The conversation with the two strangers started with a puppy. It was an adorable, soft, fluffy, three-month old Husky with bright blue eyes that drew me to it like… well… like any dog draws me to it.
In all honesty, it could have been a mangy mutt, and I would still have stopped my bike ride to say hi. I do, after all, always carry dog treats when I am out riding my bike.
The puppy was trying to catch a quick nap while the person on the other end of its leash was engaged in conversation with a woman working in her yard. I interrupted the conversation to first ask if I could pet the puppy and then to ask all of the important questions about the puppy.
Neither the puppy’s owner nor the woman with whom he was speaking seemed to mind. In fact, their interest turned from the puppy to me.
“How far do you ride?”
“Where do you ride?”
“Don’t you think some of those roads are dangerous?”
The last question prompted a discussion about how some people can be complete jerks.
“Someone once threw a whole cup of iced tea out of their car window at me,” I told them. “It hurt because it was hurtling from a moving car, and I know it was sweetened because it was so sticky.”
“Yeah,” the guy said, “People can be real jerks. I was out jogging once, and someone yelled then through a raw egg at me. It hit me right in the chest.”
We were all silent for a moment before he said, “I had to just turn the other way. There’s no point in confronting people like that. It just makes the situation worse.”
We continued to talk about how confronting angry and rude people isn’t worth the effort. What none of us mentioned, or even acknowledged, was that the stakes were different for the the man.
That’s because the other woman and I were white. The man was black.
If the conversation had been with friends or even acquaintances, we would have addressed the issue of race. But when the man mentioned having the egg thrown at him, I didn’t ask if he thought the perpetrators were racist. When he said he didn’t engage with hateful people because he might land in jail if he got in a fight, I just nodded. And when he said that his wife doesn’t want him to let the dog out at night because the neighbors had threatened to call the police if it barked, I joked that all my neighbors have dogs that bark.
I didn’t raise the issue of racism, but I could feel it hanging in the air like a storm cloud full of rain. And even though it was obviously there – heavy and dark -we acted as though it didn’t exist.
I felt as though raising the issue would be akin to handing each of them a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker only to be handed an “all lives matter” one in return. I just didn’t have the emotional fortitude.
The issue of race shouldn’t be political because there should only be one view of it: it shouldn’t exist and when it does, we need to acknowledge and address it.
And yet, just like during my conversation with strangers yesterday, we often dance around racism as if ignoring it will make it go away.
I honestly don’t know that actually raising the issue during that particular conversation with strangers would have been appropriate. What I do know is even though no words were said, it WAS part of the conversation.
And here’s the other thing I know. That puppy? The one that brought us all together for a short period it time? That puppy loved getting attention from all of us and had no concept of race.
Maybe that’s why I like dogs so much.
I was having dinner on a friend’s deck with a group of like-minded women when we got the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
We all reacted differently even though I’m certain we were all feeling the same way. One of us burst into tears. Another just sat silent while a third stood up and started clearing dishes. Me? I cussed. I cussed because Notorious RBG was a role model and a heroine. I cussed because I know what is at stake. And I cussed because some people I know will see her death more as an opportunity than a reason to mourn.
The following words are for those people: I may like you, but I can’t respect you.
I like you because we might laugh together or share common interests or talk about our children.
But I can’t respect you because your vision of what our country’s future holds for those children isn’t one of diversity and inclusion and equality.
I can’t respect you because you believe your narrow definition of Christianity is the only legitimate religion.
I can’t respect you because you can’t discern the difference between journalism, opinion pieces and fake news.
I can’t respect you because you share information on social media that validates your opinion even if when the information is a complete lie.
I can’t respect you because you support political candidates and listen to pundits who claim that liberals aren’t real Christians.
I can’t respect you because you are a one-or two-issue voter who makes decisions at the ballot box based on dogma rather than on the scope and impact of a variety of policies on people’s day-to-day lives.
I can’t respect you because no matter how many times someone has tried to explain the difference between “gun control” and “taking away your guns,” you choose to listen to propaganda from the NRA,
I can’t respect you because you are voting for politicians who care about money more than they care about the well-being of people.
I can’t respect you because you think patriotism is marked by saluting a flag rather than by honoring the first amendment.
I can’t respect you because you throw around the word socialism when what you are really saying is that you don’t want your tax dollars being used to provide services for people you have decided are “undeserving.”
And most of all, I can’t respect you because you are supporting politicians who have shown general disrespect and even criminal behavior toward women.
I know these words will offend some of you, and now you probably won’t respect me. I don’t care.
I’m 53 years old, and I’ve fought hard to become a strong, opinionated woman who cares about minorities and immigrants and the poor and people of different faiths.
I’m writing this because even though there are a lot of people I don’t respect right now, I couldn’t respect myself if I left these words unsaid.
Also, I’m fairly confident that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would approve.
When I was about five years old, my mother pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter so I could watch what she was doing.
She got a soup bowl out of one cupboard and a container of cornstarch out of another.
“We are going to do a science experiment,” she explained.
She poured the cornstarch into the bowl then slowly added water. When the mixture was exactly the texture she wanted, she told me “stick your finger in until it touches the bottom of the bowl.”
I tried, but the mixture was solid, and my finger didn’t even dent it.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes you can, ” she replied. “Try again.”
I poked at it again with the same results.
“It doesn’t work,” I complained.
“Yes it does. Look.” she said as she put her finger in the bowl. I watch in amazement as what had felt like a rock to me oozed around her finger.
She removed her finger and told me to try again. I did and was once again met with resistance.
“Don’t poke it. Instead just lightly touch it.”
I followed her instructions and was delighted when my finger began to sink into a gooey substance.
I don’t remember if my mom talked about the science behind our experiment, but apparently it had a lasting impact as I’ve been thinking about it recently.
From an early age, my approach to dealing with problems has never been subtle. I’ve been called blunt, forthright and outspoken. I’ve taken in pride in the fact that I always let people know where I stand and, most of the time, exactly what I’m thinking. I’m not good at quietly expressing my thoughts and then letting them soak in while I patiently wait for a response. As my husband knows, when I don’t get a response, I keeping poking until I get one.
Generally, that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I’m not only getting resistance when I make a stab at addressing a situation, I feel as though every effort is bouncing back and bruising me. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about that experiment at the kitchen counter with my mother more than 45 years ago.
Maybe my mom was attempting to tell me that sometimes you have to stop trying so hard to make something happen and just need to let the situation unfold. In some circumstances, that may be the right approach.
But here is my other take away from that long ago experiment: when you let things rest and happen at their own pace sometimes all you get is covered in muck.
History tells us that change only happens when people are willing to poke their fingers at the problems and keep poking until they make cracks.
I don’t need muck. I need change.
My soul hurts when I think about the incident at a local church. Apparently, the minister provoked a member of his congregation with a sermon about racism. The individual was so offended, he actually left in the middle of the service. As he walked out, he loudly muttered, “George Floyd was a criminal.”
This happened in a Christian church.
I may not be a Biblical scholar, but the last time I checked, the Christian church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know, that guy who taught about mercy, forgiveness and taking care of each other? I’m fairly certain that Jesus wanted us to interact kindly with all human beings – not just the people we like or respect or who make us feel comfortable.
I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel as though it’s almost impossible. But labeling someone a criminal and then using that label to rationalize their mistreatment hurts all of us. That’s because we are all connected.
No one lives and shares that message more loudly and bravely than Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle is a Catholic Priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, and his words resonated. Like him, I am incredibly fortunate to have a job in which I can learn from people who others might dismiss.
There is the woman experiencing homelessness who once proudly told me she was featured in a documentary about women in prison. She was, and I’ve since watched it. I’ve had her bags of medication for various mental illnesses in my office. I unintentionally taught her to beg in Spanish when she asked me how to say “I’m hungry” and “I need money” in Spanish. She recently stopped by the office to tell my coworkers and me that she had a place to live. When I opened the door, I had to firmly tell her she couldn’t hug me because of COVID 19. I don’t call her a criminal. I call her a fellow human being.
There is the man who showed up in our office lobby loudly declaring “I just got out of prison and I don’t know where to go for help.” He had grown up in foster care and is functionally illiterate. He is demanding and difficult, but he was also sweet and helpful. He’d give staff cards and help clean our offices. After he went back to jail for rape, he still called the office on a regular basis. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human being.
There is the young man with no place to live because his family kicked him out. Before COVID-19, he would stop by the office almost every day to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would use the shower and do his laundry. He was always polite and followed the rules. When my co-workers and I hadn’t seen him for several days, one of us would look on the jail site. His mugshot would be there, and his charges ranged from battery to robbery. He stopped by the office last week to ask for a tent. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human.
These individuals, like thousands of others, have stories to tell about what they have endured and survived. These individuals, like thousands of others, don’t have the support, resources, and connections that many of us do. And these individuals, like thousand of others, are so much more than a label or a criminal record.
Do I believe they should be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But I also believe that I should still care about them.
As Father Greg Boyle says, “There is no us and them, only us.”
I care about us.
When I was growing up, my mom baked a cherry pie every February in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The tradition was tied to the story about how, as a child, the first President of the United States chopped a cherry tree with his new hatchet. When his angry father confronted him, young George admitted what he had done because he couldn’t tell a lie.
The story was the basis of many elementary school lessons, and only as an adult did I learn that the story of the cherry tree was itself a lie. Author Mason Locke Weems added it, along with other heartwarming stories, to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington. Historians believe that Weems included the story to make Washington a virtuous role model that could influence the behavior of children.
He wasn’t alone. The history I learned in school almost always portrayed honorable men who built a perfect country on unquestionable values. In truth, the men were imperfect humans who built this country on the backs of others.
But for more than a century, history was written by people like Parson Weems, who wanted to shape it into a tool that could be used to control what people believed, and therefore how they behaved.
My elementary school classmates and I were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We used crayons to color pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria while reciting “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one taught us about the genocide he perpetrated on the people of Haiti.
In Junior High, I had to memorize the presidents of the United States and their accomplishments. I was taught that Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and founded the Democratic Party. I was an adult before I learned how he abused his power to remove Native Americans from their homes and was responsible for what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
In high school, the lessons about World War II covered how America helped defeat Germany and end the Holocaust. There was never any mention about the Japanese internment camps on U.S. soil.
For the most part, what I was taught was factual. It just wasn’t truthful. America may have been established on the principles of equality and freedom, but those principles only applied to white men. When the south tried to leave the United States to preserve slavery and its economy, the Confederate message was clear: equality and freedom weren’t the most important values; power and money were.
As a nation, we are still struggling with those conflicting values.
On Thursday as I was leaving work, a pickup truck stopped in front of my office. A large confederate flag with the handwritten words ‘heritage not hate” was flying from the back. I winced. I wanted to stop and ask what heritage meant to the driver, but I knew that would be pointless.
Some people think they have to hold on to relics of the past to justify their belief system.
Instead, we need to distinguish between erasing the past and learning from it.
We can still eat cherry pie on Washington’s birthday because we like eating cherry pie. We just shouldn’t eat it because we think it makes us more patriotic. Taking care of each other and honoring our true history is the only way to do that.
Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.
What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.
That didn’t last long.
On the second day of kindergarten, Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.
I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.
The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.
I didn’t and I hadn’t.
When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.
In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.
I’m still experiencing it.
I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.
But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.
And I absolutely hate that.
My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.
And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.
Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.
America should be too.
My husband told me to write this.
Well, he didn’t tell me to write these exact words.
I was complaining that I can’t relax because I can’t stop thinking, and he told me that I should write. When I said no one wants to read about what is currently going on in my head, he suggested I discuss the weather.
Since today is stormy and perfectly reflects the thoughts cycling around in my brain, his suggestion wasn’t very helpful.
Here’s the thing: the devil on my right shoulder wants me to write about the people who I prefer weren’t in my life right now. The angel on my left shoulder is telling me I can’t always control who is in my life nor can I control their behavior. I can only control my reaction to them.
And right smack dab between my right shoulder and my left shoulder is my head with all those thoughts blowing around like the gusts of wind currently rattling the windows. Since my brain is centrally located in the neutral position, I guess I should feel safe sharing some thoughts about the types of individuals who are currently setting me on edge – people I don’t trust.
I don’t trust people who never challenge authority. History provides dozens of examples of what happens when people blindly follow the leader rather than do what is right. When people are more concerned about protecting their status than they are about protecting those who are most vulnerable, I will never be able to trust them,
I don’t trust “suck ups” and “brown nosers.” Anyone who uses a significant amount of time and energy trying to impress those in power is doing a disservice to people who actually have integrity. If your words and behaviors don’t provide any evidence of your personal values, I can’t trust you.
I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggy.” When my mom took me to the library as a toddler, I gravitated to the books with pictures of dogs. The worst moments of my life have always improved when I’ve been able to wrap my arms around a nonjudgmental furry friend and sobbed uncontrollably. And yes, I do have human friends who don’t like dogs, but they’ve had to earn that friendship and my trust.
I don’t trust people who have college degrees but still don’t use proper grammar or punctuation. I understand language is learned, but going to college requires a lot of reading and writing. It should also involve professors who demand the use of correct grammar. If you leave college still using mismatched verb tenses and confusing “wonder” and “wander,” you either didn’t truly earn your degree or there is something significantly wrong with your education.
And finally, I don’t trust people who try to buy my friendship or my approval. I don’t need gifts or flowers or disingenuous compliments. If someone has to give me something in order to validate the relationship, it’s not valid at all.
As I was writing these stormy thoughts, I realized my husband’s suggestion was actually a good one. Because as I went through my list of the types of people I can’t trust, I realized something really important.
In all of the aspects of my life over which I have control, I have surrounded myself with people whom I do trust. My friends are social justice advocates who always question authority. They are the people who call me out when I say or do something stupid and allow me to do the same to them. They are the people who give me the gifts of time and understanding. They are people who want to build a better world for others rather than for themselves. And yes, for the most part, they are also people who love dogs.
I’ve been making a conscious effort to appear as though I’m maintaining my mental health during the past few weeks. But on Friday, I fell apart. I only got out of bed when my puppy Jasper jumped on top of me insisting I pay attention to him.
Paying attention to Jasper always requires getting out of bed.
The rest of the day, my emotions cycled between anger and despair. I was feeling powerless in almost every aspect of my life. And I hate feeling powerless. I’ve always been someone who believes in dealing with problems instead of ignoring them. But confronting the biggest problems in my life hasn’t been working for me lately.
The impact of the new reality of social distancing due to COVID-19 is only partially to blame. The truth is, I’m struggling with a lot of negativity. One particular situation is getting progressively worse, and I’ve been foiled at every attempt to address it.
I loathe the thought that anyone describes me as helpless, but that is exactly how I was feeling yesterday. And since self pity has always been one of biggest pet peeves, feeling that only made me feel even worse.
So I did everything I could to “snap out” of my funk.
I spoke with a couple of friends who encouraged me. I did my best to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I posted silly photos celebrating National Siblings Day on Facebook. I took a couple of long walks. I ate healthy food and took my vitamins. I sent silly text messages. I reviewed the daily devotion I’d committed to read every day for Lent. And I cried. I cried a lot. And then I got mad at myself for crying.
This morning, I woke up to the sun shining and to Jasper once again jumping on me.This time, he didn’t need to drag me out of bed. I was prepared to face the day even though my circumstances were exactly the same as they were yesterday.
I’d like to say that, through some amazing self talk, I’d been able to improve my attitude. But that would be a lie. Instead, I think I needed a day of self pity and crying before I could move on.
That probably goes against the sage advice of any self-help guru. (I don’t know for sure since I’m as resistant to reading self-help books as I am to giving up, giving in or being deferential to people who don’t earn my respect.)
But yesterday, I was absorbed in self pity. And while it felt horrible and went against the essence of whom I like to believe I am, I think my psyche needed to stop fighting. For at least one day, I needed to put down the boxing gloves and just feel the pain of every punch life has been throwing at me lately.
It’s humbling to admit that, but it’s also liberating. I realize that I wasn’t giving up or giving in. I was just giving myself a break.
Life sometimes sucks, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always fix it. Sometimes we can’t laugh our way out of a bad mood or find the silver lining in the grey clouds. Sometimes we just have to hold on tightly while we ride out the crap storm with the understanding that this too shall pass. And it will pass even though it won’t happen as quickly as we’d like.
In such cases, a little self pity might actually be acceptable.
I am writing this on a Saturday that is the punctuation mark on what is perhaps the longest week of my life.
The Covid-19 pandemic has elicited some of the same raw emotions as September 11, 2001. Only instead of witnessing the amount of damage human beings can intentionally do to each other in a matter of hours, this week felt like watching a failed rescue attempt in slow motion. I can see a person standing on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train. That person is not only oblivious to the danger, but he’s inviting all of his friends to join him. And that scenario repeats itself over and over again.
Because I work at a social service agency, this wasn’t a week of self isolation or working from home. I oversee four offices that provide a variety of programs, including two food pantries. So this was a week of making plans, then changing plans then making new plans. It was a week of worrying about keeping staff safe, and clients safe and volunteers safe. It was a week of witnessing leadership failure and self-serving decision making. It was a week of hearing fear in the voice of a learning-disabled client with autism who had been living in his car when he first arrived at our office. He had finally been able to get his own apartment by working two jobs at two restaurants as a dishwasher. And this week he lost both of those jobs.
All of that was weighing heavily on my mind when I took my energetic puppy Jasper to a local park for a long walk in the woods on Thursday evening. The temperature was unseasonably warm, so a lot of people were taking advantage of one of the few recreational venues still available to us. Several fathers and sons were fishing. Athletes were running around the parameter of the park. Families were walking their dogs. And several people were standing still just listening to the spring peepers.
The tiny frogs were raising their voices to welcome the evening and provide me with a reminder that no matter what is happening in the world, we can always find beauty, peace and comfort among the chaos.
Amid the challenges of this week, family and friends reached out via phone calls not just text messages. Volunteers went beyond the call of duty to make sure our clients received the help they need. My amazing co-workers never complained about the increasing demands on them. When life gets scary, there are always kind people to help navigate it.
The sky was almost dark as Jasper and I finished our walk. As the last person in the park, I stopped for one last time at the edge of the pond. I took out my phone and did my best to capture a short video of the moment. The ducks called to each other as the peepers raised their voices in a joyous chorus.
“It’s okay,” they chimed. “It’s okay.
Most people would have thought that the contents of the cardboard box weren’t worth anything.
But I knew better. The box was actually a treasure chest full of hopes and dreams. It was a haunted place full of memories and ghosts. And most of all, it was a reference guide for my family history.
The box was the last of my inheritance from my grandparents. As the unofficial family historian, I’d already been given many of their photo albums, framed photos and scrapbooks. But the box wasn’t organized. It was a jumble of pieces of paper, dance cards, newspaper clippings, marriage certificates, medical records, death certificates, and even some property deeds.
It had sat for years in the corner of my bedroom gathering dust while I told myself that someday I would get to it.
That someday arrived on a rainy Saturday afternoon when I was feeling a bit down and questioning my role and place in the universe. To occupy my mind, I dragged the box out of the corner and began looking through the contents.
There were pages from an old address book with names and birth dates in my grandmother’s spindly handwriting. My grandmother was left-handed and had been raised to believe that being left-handed was deviant. Her teachers had forced her to learn to write with her right hand. Up until her death, she always wrote with her right hand even though she favored her left to do other tasks. As I turned over page after page with that handwriting, I reflected on how my two left-handed children have complained about being raised in a world designed for right-handed people. Yet no teacher ever made them use their non-dominant hand to write. I also wondered if being left-handed is a gene and if they had inherited it from their grandmother.
As I continued riffling through the contents of the box, I picked up a piece of graph paper with my grandfather’s precise printing. He was never diagnosed, but everyone in the family agrees that he suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder. One of his greatest obsessions was whether he would live longer than the other members of his family. On the paper, he had listed the names of his parents and each of his siblings along with their date of birth, date of death, and how old they were when they died. Next to my grandfather’s name, someone had penciled in “86.” For the record, my grandfather died only a few days short of his ninetieth birthday
Other random items in the box included a napkin from my great-grandparents fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1952, pages that had been ripped from an old family Bible, my grandfather’s retirement letter, my great-grandfather’s last will and testament and the deed to a family farm purchased in 1839. All of them pieces of my family history.
Near the bottom of the box I found the program from my grandmother’s 1932 college graduation during the Great Depression. My grandmother didn’t come from wealth. She had been raised on a farm and had worked her way through college. She met my grandfather there, and after they got married, she never had paid employment. I’ve asked my mother more than once why Grandma worked so hard to get a college degree but never used it. My mom always had the same response, “It was important to her, and getting a college degree isn’t just about getting a job. A job isn’t the only way you can use your education. Your grandmother used hers throughout her life.”
As I had emptied the box, I realized that, despite my life long interest in history, it was never the actual events that interested me. I was fascinated by the people who were part of those events.
My family will never be in any history books. In the eyes of others, they were just ordinary people with ordinary problems living their ordinary lives.
But to me? The world wouldn’t be the same without them. They are threads in the same tapestry of life that I and my children are now helping weave.
And that, just like the contents of the box, is priceless.