Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day, Donald Trump, and Leonard Cohen

It's Veterans Day, and people are celebrating by burning flags as much in protest of Tuesday's election as the current state of our nation. But what is a nation but some artificial construct meant to unite as much as it’s meant to divide. Nations mean nothing to me. If there is injustice and poverty and suffering in this world, it ripples outward like a wave and touches all of us. Every act of kindness and beauty affects us all in similar ways. I prefer to practice the latter, randomly or otherwise. One of the most beautiful poetic voices in history passed away last night. Maybe Leonard Cohen couldn’t handle the sadness of what happened Tuesday. He was 82. My 94 year old grandmother couldn’t handle it either. Once it was clear what was happening, she became confused. She didn’t know where she was. She wasn’t the only person who felt lost that night, or in the days since.

Leonard Cohen reminded us there is a crack in everything. But he also reminded us that's how the light gets in.

It doesn't seem like we are living in a period of great harmony or balance right now. From Brexit to Syrian refugees to black vs blue lives matter to our presidential election. In the last four days, I have already heard at least five first-hand stories of swastikas and n-words and go back to Africa's and homophobia, sometimes in the act of ugliness. Nations are closing their doors on children fleeing violence and starvation. We elected a president who vowed to upend the lives of 11 million immigrants, 20 million poor people who finally have health care, and countless hundreds of millions who practice a particular religion. We elected a Vice President who has set gay and reproductive (and thus human) rights back a generation.

This isn’t partisan bickering or liberal propaganda or my opinion. These are their words. These are their actions. They are words and acts that make sense to many, but they hurt my soul. They are not the actions I want taken by my leaders.  My gay friends, my immigrant friends, my poor friends, my friends of color, my children: all are terrified of what's next. Donald Trump supporters are rightfully elated with his victory. But they are not acting with love or kindness if they don’t feel at least an iota of compassion for the people who are understandably and rightfully terrified. Immigrants, adopted children, families struggling to get by who finally don’t have to worry about one medical emergency destroying their family. Gay friends who finally feel a modicum of safety. All of those whose hard fought rights may well be taken away. Trump supporters may not believe they deserved these rights in the first place. I believe we still have a long way to go to achieve the promise of equality. I also believe that is one of the reasons we exist.

I have good friends who voted for Donald Trump. I don't hate them. I'm not de-friending them. In the moments where I am my highest self, I can even defend them. As Leonard Cohen said, "I don't consider myself a pessimist. I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin." I do feel soaked to the skin. Many humans feel soaked to the skin, regardless of how they voted. The pain we all feel is real. The solutions are myriad and complicated. I understand why so many yearn to return to a simpler time.

Leonard Cohen asked: “How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me?” Yesterday feels nice, it boasts of front porches, lemonade, and neighbors helping neighbors. But it wasn’t nice for any marginalized human. In fact, this is the best time in the history of our species for everyone except white heterosexual males. It’s not like they are losing ground. It’s just that everyone else is finally starting to catch up.

I walked last night, in protest, with thousands of people who were furious and terrified and soaked to the skin. They chanted, they prayed, they waved signs and burned flags. Police in riot gear stood beside them, with sirens screaming and helicopters circling, massive spotlights burning holes from above. Like the tear gas. Like the election. Like the pain.

I am responding with hope and love to Trump supporters, just as I want them to do for me. Just because every Trump supporter is not misogynist, racist or homophobic does not mean those things no longer exist. These feelings, horrific as they are, are all rooted in fear. I want to reach my arms out to them, so that they may feel the peace and balance that comes with a loving heart. It is only by talking, working, loving, and connecting that we can heal the wounds that live within these cracks. The wounds were there before Tuesday and were not going away regardless of who won. It will take far more work than that.

Connections and communication across the divide seems to be losing traction. One thing I can guarantee, with absolute and profound certainty: further movement to the poles, away from each other, to a place where everyone surrounds themselves with people who look and act and think just like them, wrapping themselves in the certainty of their own righteousness, will only grow the divide that already exists. It is up to every human on this planet to work against those forces, blowing us backward. When we push ourselves forward, into this strong headwind, we honor not just our veterans, but also our humanity.

My friends who supported Trump are scared too. They voted Trump because they believe government is too intrusive, or because they are fiscally conservative, or because their wages haven't gone up in a generation and they have to blame someone, and the easiest target is a sitting two term President. We have lived for eight years with the audacity of hope, and we wanted to make it four more. But in this much divided nation, a third term Presidency is hard to achieve. The last time it happened was 1988, over a quarter century ago. I am scarcely able to handle how much the world has changed since then.

I believe love and compassion are more powerful forces than fear and hate. But they aren't great motivators when people are hurting, mad, or scared. They are a hard sell. Everyone knows fear is easier. It's a shame that here, in 2016, we still live in a world where fear is so powerful. 

I think about our veterans today, and the fear so many of them had to feel as they walked into danger. The fear so many of them still fear today, re-acclimating and struggling with post-traumatic stress. Fear is not reserved for anyone. It is freely available, like death. But the reality of death helps appoint meaning to life. Fear, on the other hand, only steals our moments of beauty and our opportunities for love and spiritual connection.

I'm quite sure that the majority of people who voted for Donald Trump would be burning in anger as they watched our flag engulfed in flames, especially on the eve of the day meant to honor those who fought on its behalf. Soaked to the skin. I know and have known many veterans and I honor all of them but this day, to me, is equally about everyone who fights to make this nation, this world, this existence, a better, most just, and more equal one. Teachers, agitators, protestors, advocates, and volunteers. I honor them all on Veterans Day; everyone who fights for freedom, justice, equality and a better world.

It is with their stories burrowed deep in my soul that I believe that people have the right to be offended by flag burning. They have the right and I honor that right. Just like they have the right to vote for Donald Trump for President.

But with even greater passion, I believe in real freedom more than symbols of freedom. To me, that means our veterans fought far more for the right to burn the flag than for the flag itself. So, in a small but powerful way, I see flag burning at a Trump protest as a way of honoring that which our veterans fought to protect. Rights are good things. Once we grant them, they should not be taken away. I hope we keep that in mind as we move forward on health care, education, criminal justice, marriage equality, reproductive freedom, freedom of religion assembly and speech, and the freedoms that have been extended to people with disabilities, to children, to women, and to people of color.

There is a crack in everything. It was there before Tuesday. It will take all of us to seal it. Until then, let’s draw strength from the light that still manages to pass through.

Cohen sang: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed, Everybody knows the war is over, Everybody knows the good guys lost, Everybody knows the fight was fixed, The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. That's how it goes. Everybody knows. A lot of people are feeling that way right now. A lot of people have felt that way since the dawn of time. Just because we know what is, however, doesn’t mean we don’t, or can’t, know what could be.

I sing for what is. But I also sing for what is possible.

I am grieving and am in spiritual agony. It’s not just what happened Tuesday. It’s the soul level pain that seems to be permeating our world right now. It’s the waves of fear and hurt that fed into everything that happened before Tuesday and laid groundwork for any and all fear based decisions yet to come. If only compassion and love could be our soul level drivers. That is the work that is necessary. It was necessary regardless of what happened in our election.

Leonard Cohen is gone, but his memories – and beautiful words – live on. Our veterans stand tall and proud (at least metaphorically) for that which is best in all of us – the desire to put everything on the line for a grander vision of what could be. I salute and honor them, today and every day. Our new President elect has many times spoken like a divider, not a uniter. I hope his actions lean the opposite way. Love cannot be illegal. People cannot be illegal. That may not have been the view from Trump Tower. I hope it is the view from the White House.

Cohen said: “It doesn't matter what you do because it's going to happen anyway.” Maybe he’s right. But I don’t believe it. I choose to put my faith in Martin Luther King, when he said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Slowly but surely, for thousands of years, it has. Perhaps Tuesday represents a setback, perhaps it doesn’t. We will have to wait and see and, of course, work with all the beautiful, hopeful, creative energy we have to ensure it doesn’t. But it isn’t the first setback and it won’t be the last. Like our veterans, our eye is on the long arc that bends toward justice.

And while, as Leonard Cohen once said, “Reality is one of the possibilities I cannot afford to ignore,” neither is the hope for something better.

We may have lost Tuesday. And we may have lost Leonard. But hope never dies.

There’s a crack in everything, but that’s how the light gets in.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

If Any Matter, All Matter

Black lives matter is not rhetoric, not an empty promise that fades from our collective consciousness like a piece of candy, or like an ad for one more product our already over consumptive material world needs like another bullet hole.

Black lives matter is not a slogan, a flag we can wave on Independence Day while we barbecue in the backyard, play by the pool, and neglect to think for even one moment why it is we are here, celebrating in the first place.

Black lives matter is not a calling card, an emblem that we whip out when it suits our needs or when something happens (again) or when we start forgetting (again) because our attention spans can no longer extend beyond a story, or an event, or even a moment.

Black lives matter is simply a reality that ebbs and flows, like the tide, from this existence. It is not debatable, nor is it cause for the venomous hatred it has inspired. Nor is it necessary.

Or at least it shouldn't be.

Saying black lives matter is like saying air matters, or water, or soil, or food. It is like saying that earth matters. Interesting, that each is under some form of attack, almost beyond and outside the recognition that their mattering should be so obvious that the words needn't be spoken.

Alas, that is not the world we occupy. And as long as things that matter are attacked as if they don't, the obvious must be reiterated and the unnecessary must again become necessary.

Black lives matter means nothing more than all lives matter. But, as anyone paying attention knows, that broader generalization misses the most critical point. Because no one questions whether white lives matter. No one gets rewarded for snuffing out a white life. No one gets paid leave and 'not guilty' verdicts raining down upon our world like a flood. No one gets immunity, ever, for ending an unarmed white life. 

The reality of which really makes black lives matter a reminder, as if we'd somehow forgotten the lesson we finally seemed to learn. A lesson that took us four hundred years to learn; took less than forty to forget.

Beautiful man, you matter. You matter like your brother standing on the corner selling cd's, your cousin walking down the street in his hoodie, your friend who teaches kids with autism, your neighbor who got locked up last week for stealing bread. You matter like my son and my daughter. You matter like the leathered brown man working the fields, the still unsuspecting yellow man sitting in internment camp, the black father floating his family on a perilous raft to a mirage across the sea.

Your words matter. The love that pours from your heart matters. The music and vision and desires and hopes and dreams that you not only mold, like clay, but share with the world, matter. You share them in Sedona, safe and secure and separate from the rest of the world. You share them in Providence, fraught with fear that you'll get shot for legally refusing to share your name after an illegal and unnecessary police stop. You share it in a world that is confused, looking for reminders that this is not the way it is supposed to be. The love you share is one piece of that bigger story, that fabric that lives and breathes and undulates in all directions, searching for a place to grab hold and explode like the most beautiful light ever created.

You matter where black lives matter, you matter where all lives matter, you matter where everything that matters, matters. You are more than a survivor filled with unearned guilt. More than a hash tag. More than a single life, winding your way through this existence. You are part of a collective, and not just the one in Sedona. Part of the collective that is this existence.

You are as vital as every other piece of this fabric. The void of your loss would begin an unraveling that would not cease until there was nothing left. Just like the void left by Delrawn, Alton, Philando, Michael, Trayvon, Eric, Tamir, Tony, Walter, Freddie, and countless other strands of this beautiful fabric that we are helplessly watching unravel before us. But we are not helpless.

They matter. You matter. If any of us are to matter, then all of us must. It's time to put down our guns and hashtags and lift our needles and thread. We have so much work to do.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Race and Class: Shhhhh

A President has no choice, really. Not every President does it and few do it well. But that doesn't mean it's not a critical part of the job description: demonstrating leadership, cheerleading, team building, calls for unity, and yes, reminding us of our commonalities - all are vital components of a successful leader.

We need a leader who can try to bring us all together when things are falling apart and we are in a pretty scary place right now. So thank you for trying. “As painful as this week has been,” President Obama said, “I firmly believe that America is not as divided as some have suggested.”

But then the President goes on to say that the “demented” individual who committed this atrocity is no more representative of African Americans than white criminals are of white people or Muslim killers are of Islam. I agree, mostly.

One might ask themselves why people of color in this country sometimes have a strong desire to revolt, and not necessarily peacefully, against people who continue to abuse their class and race based privilege. Why some people break. Why people get frustrated when the rest of us neglect to work, daily and in all ways possible, to reduce the class and race based injustice that continues to persevere in the United States.  And if we are honest, the things that we collectively embrace (the national anthem, the Apple Store, the Superbowl, and lattes) are probably insufficient to weather the storm of poverty, injustice, racism, and inequality.

So yes, it is laudable and worth ongoing mention that we have a lot in common and, generally speaking, do not create a war, riot, or violent protest every time something goes wrong. But there is foment smoldering and nothing can stop it other than a bigger change than the one we are making.

The frequency with which unarmed black men are getting shot by police is a symptom, not a cause. Homelessness, a lack of good paying middle class jobs, and the reality that the only promise we are willing to make is that we will house and feed and clothe every single American as long as they commit a crime. Otherwise, they are on their own. Then add eviction, brutality, and endemic societal racism. Focus your lens on these problems, these every day occurrences that are happening on our streets and in our cities; the brutal reality that faces literally countless families in our country. Then zoom the lens out, to the macro level, and focus on the unarmed black man who was killed last week, the one killed yesterday, and the one killed today. Or the steady stream of verdicts, one after another that mirror each unnecessary and unjust killing: not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.

Let us each put ourselves in these shoes for a moment and make an honest, real attempt to imagine the world from that perspective.

Violence only begets more violence and that will never be the answer. If someone is resorting to killing, there is something wrong with them, period. What if they have tried and tried and tried and simply cannot find a path to justice or equality for themselves, their family, their community, or their race. If things don’t change, will a growing number come to the same conclusion that they have no other choice, that the only way to create the change that is absolutely needed in our country, is to perpetuate the endless violence?

If we don’t want to find out, we may need to acknowledge that while our similarities are pretty special and worth noting, our differences are real and profound. And far too little is happening to ensure the former outweighs the latter.

Leadership, yes, absolutely, comes in the form of cheerleading. But it also comes in the form of saying that which is incredibly hard to say, but needs to be said. President Obama has done as much on this front as any President in a generation, but today, his comments were not enough. It’ll take more than words and a pom pom to heal these wounds.