stop a strong urge to get off struck. Habit? Yes. But also, I don't like parties, generally speaking, so passing the last exit sign produced an intense visceral panic.

"Party" is like "chili"--it doesn't smell or taste or look the same everywhere you go. Considering how infrequently I've attended a party and truly, deeply enjoyed myself, I would also say parties are like lovers or friends. A complex and somewhat unpredictable combination of factors determine where and/or when a mutual attraction will occur or which parties will turn out to be fun.

Historically, my favorite party experiences have been at parties I host. Probably a "control issue"...

I also had a great time at Dennis' Mardi Gras party last year where I spent more time in the streets near his apartment than inside it. I like open-door parties where coming and going is easy and surprises are likely. This is part of the reason I love Frenchman Street so much: it's like a party where all the doors are open.

Entering a party, I usually experience a combination of sensory overload and heightened self-consciousness that leave me disoriented and a little short of breath. Too many people or the lights are too bright or too dim. And what can I say to a stranger with the music so loud? Small talk exhausts me but most anything of depth is risky on first meeting.

Back in the day, I thought everybody else was comfortable. Drinking two cocktails in quick succession was usually a reliable anesthetic. It helped me feel "normal"--like everybody else--and eliminated worry about what to say.

Nowadays I know other people are uncomfortable too and more interesting to me than getting drunk is the possibility of meeting someone who is also feeling a little self-conscious or shy and having an unforgettable encounter with them.

The inauguration party was in its eighth hour and winding down by the time I arrived. Neither of the two people I'd invited to come were there. I stayed long enough to drink two glasses of cheap champagne and have my hand kissed. The ferry ride, over and back, was satisfying--out on the Mississippi after dark. And the host and I agreed to meet again for conversation.

Someone asked today, "Did you have fun at the party?"

"Uh.... I'm glad I went," I replied. "Fun is hard to come by."

**Party girl by Leandro Velasco Pardo

18 January 2009

Pass the Tissue, Please

I come from a family of cry-babies. Just looking at us "funny" could set us off and, more often than not, once one child was crying the other three would chime in. The behavior struck some in the community as strange or cause for concern but we paid them no mind. We had each other first and foremost, all the more so if one of us had tear-stained cheeks.

Not until grad school did I become self-conscious about being so quick to cry. Hard as I tried, I couldn't stop myself. There was a threshold, above which any amount of joy or sadness or embarrassment or fear or nervousness would trigger my tears. I cried in restaurants and doctors' offices. I cried after performances and after sex. Sometimes I woke myself up crying -- apparently I even cried in my sleep.

So far I've found only one thing interrupts the flow: anti-depressant medication.

Or it used to interrupt the flow. I've been on anti-depressants this time for about 10 months and hadn't been crying much until election day. Since then my tendency to teariness has steadily increased.

I think about the Obamas and cry. I see the pictures of the Obama and Biden families onstage the night of the victory and cry. I am listening to NPR now, voices of people on their way or just arrived in DC for the inauguration...

Relief. Anticipation. Hope.


I can't help it. It feels like a new day. Like it's okay to breath and feel again.

15 January 2009

Not A Question of Losing

A couple of weeks ago I was working really hard on a blog post about relationship. I was in a weird place with almost all of the people closest to me and in some annoying "fresh hell" with enough acquaintances to make relationship a priority topic in my private thoughts.

I worked on it for over a week. This is unusual for me. Usually I just sit down and "say" whatever comes to mind, in the exact words that it comes to mind and click "publish." Anything more than that feels self-conscious and persnickety to me. I'm not Arianna Huffington. This is just one colored girl making casual commentary on her life.

But with so many social collisions in such quick succession my emotions were swirling. It's hard to write extemporaneously when your head is spinning. The images I found to decorate the text were pretty good-- like this first one by artist Emma Hack.

But my words were inadequate to describe my emotional state or define the philosophical circles I was pacing mentally.

In the middle of the second week, I found an interview with Kittisaro and Thanissara in the January 2009 issue of The Sun.

(Follow the link to read an excerpt from the interview.)

These two left lives as a Buddhist monastics to marry each other. The interview is entitled "A Mindful Marriage: Kittisaro and Thanissara on Celibacy, Sex, and Lasting Love" but it is essentially a discussion of mindful relationship. This piece will join the Adrienne Rich essay on honorable relationships and my post on this blog entitled "Tribe Talk 2" on a list of "things to read to understand what Alex wants from relationship."

I'm not looking for easy. Neither am I looking for "hard." I'm looking for staying power
kindness honesty willingness. A capacity for critical self-reflection, or at least sufficient humility and intelligence to admit there is value in critical self-reflection even in those moments when we are incapable of doing it.

I still have no wisdom around the recent social conflicts in my life, but what surfaces as I re-read the interview with Kittisaro and Thanissara is this: The work of living with integrity, consciously evolving, surrendering to Love goes on and on. Every day -- or at least as often as we can muster effort. It's a full-time job. As long as there's a next breath to take, there's a next lesson to learn about living.

Sometimes we forget that relationship isn't a separate piece of work from our individual progress toward wholeness. Even for monks and nuns, people whose level of devotion to spiritual work far exceeds our lay commitment, spiritual growth in isolation is incomplete. It needs the push and pull, the tension and release of relating to other humans.

A central theme as I reflect on recent conflicts: what is possible in a relationship between people of "unequal" psychospiritual maturity? If A and B have a difference of opinion and B's objective is to "win" while A seeks to understand... If L believes love means "never leaving my side" and "never criticizing me" and M has a less restrictive understanding....

Once these discrepancies present, what is the wise or proper or loving course of action?

I still don't know. But I understand that for most of the conflicts I've experienced in the last month, resolution will not be possible because the conflicts result not from mere difference of opinion, but differences in what we believe it takes and what it means to be a "good person." And differences in how we talk and think about being and becoming. Differences in how we talk about thinking.....and how we think about talking.

And the best I can come up with so far, is to let them, as well as the conflict, go.

08 January 2009

Dream of Bare Feet

I dreamed I was walking all over the world in bare feet. On pavement and grass, Oriental rugs and marble floors, puddles and sawdust and ice. Every new surface was surprising: I'd look down and marvel Look at me! I'm walking on mud! or Oh my gosh! I'm walking on seashells!

My confidence and delight grew with each new surface. In the background of my mind, questions swirled--how is this possible? why doesn't it hurt? am I dreaming? But my confidence and delight filled the universe and crowded out the questions and I just kept walking.

06 January 2009

Some Holiday Concert Pictures

Janiqua and Rayven. Two of my piano students at KIPP College Prep middle school.

Ranesha, Janiqua and Justice. Three of my piano students at KIPP College Prep.

Mr. Keith Hart, the Johnny Appleseed of KIPP school music program. Every kid that plays an instrument in this school--about 100 at this point---got their start with this man.

Some of "the guys." I just love the self-confidence of these kids.
You couldn't tell these boys that they aren't debonair.

Just before the curtain rises...

02 January 2009

Bedtime Reading

I finished The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man last night. On my wish list for 2009: to find a community of people who like to read books and talk about them. Ideally, a local group of ten or fewer people with something more substantial than "I really liked this book" to offer in the way of discussion.

Perhaps the guy who loaned me the book will be open to some chat over coffee. But I won't get my hopes up.

My sleep cycle is "off" again so when I finished the book at 2 a.m., I wasn't ready yet for sleep. I store my stack of The Sun by the bed so I grabbed the December issue. The last words I read on the first day of the new year were these, from the Sunbeams section:

"Be yourself" is about the worst advice you can give some people. -Tom Masson

Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. -Barbara Kingsolver

The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. -I.F. Stone

I am not eccentric. It's just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish. -Dame Edith Sitwell

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in confederacy against him. -Jonathan Swift

The thing that makes you exceptional, if you are at all, is inevitably that which must also make you lonely. -Lorraine Hansberry

01 January 2009

New Year Nothings

I am 42 days smoke-free.

I am proud of this accomplishment.

And also, today, beginning to feel the forest around me. The cool dark silence in the heart of it where I am the last living person.

And I am craving a cigarette. I'm thinking it wouldn't hurt to reward myself.

What could it hurt? There's no one else on Earth but me so no one will know.

The remedy for this risky moment would be a hot-out-of-the-oven brownie but my oven doesn't work.

There is nothing I can do about this from my present vantage point: sitting in pajamas at my desk. I'm going to get dressed, get on my bicycle and go see what the world has to offer.