Tuesday, April 28, 2015

On Baltimore: Hearing the cries

I don't have anything new, or beautiful, or profound to add to this topic.  My voice is not going to add anything prophetic, or make people think new thoughts, or change...well....anything.  I suck at writing about politics and writing about the big, hard issues of the world in a way that is informative, so I'm not going to try here. 

I also know that if someone else were to post this, it would probably be the last thing I would read.  Honestly?  If I read, see, look at, skim, listen to, or watch one more article about Baltimore today, I think I'm going to throw up.  I wish I was exaggerating, but I feel physically ill.  Didn't sleep, can't eat, body hurts type of ill, so I'm writing for peace.  It's the only step forward I know how to take.

A few months ago, when I came back from Haiti, I was faced with the intense discomfort of having been to a country full of devastation and injustice, and returning to a country of excess.  When I re-entered this country, I was forced to confront, and re-confront my privilege with my every action: every time I turned on the tap, turned on the lights, took a shower, reached for something to eat or drink, I held in my mind's eye the pictures of people I had met who do not have that privilege.  Every time I sat down, it felt like a reminder of the fact that I have the privilege of leisure time, as it is so easy for me to meet all of my basic needs.  This startling, pervasive, and intense realization prompted me to write these words:

"I don't have children, but the analogy that keeps coming to mind is that it feels like the difference between knowing that babies cry and hearing your baby cry.

I knew the world was crying.  Now, it is my world that is crying.  This world -- the one that I live in -- with you, right here, right now, this world is crying.  Our world."

These words came back to me yesterday.  Hearing of the violence that occurred yesterday in Baltimore, seeing the controversy erupt, hearing the arguments of all of the scared and hurting and angry and uncomfortable people, I wanted to scream, "Don't you see!?!  This city is hurting.  These people are hurting.  This community is hurting.  We are hurting.  We can no longer just know that babies cry.  These are our babies.  The ones that we birthed.  They are crying, and we have let them cry unattended for generations.  Right here, in our very home."

Because we did birth these babies, didn't we?  All of them.  The babies of oppression, and racism, and fear, and hatred.  The babies of silence, and privilege, and anger.  We birthed these babies of police brutality, and rioting, and poverty, and systematic silencing and devaluation of entire groups of people.  We birthed Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and all of the black men (and women) who have been killed by police.  We birthed Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman, Sean Williams, and all of the miscellaneous good, bad, misinformed, scared, naive, and hopeful cops out there.  We birthed the good, resilient, hopeful people of Baltimore who started immediately to clean and pray and hope and stand together in community.  We birthed the peaceful protestors, and the gang members, and the clergy who walked together.  We birthed the rioters.  This pain -- it is our pain.  It is our world.  It is our community.  This pain is mine.  It is yours.  It is ours.  And nothing will change until we recognize that all of these factors -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- they belong to us, and we must be accountable for them.  We must be able to stand up together and face the things we have intentionally or unintentionally been part of creating. 

This morning, I was told that I had to report to work, and that we were operating "business as usual."  I drove in past a line of members of the National Guard, lining the street, with shields, and guns, and helmets.  I walked in to work past 20-25 members of the National Guard and Police, all with guns, all with shields, all in uniform, all standing at attention with their hands on their weapons.  I had to make choices today about whether it would be more helpful for me to see my client with anxiety for a session this week, or more harmful for him to drive past all of the armed men and women on the way to his appointment.  I had conversations with trainees about how they're from small towns in Alabama, or Louisiana, or Oklahoma, and they spent last night awake and listening to gunfire, and smelling smoke, and hearing helicopters and sirens and sounds that scared them that they couldn't identify.  I felt the panic in my body, and watched the tears rise in a trainee's eyes as an insensitive colleague considered the best escape route out of the city from our location, given that we are backed up to the Inner Harbor, and there is only really one way out.  I considered how I am going to handle conversations about this situation with my clients and their families.  I read a scholarly article and guidelines for mental health professionals on addressing racial trauma.  I supervised my trainee on how we are going to address the events of this week tomorrow in the therapy group we run together.  I received emails throughout the day about safety precautions and possible threats in the area.  I cried twice in my car. 

And ultimately, I left the city and drove home - and this is a privilege.  Ultimately, I realized that I have had the ability to not be (too) affected by the state of emergency that has been occurring for generations in Baltimore City until the governor actually called a State of Emergency.  Ultimately, I realized that I didn't need to be worried about walking into my building past those cops.  Ultimately, I realized that this crisis, this urgency, this pain has been in my world all along, and I have had the privilege not to see it.  Ultimately, I have been feeding those babies of privilege, and racism, and oppression by my inaction, by my silence, by my complacency, even as I drove through it and worked within it.  It is not enough to be a passive witness to pain.  To do so is to deny it, and to Other the people for whom it is an unavoidable reality. 

But even as we deny and other -- this is our world.  All of it.  These are our babies.  All of them.  This is our community.  These people are our people.  The crying belongs to us, and it is our responsibility to console, and change, and shape those babies we birthed into the communities, and people, and world we want.  The world we need.  The world we -- all of us, who are so deeply connected -- deserve.

I don't know where we go from here, but I know we belong to one another.

We belong to one another.

As we begin the healing -- our own, and that of the community -- the first step, perhaps, is just to witness and begin to name one another's tears. 

Blessed be.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not in spite of, but right through

I recently told the story of how, when I was 8 or 9 years old, my feelings were hurt by a little girl in dance class who told me - in no uncertain terms - that it was not possible for me to be both Christian and Jewish.  At the time, I didn't understand how or why she thought this was just not possible, and I chalked her up to being some version of an 8-year-old intolerant asshole.  In my mind, there was no question: I was Christian and Jewish, dammit.  Me, and my life, and my worldview...I just thought they were big enough to be both.

And now at 29, when I go home for a Passover Seder and sit at a table with a traditional Seder plate and a cup of wine for Elijah as well as bunny candle holders and Easter egg tchotchkes adorning the centerpiece and the mantle, I think to myself, yes...yes 8-year-old me wasn't quite so far off.

Because I am both, you see...my lineage trickles down through my veins to necessitate both the telling and witnessing of the Passover story, and the celebration of life and rebirth that is Easter and Ostara.  I grew up attempting to swallow Grandmother's overcooked peas for Easter and Bubby's gefilte fish for Passover.  I sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Grandmother's house before searching for Easter eggs, and also sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Bubby's house before searching for the afikomen.  I grew up knowing all the words to Jesus Loves Me, and joining in a rousing chorus of Dayenu with my 42 relatives.  My history of religion has always been yes, and...  Yes, I can recite the Four Questions in Hebrew, AND I can sit on the Easter Bunny's lap.  Yes, I can eat ham and Grandmother's lumpy mashed potatoes for Easter AND eat matzos and charoset and the god-awful liver pate for Passover.  Yes, I can say amen after my Grandfather thanks God for the good food before us for Easter dinner, AND I can take my turn stumbling over the names of Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Eliezer in the Hagaddah.  Yes, and.  Yes, and.  Yes, and.

But now I am 29, and my chosen religion dictates as one of its 7 principles that part of my living tradition is to continually engage in a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."  I'll be honest: the past several years, my response to the holidays this time of year has been much less "yes, and" and much more "nope."  Not feeling it.  Any of it.  I identify these days as an agnostic; I believe Jesus may have been just a cool, historical dude; and I have never found much meaning or cultural understanding in the Maxwell House Hagaddah with its obscure text, its repetition, and its nearly meaningless passages.  I find my meaning in my church community and in our flower communion and its celebration of beauty and spring and rebirth following winter.  This is where my "yes" is living these days.

And yet I found myself this year sitting at a table, in a pretty dress and nice heels, looking at little statues of bunnies holding colored eggs, eating gefilte fish and horseradish on matzos, dipping my finger into my wine and counting out the 10 plagues: Dom (blood).  Tzfardeyah (frogs).  Kinim (lice).  Arov (flies).  Dever (disease on livestock).  Sh'chin (boils).  Barad (hail).  Arbeh (locusts).  Choschech (darkness).  Makat Bechorot (slaying of the first-born). 

Honestly, as we kept reading, I was getting progressively more annoyed.  The whole story seemed to be saying: "...and then God (Blessed be He) did this other really horrible thing.  And then we suffered.  And then more horrible things were done to us, and God is good (Blessed be He).  And still we suffered, and we suffered, and we suffered...and we give thanks to God (Blessed be He)."

But, you know, I went with it.  It seemed important to family that I participate in this, and so I did.  However, after a good 30 minutes of reading, my sister got to a section where they listed all of the livestock that died of disease...you know the livestock, right?  The cows, and horses, and the asses...and my sister (blessed be she), said "asses" and busted up laughing so hard she couldn't pull herself together.  I, of course, joined her, because it was hilarious...and then there we were, two adults completely unable to get through the remainder of the Seder, tears running out of our eyes, because she read the word "asses." 

When it comes down to it, though, it wasn't really about the word asses.  It was about the fact that we were 30 minutes in, hadn't even gotten the matzos with the horseradish on it yet, and we were starving.  It was about the fact that this telling of the story meant nothing to me at 10 years old, and continues to mean nothing, as the version is so full of obscure language and meaningless passages that I can't follow what it is saying.  It's about the fact that this particular tradition just does not work for me, and it's hard for me to sit through.  It's about the fact that I don't want to believe in a God that caused all this shit to happen.  I don't want to believe in a God that killed all of the firstborn children.  I don't want to believe in a God to whom the Jews had to go with their "bloody and mutilated children" to remind Him of their suffering.  I don't want to believe in that God, and I certainly don't want to thank him.  I don't want to read about the ways I should devote my life to this God who has created and permitted such suffering, and the ways I, as a partly Jewish-by-heritage person, am supposed to live and offer my life and heart to God. 

Somewhere in the Seder, the text stated that a Jew defines himself by his capacity to be grateful.  Passover is a celebration of freedom -- which I can get behind - but I have a hard time believing in an all-powerful, loving, and merciful God who causes such intense suffering.  And I have an even harder time responding to that with repetitive words of gratitude. 

So I lost it during the Seder because my sister read the word asses, yes, but also because if I had to say one more "blessed be He," I was going to chug the rest of my glass of wine, throw my matzos to the dogs, and go out for pizza.  I was just done.

But then today is Easter, right?  If I am a partly Jewish-by-heritage person, I am also a partly Christian-by-heritage person, and I have a grandfather who is urging us to go to church and get right with God and "all be Christian together."  I was wished Happy Easter today by parking garage attendants and the man who made my coffee at Dunkin' Donuts.  I passed church after church celebrating the fact that "He is risen!," and there is something in me that has to recognize that this, too, is part of who I am.  This is, like it or not, part of my yes, and. 

This day -- this celebration of resurrection -- it's not so much unlike Passover as it may seem.  Easter is the day that God's only son, who was sacrificed on the cross, rose from the dead.  In short: this Easter day celebrates renewal, and rebirth, and life, much in the way that Passover celebrates the Jews surviving and leaving behind the oppression and suffering they faced. 

For some reason, as I was driving home this afternoon, all of these thoughts and all of these realizations just made me feel sad.  It didn't feel like yes, and.  It felt like nope.  It felt like participating in holidays that do not hold meaning for me.  It felt like I should find meaning in these traditions.  It felt like I should believe in a God that loves me, and that I should continue to love that God even if and when He causes great suffering.  It felt like I should be able to be grateful in spite of suffering.  For reasons that are complex and hard for me to sort out, the whole thing left me feeling unworthy and shameful.  It left me feeling broken, and it left me feeling less than whole.  As I drove home this afternoon, I was angry at myself for my seeming incapacity for gratitude, and my inability to believe in a god.  In the spring holiday department, I was officially giving myself a big, red F.

When I got home and sat down to write this, I first opened up Facebook...because every writer knows that Facebook is essential to the writing process.  I was greeted by the smiling faces of children and families who attend church with me, and the text above the pictures expressed gratitude and love for the community -- our community.  One status in particular brought tears to my eyes: writing about flower communion, a friend wrote, "the abundance of flowers (in spite of us forgetting to bring ours) was a bright reminder of how often my children and I are cared for in spite of our mistakes and faults. Well, not in spite of, but right through them - as if the mistakes and faults are insignificant."

And there it is: the resurrection.  The rebirth.  The way that I can come back from that shame-filled place of spring holiday failure.  The way that we all can come back from that place, no matter the way we got there, or how frequently we feel we visit Unworthyville and all her highways of shame, and guilt, and failure.  In that statement, I found it -- my meaning today, on this free and responsible search: this day is the day we celebrate our year-long process of being born, and reborn, as worthy.  This day is the day we celebrate and acknowledge that we -- each of us -- faces a terrible suffering, and we -- each of us -- is here to go in and side-by-side through that suffering.  We are here to resurrect one another from those ashes of despair.  To bring each other from the place of emptiness, and lack, and struggle through to the land of connection and worth.  We are here to forgive one another, and to love anyway -- "not in spite of, but right through" the mistakes, and faults, and failures.  Not in spite of, but right through. 

When I was a child, my "yes, and" consisted of "yes I am Christian, AND I am Jewish."  I don't want my "yes, and" to become a "nope."  I want my "yes, and" back, but I want it to be different.  So maybe today, this is where my free and responsible search has brought me: yes, I am figuring out what I believe, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through. 

Yes, I laugh during Seders, and I am slow to forgive, and I am imperfect and sometimes fail, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through.

Yes, I travel the highway to Unworthyville so often I have carved ruts in the road, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through.

Yes, that is my journey out of Egypt, and my resurrection.  Yes, I have the community I need to take that journey, and I am part of that community for others.  Yes, I love you and am willing to stand with you in that emptiness, and struggle, and lack, and I am here to forgive, and embrace, and love you.

Not in spite of, but right through.

Not in spite of, but right through.

Not in spite of, but right through.