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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Women Crush It Wednesday

I’m so fiercely proud to love you. So confident in our capacity to shape our world.

Women.

I love loving you. Love that I’m free to do it without recrimination. Love that every time I love you I feel stronger for doing it.

I have scaled cliffs with you.

I have braved Javelina with you.

I have watched “Girls Just Want to have fun” with you and tried to lift you over my head.

Knitted, strummed, and floated.

Conspired and colluded.

Wept.

In this month that is ours (and which month isn’t, really?) I want to celebrate the women who I care for and who have cared for me.

Our love is our gift. To remind all of humanity how deeply we can love each other. That we can spoon and snuggle into one another at the cellular level. That we humans are all capable of this robust embrace.

I can be a handful.

So can you.

But hand in hand we scamper and scavenge and salvage and suffrage.

I’m so fiercely proud to love you. So confident in our capacity to shape our world.

We got this.

And I got you.

Women.

Let’s crush it.

CrushIvy

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.

Melancholy Hour

For David – May we all learn to harness our light for those in the dark.

whimsagogy

Something happens late at night. Everyone has gone to bed…but you. You’re still up. You feel the quiet around you. Feel the absence of others. Feel alone.

I only have myself as a basis for judgment, but I suspect that this experience of being human in the dark is a universal one.

It is powerful.

It is terrifying.

If you’re sad already, the weight of the darkness can be crushing. Smothering. It’s hard to breathe. Hard to believe it will ever end. You are buried leagues under grief or anger or confusion and you don’t know how you’ll emerge.

If you’re content, balanced, at peace when you reach this state of darkness and quiet, it can be profoundly beautiful. You feel in the quiet as if everything is there. All of your thoughts are louder. They echo across this vast cavern of possibility. In the quiet you feel the universe and…

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Open Handed Writing

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

My writing felt tight this week.

So did my living, come to think of it. I didn’t love as loosely as I like.

In yoga, there is a constant ebb and flow between opposing forces. Effort and surrender. Death to re-birth. Breath in. Breath out.

Using the breath, we breathe into the spaces we are tight. Resistant. This may be a joint or a muscle. It may be an emotion or thought. In yoga we practice releasing these attachments. Physical, mental, and spiritual.

When I was in a college, I landed on a metaphor that I have kept with me.

Picture a hand holding an object.

When we hold things the pain we may feel when they are taken from us has more to do with our grasp than the object itself. If I clasp something to my heart, grip it with all my strength, wrap myself around it, then if it is taken, it must be wrestled from me, wrenched from my grasp. I cannot help but be injured in this struggle.

My pain is in my posture.

If, on the other hand, I hold an object in my cupped hand outstretched, though the object is secure it is not possessed in the same way. I am not possessed by it. It may be lifted from my grasp without violence or struggle.

At the time I came to consciousness of this metaphor, it was God who I imagined giving or taking away. This idea of open-handedness a practice in trust with the divine Father.

Anyone who has practiced or learned from Buddhism will recognize this metaphor as a classic illustration of the suffering that comes from attachment. That the end of suffering is the releasing of our attachment to temporal things destined to change, evolve, die.

Today, my yoga instructor said:

The world isn’t coming at you.

You are coming at the world.

I’m beginning to wonder if the tightness in my writing is actually in my grip.

Writing can seem so final. It ceases to evolve as soon as you hit “Publish.” A snapshot of your thoughts in a moment. And then your thoughts change. Grow. Your words, however, are static.

I have yet to figure out how to make my writing mimic the expansion of my life and spirit. How to hold it in the open-hand of offering rather than the grasping hand of ambition.

 

One of the things I love about the Catholic tradition is the ever expanding family of Saints. This acknowledgment that human holiness is not just a thing locked in the past, but possible today. Right now. In this moment.

Saint
Our Lady of Aparecida – Patron Saint of Brazil. She stowed away with me four years ago and has been my quiet companion ever since.

Once in explaining to someone why I had (seemingly) left Christianity behind I insisted, “It’s not that I’ve rejected the Christian Canon. I’ve just expanded my canon to include others in it.”

For many, this will seem like heresy or hubris. Ironically, it is the closest I come to humility, this acknowledgement of the vast wisdom that can be found from a multiplicity of human experiences across time and culture. Not just in the past, but in the present.

I was no saint this week. I do not aspire to be one next week either.

But in my practice to come, I hope to come at the world and my words with open hands and a looser a grip.