Ejected from Fort Clinton

Oh how challenging these past few weeks have been! The world is truly upside-down. img_4292Tho
se who expected to be celebrating a shining moment in U. S. history, have taken to the streets carrying signs that declare, “Not my president!” The ones who were readying themselves for protests just a few weeks ago now mock the others. In fact, on my FB page last week, I came across an image of a crop-duster flying low over a field. These words were written:

“Too bad we can’t fill one of these with pepper-spray!”
A comment below clarified its intent:                                                                                                    “It would drive away the protesters in a New York minute!”

Who posted it? A friend who has visited me here in NYC and enjoyed dinner in my Louisville home several times. I could only respond, “It grieves my heart to see such things posted,” before trying to let it all go.

However, the image – and its implications – lingered.

Given my long immersion in social justice – “liberal” – concerns, anyone who knows me knows how I voted. And yet, a friend joked about doing harm to people like me. Why? Incapable of answering that question, I headed to the northern end of Central Park.

The fall colors being at their peak, I ventured up a pathway to one of the forts that the British had established in the Revolutionary War, and that the Americans later used in the War of 1812. How lovely the sight was! The still waters of The Meer reflected the red and yellow leaves of surrounding trees and the silhouettes of nearby buildings. Breathing deeply, I was glad to be standing upon such high ground. As I sat on on a bench, I imagined the soldiers of years past using that vantage point to espy their enemies as they might approach. That image then revealed a metaphor I hadn’t expected. I was standing on high ground that was once used to identify and then attack an enemy. The words “high moral ground” came to mind.

Oh my, I couldn’t help but wonder….  Is that what we’ve been doing? All of us, standing on high moral ground?

With that thought in mind, I looked to the west, towards the other two forts along that rocky area. Atop the furthest one, Nutter’s Battery, I imagined a group of people known to strongly defend and protect their own highest value – the Second Amendment. Yes, I could see the NRA and their most avid supporters atop their high moral ground, ready to attack anyone and everyone who would come near them. In allowing that image to take hold, I realized that they perceive everyone who supports gun control as their enemy, even the parents of children who have been killed in a classroom.

Atop the other hill, on Fort Fish, I saw another group, pro-life advocates. In defending the lives of unborn children, they are absolutely convinced that they stand on the highest of moral ground. And how tenaciously they cling to that ground, seeing anyone and everyone who suggests otherwise as enemy – even pregnant women themselves. They’ve become incapable of seeing the significant ways they threaten, even imperil, the lives of so many women while in their defensive posture.

And, then, I had to admit, if other people are doing such things, surely, I, too, may have stood on high moral ground myself. And so, standing atop Fort Clinton, yes – that is its name – I needed to ask, on what moral ground have I stood?

Seeking to answer that question was so very challenging – not because I cannot name the values and principles which I so dearly treasure. My protests against the Afghanistan and Iraqi Wars, my teaching social justice in a high school and the many hours I’ve spent serving refugees, Appalachian communities, homeless men and women, and inner-city families touched by HIV all reveal my principles, my highest morals.
 I must ask, in defending my values, whom have I allowed to become my img_4307enemy?
What cannons have I aimed at them?
What rocks have I hurled?

NONE! I want to declare.                                                                                                             Or, at least, none that weren’t well-deserved. Or, at least, none that truly hurt anyone…. after all, I choose my words so carefully.
However, if I can see so clearly other people standing on their high moral ground, I cannot deny that I have stood on such ground, probably attacking my own enemies. But what am I to do? Am I to leave those values behind? To say that now I stand for nothing?

Of course not! Values and principles must be upheld, promoted and protected.                 So what am I to do?

A few days ago, when I noticed an article in NYT about the rise of alt-right groups claiming victory in this election, a course of action arose. I decided to share it on Facebook. First I told my conservative friends that I respect their decision because I assume they don’t stand for such hate, and then I requested that they let the president-elect know that those groups do not represent them. There, I thought, I was being considerate, while also making clear my concerns. Within an hour, though, I was admonished by one of my liberal friends.

Apparently, she took offense that I said that I respect the choice to have voted for Mr. Trump. As I read her remark, I noticed that another had clicked a sad face for my post. It seemed that in trying to communicate with “the enemy,” I was deemed to be no longer one of the liberal team.

I felt as if I were being pushed right off “Fort Clinton,” and down into the trenches.
Confused, I deleted the post. But what are we to do?

Of course, my FB conservative friend doesn’t want to hurt me or anyone else. However, whenever violence can be laughed at, well, that’s a problem. Even worse, some people have already been attacked, mostly those alienated by Mr. Trump as he campaigned. That violence and the potential for even more must be stopped now. To do that, we must lessen the anger that now rages among us.And here my metaphor spoke to me.

Somehow, we must find it in ourselves to trust each other so that each of us may descend from the forts we’ve built. A beginning point for both sides of this matter may be to put aside the accusations, the name-calling, the condescending jokes, and anything that hints at violence. Only then, in standing upon common ground, will we be able to respond appropriately and united to the many issues now arising through our president-elect’s recent choices, choices that will hurt all of us, it seems, except – maybe – the very rich. Only then, once we have disarmed ourselves, will love, indeed, trump hate.

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Longing to trump hate? Become love!

fullsizeoutput_2468This past week, I felt I had been forcibly ejected from my own garden and into a world I do not know. More specifically, it seems I’m in a dense forest where I am incapable of making sense of all that surrounds me. Overwhelmed, I’m tempted to locate a snug den, a deep cave, where I can hide and protect myself until this whole thing ends. Such hibernation, though, serves no one, and so I must venture further in – but where? How? The path ahead seems so uncertain.

I’ve been told by some that it’s time for us to protest, to take to the streets to let our voices be heard. It’s cathartic, people tell me. Furthermore, they insist, because such protests play important roles within the legacy of social justice, we must accept our own responsibility. I see the truth in all they say, and yet, I hesitate. In fact, when I bumped into a protest occurring in Midtown the other day, I didn’t join in, even though I participated in some of the earliest protests against the war in Afghanistan. Why not?

The goals seem uncertain; the tactics too varied.

Other than being bound by passionate emotion, protesters appear to have little else in common. In the protest I watched, some participants, with heads bowed down, seemed to be praying as they walked; others shouted chants as loudly as they could; a few more aggressively pushed their way forward, obviously angry, and maybe even willing to lash out at anyone who dared obstruct them. To many, such an image of diversity is beautiful, and I did glimpse some beauty. But this I know:

Those of us who didn’t vote for Trump are not the only ones who see this image; neither are we the ones who control what others see.

The signs people carried varied widely. Probably, the most striking was a hand-written one obviously made by a child that simply stated, “Boo Trump.” However, the two or three “F… Trump” signs present couldn’t be ignored – and they won’t be, not by any media unit that seeks to show how hateful, ugly and disrespectful Trump protesters are. Given the violent connotations of that word, our claim that our protests are peaceful and non-violent is discredited. Even worse, such a sign gives many people ample reason not only to condemn the march itself, but to hate those comprising it.

We also cannot control the message reporters choose to emphasize. The next day, I cringed as I read a New York Times account. The reporter noted that one of the apparent leaders of the march admitted that many had not even voted. My heart sank because I had to ask the obvious question: Why, then, in having not fulfilled their civic responsibility to act as informed citizens, do they expect to be given their right to protest in whatever way they choose? I could see the many ways conservative media outlets could manipulate that fact. Even more reasons to distrust, even despise, protesters now exist.

Therefore, because I do not want to magnify the media’s ability to promote and increase the hate that now exists, I will not march… yet.

I will march when we act in ways to fulfill the promise of the sign that far outnumbers all others in these protests: Love trumps hate.

And I know its possible to fulfill it. I have seen it happen.

Many, many years ago, when I was no older than 5 or 6, early one evening, my mother, who was watching the nightly news, began calling out, “Bernie, come here! You’ve got to see this!” Of course, I stared at the screen myself. On it, firemen were aiming big hoses at a crowd of black people. Even women were thrown back by the water’s force, and then onto the sidewalk, where they curled up in balls. By the time my dad joined us, my mom was crying out, “That’s not fair! That’s horrible. They only want what we want!” Due to the fact that nothing within those protests could justify at all the violence directed towards the marchers, my parents could see for themselves the brutal and dangerous injustice they faced. And, in that moment, my parents’ hearts were cracked open. Love, indeed, trumped hate. Although they never became activists, I’m pretty sure their voting habits changed. Neither did they raise my brothers or me in a racist, hateful household.

Therefore, rather than rushing to the streets so that we can release all these emotions that now rage within us, let us truly follow the paths of the justice-advocates before us.

Let us become the love that trumps hate.

We must calm our emotions so that we respond to the many threats now arising, rather than reacting immediately, sometimes without wisdom or integrity. We must also put aside our own egos and our insistence that each and every one of us has the right to speak and act as we please. Once we accept the discipline and humility required to be led, both wise elders and young prophets will come forth to train us, to inspire us to endure whatever anger and violence others may cast upon us. And they will unite us in vision, goals and tactics so we may move forward as one body, one mind, one heart.

We will become the love that will trump hate.

As for me, the path ahead emerges – there is a way out of these woods. Fear subsides; hope increases.

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An Unimaginable Ejection

Right around 3:00 a.m. on November 9th, I saw that the unthinkable had happened. Donald J. Trump attained 278 electoral votes and Hillary Clinton conceded the election.

Stunned, overwhelmed, absolutely crushed, I wanted to scream:

How could we have done this? How could we have just elected a man who had spent months promoting racist, sexist, xenophobic notions, almost all built upon lies?

Where am I?  I couldn’t help but wonder.
Surely this couldn’t be the United States I know and love,                                                            not the country so widely revered for its devotion to freedom for all.

Of course, there had been warning signs. I saw them. In his rallies, when Trump mocked a disabled reporter, people laughed; when he encouraged people to rough up protesters, they did; when he called for a return to law and order, they cheered; and when he even admitted to groping women and rarely – if ever – paying taxes, they shrugged. Clearly, the man appealed to people.

Yes, I saw all that, but this too I knew.

We had come so far as a community. Rather than teasing the disabled among us and taunting foreigners, we increased accessibility to both groups, and benefitted greatly from their labor and talents. Instead of bullying each other into submission, we peacefully protest wars and unjust treatment, and celebrate LGBTQ weddings. Realizing that the ruthless crime bills of the past were decimating neighborhood and lives, especially those of color, our community leaders have begun to repeal “stop and frisk” and “three strikes you’re out” policies. And as for greater respect for women – well, his opponent was our greatest symbol of just how far we thought we’d come.

Yes, I knew that debates raged about costs, true patriotism, traditional values, and the safety of our streets. And yet, I honestly believed that once people entered the voting box, and the excitement of being in such raucous crowds had settled, that our respect for human dignity and personal freedom would prevail. But as I stared at the numbers on my cell, I knew that I was wrong. Feeling absolutely defeated, I stumbled back to bed only to toss and turn the night away as one image dominated my thoughts:

Everything I held to be good and true had been completely uprooted.

Grief wrapped itself around me as I mourned the apparent destruction of my deepest values. How I ached for those who would be most affected by the changes of policy that may accompany those taunts and jeers of Trump. Even with my husband next to me, I felt so insecure, so alone, ….. so isolated. It seemed as if I had been kicked out of a beautiful garden and into a cold harsh world I do not know. How I pitied myself, and those I loved, realizing then that I wasn’t the only one so awash with grief, the only one jerked into a new reality. Many of us that night were ejected into unpredictable, unknowable, uncertain territory. Again, I wanted to scream:

How could this have happened? How could you do this to us??

But who were the “you”? Our analysts tell us that it was the white working class – non-college educated men and women – who most supported him. They were the ones who marched into our polling places eager to elect someone who promised to make their America great again. None of the rest of us saw or understood their passion, their determination to uproot the system.

We didn’t see it coming – not at all. But this I’ll admit, I should have.

In having been raised within a working class family by parents who never went to college, I once lived in a home where money was earned through hours clocked, not a salary contracted, a social class which valued strength and common sense, not book-smarts and good manners, a life where everything could be threatened by a lay-off, an accident, or a politician’s refusal to respect laborers. Yes, I remember that experience well. One Saturday morning stands out. For over two hours I sat crying at the kitchen table after having broken both arms. The day before my dad had been laid off, so, without health insurance, they needed the cheapest hospital, a search that took time. That delay cost them. My arms swelled so badly that I was admitted to the hospital where I stayed for three long and expensive days.

In fact, as I was growing up, my parents’ very lives were threatened more than once by low pay, unexpected lay-offs, and heavy tax burdens. Fortunately, given the arc of their lives, when they retired in the early 1990’s, they possessed ample savings, and their combined benefits covered most of their needs. In contrast, a generation or two later, those who would be their peers do not have such resources. Well-paying jobs have been made obsolete by technology; manufacturing plants moved; robots eliminated much of the need for skilled labor. Once respectable service jobs are now viewed with disdain and rarely provide living wages. Routine, even sacred, benefits are inadequate or even nonexistent. In short, women and men who do not attend college – of any ethnicity – no longer have the ability to create and sustain stable and secure lives the way my parents’ generation eventually did.

I must ask myself – if I had never won the scholarship that allowed me to attain a college education – what would I be doing now if that were still my reality? At the very least, shouting, even screaming for attention, for justice. I may even have voted for Trump, the one who says he’ll bring back jobs, hold companies liable, make such a life great again.

That last thought humbles me.

It forces me to realize this: long before this election, other people were ejected from their beloved gardens of security and safety and into a cruel world they did not know, a world which – by all indications – no longer valued their labor, their service, their very lives. That world, however, was actually already populated by many of today’s targets of Trump’s cruel jests, people who had never been able to reap the riches and rewards of our society. Rather than accepting each other as victims of injustice, though, the inhabitants – both new and old – believed those who told each group: “There is your enemy! He is to blame for your suffering!” And so fear, hate and despair flourished. And we are where we are.

In having been ejected from my own small, safe world and into this one:                            what am I going to do?

Am I going to blame others for creating this mess? Reject Mr. Trump as “my” president? Allow self-pity and fear to conquer me as I struggle to stand in this new place?

No, I’m not. It’s time for me to release my place of privilege, to enter more fully into the experience of others, to seek to see and possibly understand the suffering of all people, not just my chosen few. It’s time to plant seeds of beauty, hope and trust out in the open, not just in my own small zone of comfort. It’s time for me to believe that somehow – all shall be well,” a task dependent upon accepting this truth:

we are “many members, yet one body,” and so,                                                                                “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it,” *                                                             regardless of who that person may be.

It’s time for us to work together to unite the many states of mind among us.  Only then  may the collective insight, wisdom and compassion we so desperately need arise. Only then do I believe we can overcome what we’ve done.

*lines from 1 Corinthians, Chapter 12.

“Why me, God?”…….”Why not you?”

Years ago, the summer I turned 21, I remember how, on days when no one else was home, I would go out in our backyard to scream, “Why me, God? Why me?” I just couldn’t understand why I had to bear the burdens I was: the need to live at home with a demanding, sometimes cruel father, my parents’ lack of support for my college education, my need to work long hard hours as a line cook, and, worst of all, my loneliness, my complete inability to fit in at school or to even be asked on one date. I felt absolutely alone at times, abandoned even, since it seemed that everyone else had so many friends, easy access to the things they wanted, and such loving parental support that, well, their lives seemed perfect – and so – in that back yard I screamed,

“Why me, God? Why me? Why must I work so hard, be so alone,                   suffer so much?“

Yes, the years have passed. No longer do I retreat to a backyard to scream. No longer do I feel so abandoned. And as I look back to my younger self, I am tempted to not only smile at the figure she must have presented out there, shaking her fist at that grand California sun; I am tempted to dismiss her claim of suffering. After all, now that I’ve endured the deaths of both parents, seen the torment friends have faced in losing their children, and experienced genuine failure and rejection in a whole host of ways, well, I am tempted to say that that young woman’s suffering paled in comparison not only to what lay ahead of her, but also in the face of the suffering of millions around the world even on those very days she screamed. But I can’t. However suffering arises – through crushing tragedy, relentless oppression, chronic pain and illness, even our ego’s obsessions, however justified or imagined – the actual pain of suffering is real, genuine, undeniable. And so we scream: “Why me?” a question that I found my self pondering not too long ago.

Throughout this past summer, more often than not, sleep eluded me. Oh, I often fell asleep easily enough, but two hours later, upon the raging of a hot flash, I would awaken, and then, disturbed by noises, temperature, textures and my own thoughts, I would remain awake for 2, 3, sometimes 4 hours before, right as dawn creeped into our room, I could sleep. Nothing, it seemed, helped. Not daytime exercise or good dietary habits. Neither did abstaining from caffeine, alcohol or even chocolate. Nor did the aids suggested by friends: valerian, black cohosh, melatonin – nothing. The worst nights were what I came to call my “night 3’s”, the third night in a row when the most sleep I could garner was 4 hours. It was on those nights when, after having drank warm milk, replaced my ear plugs, written out my concerns and even meditated, that as the tears began to flow, that old question arose: “Why me, God? Why can’t I just fall asleep?”

It was one of those night 3’s when, finally, I awoke, really awoke.

Lying in bed next to my husband, I decided to get back up once I could hold back the tears no longer. Frustrated, exhausted, I went to the living room and sat in our over-sized chair. It being 3:30 or so in the morning, I stared out our window through its transparent shade, at the buildings across the street and down an alley. Rectangles of yellow light marked windows, windows of homes where others, like I, were not sleeping. Pondering that scene, I wondered why they were not blissfully dreaming the night away. Yes, I knew, some may be enjoying the company of someone special, but this, too, I realized. Just as likely, worry, pain, fear – suffering – kept sleep at bay. Glimpsing that behind those curtains and shades were people sick with cancer, overburdened by financial debt or trapped in endless, relentless grief, I felt my heart crack open. Yes, the suffering I experienced from insomnia was real, but, I could so clearly see in that moment, I was not the only one to suffer. And then the buildings in front of me seemed to vanish. Suddenly, I could see suffering everywhere, suffering that, if it were mine, I knew I could not bear. Images of people living within war zones, terrorized by violence and incapable of even feeding their children one healthy meal a day humbled me. I could do only one thing: open myself to deep silent prayer, holding all close in that moment. As a tender love filled my heart, peace settled in as well. Returning to bed, I slept.

The next morning as I reflected on that experience, I began to write out that old question: “Why me, God?” This response arose:

“After last night, you need to ask?”

Recalling that peace that had emerged through the union I experienced, I couldn’t help but be grateful – not for the actual suffering I felt, of course; rather, for the communion it allowed me to enter. For those few minutes, as I basked again in that sense of union, another question emerged:

“Suffering? Why not you?”

The implications of that question stunned me. In spite of thinking that I was doing my best to “love my neighbor as my self,” I saw how miserably I was failing for one simple fact: I did not see myself as equal to my neighbor. Not at all. Somehow, deep down, I saw myself as exceptional, someone worthy of living a pain-free life. Of course, we all know that such an existence is impossible, but yet, that thought that I could demand of God, “Why me?” revealed something else I did not want to see.

I honestly believed that I was entitled – yes, entitled – entitled to pursue as comfortable a life as I could.

Of course, the pursuit of such a life lies at the heart of what we call, “The American Dream,” a condition that encourages each of us to acquire all the resources and materials we need to live comfortably. It seems reasonable enough. In that moment, though, as I acknowledged all the comfort afforded to me through the many resources I possess, I couldn’t help but see the irony between my experience of unity the previous night and the fact that what I possess creates not union but division. In so many ways, the stuff of my life allows me to not only avoid certain people, but to choose to ignore them entirely, even their suffering. In fact, when I am confronted with their suffering, too often I give into the temptation to name a reason for why they must suffer while I don’t. Rarely do I allow myself to see the connection between my own pursuit of comfort and their suffering.

Rarely do I ask myself as I pursue all I can to avoid pain: At what cost does this come?

The burden of that question overwhelms me, actually. In trying to answer it, I see so many ways that my desires contribute to the problems of others, both personally and socially, too many, really to name here. Just glimpsing them, however, brings forth two emotions I’d rather avoid – guilt and shame. Guilt in knowing that I have truly benefited from societal practices such as low taxation and/or wages, and shame in that I have refused to acknowledge how the subsequent lack of monetary resources hurts people. And with those emotions comes….. suffering.

A choice now arises.

Do I deny all that I have just acknowledged, reasoning that all is as it should be because our country is great and/or I have earned all that I’ve acquired? Many will tell me to do just that – it is, after all, the way of capitalism, of the American Dream. I need not feel guilt, neither shame. Nor suffering. Or,

Do I embrace this guilt, this shame, this suffering?

Already, it’s too late. The suffering generated in those few seconds of admitting guilt, bearing shame has done it again: it has cracked my heart open. How my heart longs to reach out to those denied the opportunities I’ve had, to those who’ve endured the consequences of my own comfort, to those whose suffering I now see. I feel helpless, yes, in this moment, knowing that as an individual I can’t make all things right now or even in 100 years. But, if I enter into the communion of all,

if I take my rightful place among my neighbors, allowing myself to be treated as they are,

maybe, just maybe, in releasing my own need to avoid suffering at all cost, at least a few others may not bear the burdens of those costs. Maybe the suffering they will endure will be that which is inevitable in being human, not that which is forced upon them by other humans.

Maybe I will finally be able to learn how to love my neighbor as my self, striving to establish justice, not comfort, as my central goal in life.