Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

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 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.

YOU??!!

Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?

You?!

For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.

Hold.

 

Ramadan by Negotiated Agreement

My fast is closed but my heart is open.

Today marks the end of my fasting for Ramadan. My final Iftar took place in a pub at BWI before I got on a plane for a family vacation.  I broke this fast in the daylight with a beer and a bacon burger. So…not strictly speaking a traditional Ramadan success story.

ram-burger

I have written previously about my distrust of perfection further affirmed by my favorite sage, Sister Anne Patrick, who often said “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I can acknowledge this is one of those truths I cling to, in part, because it’s convenient.

Sidenote: always distrust sage advice that is too easy for you to follow…not because it isn’t true for others, but perhaps not quite so true for you.

Here are all the ways my Ramadan fast was less than perfect:

I did not always wake by 5:30 to eat my breakfast before sunrise. Sometimes I did. Other days early morning runs, or yoga, or other forms of rationalization had me eating my breakfast in the guilty gleam of the morning sun’s rays.

ram-also
I found myself eating a lot of dessert for breakfast. Cue cannoli. 

Also,

I almost never waited to break my fast at Sundown. Instead I would break my fast in the evening (ahem) or late afternoon when I sat down to dinner (ahem) or stoop sitting with my family (ahem) or close neighborhood drinking moms.

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Pilgrimage to St. Casimir’s street fair with the neighborhood crew.

This brings me to,

I often broke my fast with an adult beverage (drunken Monk style). My kidneys, turns out, did not appreciate this.

Ram-cocktail
Wine smoothie.

Which is why,

I drank water during fasting hours. It comes as a surprise to most non-Muslims that the Ramadan fast means you do not eat OR drink during the day. Not so, in Christian fasting. Thirst rather than hunger in my experience is by far the more difficult craving to stave off. Last Ramadan I was only able to pull it off a couple of days.

Date with date
“You got a date with a date!”

Speaking of which,

I may have taken a few days “off” from Ramadan. Sundays, for example are NOT counted in the 40 days of Lent. SOOOOO….I reasoned for this to be an ecumenical blending of traditions, maybe I just ate one less meal than usual that day. Who says brunch can’t be transcendent?

 

One might ask with all this “Ramadan by negotiated agreement” why do it at all? More importantly, might not all this compromise be viewed a disrespectful to all those devout Muslims around the world who adhere to these directives fervently? Perhaps. Though that is not their intent

This is my sincere confession. Forgive me.

Ramadan, I have learned, is not just about what you (try to) subtract. It’s about what you add.  Muslims read the entire Koran during the month, they do works of charity, they make amends to people they have wronged.

ram-food
Food drive at Brooklyn Park Elementary.

 

One of the most beautiful reflections about the multiplicity of meanings that emerge out of this Holy month come from “Ramadan Revealed” with American Muslims around the country, recorded by “On Being.” I listened to it last year and this year while I ran along the Baltimore Harbor in the early morning light. Please make the time for these beautiful stories. They are full of humor, generosity…and MacDonald’s French Fries.

Many of these American Muslims tell stories about how challenging it is to keep the fast in America…hemmed in by 24 hour neon signs for french-fries and doughnuts. One confesses, when she fasts in America she feels like the only person in the world not eating. Not drinking.

MeanBox
Haram in a box.

 

I can’t say I strictly identify. I can say I do feel different even when I do Ramadan imperfectly. I feel more patient. More loving. More grateful. More mindful.

 

Even when I do less, I feel more.

Maybe it’s because all that blood is rushing to my brain and not my digestive tract. Maybe because so much of consumption isn’t nourishing. Maybe because I have used the discomfort of hunger as an excuse to be grumpy or impatient.

ram-acrobat
Acro-Kip.

Maybe for some other mystical reason.

My hope is that one day I will do more and be more because of it. One day I will work up my spiritual stamina to 30 days of true pre-dawn profundity, alcoholic temperance, and sundown first sips.

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Me: Ivy what are you doing? – Ivy: Meditating. – Me: Who taught you to do that? – Ivy: Ninja Turtles

Until then, my fast from food is closed. (I’m on vacation and one of my former students told me you’re not supposed to fast when you’re traveling, so, another convenient truth for me to adhere to).

But my heart is more open.

 

Thank you Ramadan. I’ll open my fast with you again next year.

What Nourish Meant

When humans eat alone, we are often left hungry.

“It’s been nice not eating with you, Barb.”

This was the sardonic line delivered by one of my colleagues yesterday. As the school year wraps up, there have been A LOT of end-of-year dinners, luncheons, and (not so) happy hours for me to attend…just in time for Ramadan.

To my right is a pita platter. To my left, pasta primavera.  I am hemmed in by temptation on all sides with only my haram iced tea to comfort me. (Yes, know it all. I realize I’m not supposed to be drinking during Ramadan. Mind yo’ bidness and tune in next blog for “Rama-my-way.” And ignore the mint in the background.)

tea

Situations such as these elicit a lot of apologies, as people bite into their bacon turkey clubs.

It is an interesting quirk of my spiritual impulses, that while I rarely seem to mind being the center of attention, say, on spirit day when I’m prancing around in a purple tutu, when it comes to matters of faith…I’m more comfortable with spiritual subtlety.

tutu you

I never wore a gold cross around my neck, never flew in an airplane with a Bible on my lap hoping for a conversion conversation, never wore a shirt that said “WWJD”, never bought an fish for the back of my car.

And now that my spirituality has become a syncretic mystical mix, I may write reflectively in a public blogging space or answer any direct questions, I’m not knocking door to door to hand out certainty in pamphlet form.

This is all to say, collective meals during sun-up make me feel awkward. I almost skipped this one.

But then…

Something funny happened (as it often does) when we lean into rather than away from spaces and situations that discomfort us.

Because I didn’t have to pay attention to food, I could pay attention to people.

fast break1

During Ramadan, you begin to realize just how much of your day is focused on your belly. What goes into it, how it’s feeling, what it’s saying, how big it’s getting, and on, and on, and on. Even at this meal I would have devoted time to choosing my food, eating my food, comparing my food to those around me, trading my food for theirs.

I’ve always found it fascinating that we humans the world over have taken this…well, kind of gross thing we must do to survive (aka: crushing up living things in our mouth into a moist paste) and created so many rituals, recipes, and reality shows around this most basic of acts. Trees have a much more elegant method of survival. Sun from the top. Water from the bottom. Imagine everything they can get done because they don’t have to shop at Harris Teeter for the 42 line recipe from Cook’s Illustrated!

What’s more, we know that particularly in our country, this act that is simply supposed to nourish us has made us sick. We have made our taste buds, not our tummies, the gatekeeper of what enters our bodies. All kinds of food like substances that don’t end up nourishing us at all. Instead they give us heart disease and colon cancer.

Last Ramadan I realized that my WORST eating habits happened in isolation. I was most likely to eat a bag of leftover Halloween candy unobserved in my cinder-block office, or a block of Manchego cheese before my kids got home from school, or a Chic-fil-a sandwich and peppermint milkshake in my car and quickly get rid of the evidence (in my progressive shame), or a carton of Cherry Garcia after my husband went to bed the night before Ramadan.

For me, peer pressure has never made me bad. It’s helped me be good. This is true of my eating and my being.

In contrast, During Ramadan, both eating and NOT eating becomes a communal rather than individual act. Iftar is the meal that breaks the fast. At sundown you wait for the call to prayer, as the last rays descend below the horizon you eat your date and guzzle your water, migrate in to pray, and then migrate out to stuff your face with platters of house prepared delights. If you celebrate at the mosque you will do this under a great white tent with all your fellow parishoners (mosque-ishoners?), or alternately you will do this at home amidst the tangle of your family. Like 40 days of Thanksgiving at dusk.

Date with date
“You got a date with a date!”

Consequently, Ramadan can be a very isolating experience for solitary Muslims. Men working abroad away from their families. College students without an MSA. Anyone who has unwillingly spent a holiday estranged from their people will be able to sympathize.

Just in the few days I have been fasting, I feel the hunger most acutely in isolation…and somehow not at all when I’m laughing on the stoop with my neighbors, chasing my kids down on their bikes, sweating through yoga next to strangers, telling and hearing ghost stories while I sip my iced tea next to a sardonic pita pounding colleague.

 

The hunger abates.

I feel satiated.

stoop break

I wonder if what we mistake for hunger pangs may be a society starving for deep human connection.

 

When humans eat alone, we are often left hungry.

For what?

Each other, I think.

Now that’s a craving I’m happy to cave into.

Odd friends of Ramadan

Transformed by curious couplings during #Christians4Ramadan

Tonight, on Ramadan Eve, I finished two books, both of which were given to me. One by my daughter. One by a first year teacher.

A month ago, my daughter came home from Pre-K4 with I am Malala in her Ninja Turtle backpack.

Holding it up to me in two hands, like a stone tablet.  She said earnestly, (Ivy says most things earnestly) “Mommy I want to read this!”

She’d found it in the fourth grade classroom and I can only assume connected immediately with the tranquil gaze of Malala on the front cover.

“Umm…I want to read that too, five year old,” I said bemused. “Guess this is our first mother daughter book club.” We let Kip join too because…top bunk privilege. At bedtime, for the last month, we have been reading about Malala, Pakistan, Swat Valley, the rise of the Taliban, her Father’s activism, her own fight for human and children’s rights…and her love for Ugly Betty. Kip and Ivy have both been surprisingly riveted, only occasionally petitioning for a respite with Star Wars Rebels or Rosie Revere. After they become drowsy to the wisdom of Malala, I choose my late night profundity from a different direction.

Early in the school year, my colleague Andy (who had actually been a student at the school where I began teaching) asked me “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with rhetorical Leslie Knope-like eagerness.

“Umm…well that all depends…I guess some might see her as a little naïve.”

If by naïve you mean hopefully exuberant as she fearlessly charges into the world with blinders on to the peril towards herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

I should mention here that my spirit animal is Leslie Knope riding a unicorn.

Andy took it all in stride and very thoughtfully presented me with Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, as a Christmas gift…which I finally finished today. I wish this pace could be explained by 1,500 pages, small print and no pictures…but the book is only 329 pages long and is laced with Polaroids, hand scribbled notes from 8 year old Amy, and large margins with riotous side-notes from  friends and colleagues. I have added to these with annotations of my own (should you wish to borrow my copy).

As I drink wine and write this, these two books sit next to me, the authors both gazing at me with challenge and expectation. I don’t think I seek out these kinds of peculiar pairings to be deliberately provocative. I’m just a reluctant sorter. They would seem an odd couple to anyone else…but to those who know me, this will likely not come as too astounding. The spiritual humanitarian alongside the hilarious hedonist. Sounds about right.

Ram-odd-an

I will write more specifics about my strange affinity for these powerful women and the lessons they have taught me in the days to come, but for tonight, I accept their odd juxtaposition in my life and their company into Ramadan just as I hope you will accept the oddity of an educational mystic once again inspired and cleansed by her pilgrimage through this holy month.

I don’t have a logical or convenient filing system for the world or the people in it. I don’t reject these curious couplings when they happen. When my daughter hands me book, I accept. When the first year teacher hands me a book, I accept. When a kid asks me to sponsor the Muslim Student Association…I accept. And then I also accept the possibility that, perhaps, we were supposed to co-exist all along. Become friends. Transform each other. Make the other giggle.

I think Malala and Amy might do some giggling together. I think I might join them. And you? You’re invited, too.

Giggle.

Accept.

Lullaby for Baltimore

A year ago, I wrote this as we mourned for the pain of our city. A year later, she stirs, wakes, begins to rise.

Tonight, my children are sleeping, but from my roof I can see buildings burning. My children are sleeping, but I can hear the constant hum of helicopters and whine of sirens.

Still…my children sleep.

Other mothers in this city do not know where their children are.

Other mothers had to leave their houses, leave work, leave safety and plunge into the unknown to retrieve their children. They had to worry whether their children would make it home safe on the public busses that shut down and stranded students all over the city. Other mothers live near those burning buildings.

Other mothers have already lost their children.

Tonight before bed we talked to Grandma and Grampa, we played dress-up, we brushed teeth, put on pajamas, picked out stories. Ivy picked out Do Princesses wear hiking boots? Kip picked Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-zoo.

I needed a story, too.

I chose He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, by Kadir Nelson. I used to sing this book to my children every night. It was a gift for their Baptism. The Inscription from their Uncle Ben and Aunt Sarah reads, “Dear Kip and Ivy, on the occasion of your baptism, we are reminded that you are indeed in good hands, large and small. All our love…”

This beautiful book…

These beautiful children…

This beautiful city…

Yes. Beautiful.

Make no mistake, she will rise. Do not judge her by the color of her flames, but the content of her character.

Her story will unfold not in the destruction of the night but in the creation of the days and weeks and months and years to come as we plunge into the unknown searching for her, determined to bring her home, bind up her wounds, hold her close, whisper prayers in the dark as she rests.

She is in our hands.

Sleep, my love.

Sleep.

Thin and Now – A Study in Liminal Space

In between is a space unto itself.

Sitting in a dead car on a country road in Colorado, I don’t know if I shiver from the cold or some deeper sense of awareness. I am not alone in the car. I sit with the only self-proclaimed neo-pagan I’ve ever met. This is the first moment I encounter the notion of “Liminal Space.”

As she describes the Celtic and Pagan traditions, she speaks of the sanctity of spaces between. Cliffs as meeting spaces between earth, water, and sky. Pregnancy as the time when a woman is no longer a child but not yet a mother.  Dawn and Twilight. Solstice and equinox. These moments perch at the precipice before we leave behind what was and step into what will be next.

Life at the threshold.

Yesterday I spent one of my spring break days on a pilgrimage with my dear friend Cara. An Episcopal priest on Capitol Hill, we first met at bible study in college. She knew early on that her’s would be the life of a religious. She continues to anchor me in the faith of my roots…even as I am tempted by Pagan fruit.

 

On yesterday’s journey she led me down into the metro and up again to the Renwick Gallery. This diminutive museum tucked away from the rest of the National Mall was a small marvel. Their installation right now one of Wonder. Quite literally. Each room has been transformed into a transcendent space. The effect is visual, but also behavioral.

We tilt our heads, puzzled.

liminal10

We crouch down.

Liminal3

 

We get closer.

liminal8

Reach out.

Liminal 1

We step back.

liminal5

We prostrate ourselves, gaze and giggle.

Liminal13

 

String becomes light.

liminal6

Wings become wallpaper.

liminal4

Cards become pillars of salt.

liminal12

Afterwards, on our long walk home, back the way we came, I am once again thinking about Space. How we shape it. How it shapes us. How often neglected this essential idea has become in a modern world where architecture is so often utterly utilitarian.

I ask Cara her thoughts on liminal space.

“Thin Space,” she calls it. I seize on this term.

Yes.

Thin.

As a priest, she is invited into these sanctified spaces, lives in them. Creates and consecrates them.

But in her experience, passing through liminal space is as likely to be distressing as enlightening for those who experience it. After all, she says, the most common time she has experienced this “thinness” is just before or just after death.

Looking back at my own timeline, I note a deep change that transpired in me and plot its beginnings in the birth of my children and the death of my dearest friend’s husband. This overlay of living and dying created new heights and depths I have yet to fully explore, but I nevertheless feel the shift in my landscape.

Liminal space might be literal places we can plot on a map. Retreat to or create. They might be occurrences we can plot on a timeline and revisit annually in traditions and memorials. Or, they may be states of being we can generate in ourselves and, perhaps, share with others.

In between is a space unto itself.

 

Be still, my monkey…

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

 

Kip.

kip1

Kip!

kip6

KIP!!

kip7

 

(sigh)

Kip happens.

My son moves at a pace faster than the speed of sound. That is the ONLY explanation for why he only hears me the third time I say something.

Zippy Kippy.

Skippy Kippy.

Kip-to-my-lou.

Oh, my darlin’.

It is hard to be angry with such an exuberant, gregarious, hilarious primate. Somehow we still manage it.

Just.

Be.

Still!

Stillness is not easy for the five year old.

kip2

Stillness is not easy for his mother, either. Neither in body nor in mind.

Last Lent, I wrote about my monkey mind

It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.

Yoga, I wrote, was one of the only things that could calm my rushing psyche. The faster the flow of my body, the slower my mind becomes. When I began my practice, I gravitated to the hardest teachers. Barely keeping pace with my breath, dripping in sweat, my feet squeaking and slipping, this was the soggy path to my Zen moments. I would catch glimpses of silence and stillness in my mind before they slipped away around a corner of my frontal cortex.

Lately, though, I find I don’t have to chase down stillness. It has begun to come to me.

This week my friend Libbie invited me down to Annapolis to meet and practice with her favorite Yoga instructor. Tina.

Her class was without heat. Without sweat. Without mirrors. Without haste.

We began with seated meditation. We ended with seated meditation.

There was movement between, but all I remember, all I craved was the stillness.

Afterwards, I sat with her for a moment and marveled aloud how much I had reveled in the methodic, meditative slowness of the class. How did this happen? When did I change? How did I slip into someone at ease with silence and stillness?

“You’ve trained your mind,” she said.

When did that happen?!

 

Be still my heart.

Be still and know.

Peace. Be still.

kip3

 

In stillness we hear.

In stillness we’re here.

Sleep tight, little monkey.