Category Archives: Commentary

Pause

pause

Pause. The deliciously blue sky where you are. The color of the sea at your favorite vacation spot.  A calming color.

Pause.

I have done just that over the last three months. As I review W.O.R.D.S. and how it can transition and grow, I have taken a–pause. The stories remain, and yet, I, inside have changed.

A new post with new stories is coming in a week. In the meantime, think about–pause.

Soup and Empathy

New Food 001

It’s official.

Summer’s over. The reds, peaches, and blues of summer fruit are making way for the greens, burnt oranges, and purples of winter’s warming vegetables. Beautiful, isn’t it? Soup. Yum.

In my healing process, I’ve become more committed than ever to eating according to season. The soup pictured above was so easy to make, filled with the brilliance of the changing season. Sitting in my flannel nightgown and looking out at the nature trail, I feel secure.

The United States Department of Agriculture has a term for people and communities without access to affordable, nutritious food. food insecurity. Let that sink in for a moment. Food. Insecurity. The USDA attributes this to lack of money. Really, it’s more than that.

Five years ago I was visiting relatives in Delaware. We stopped at a large chain grocery for supplies and, as we were leaving, I saw an employee tossing bags of unsold bagels into a trash bin. I was, to say the least, interested.

“Are you giving that to a homeless shelter? A women’s halfway house? An orphanage?”

“It’s against the law. Liability.”

What? Someone might choke on a free bagel?

In some of our poorest communities, liquor stores—with a high-priced fare of wilted greens, squishy tomatoes, old, brown meats and yellowed chickens—are often the only access to food. In those same communities, some grocery chains have refused to open businesses claiming unprofitability. Now, I find that, in some places, giving unsold food to the hungry is against the law. Liability they say.

My father taught me empathy. We were a large family with limited income, and my parents were no strangers to nights sucked into the black hole of insecurity. But we were lucky. There was always food on the table thanks to relatives who farmed and owned produce stores. My father had a garden in the back yard. For us, the bear of hunger was never a guest at our table.

A deeply religious man who had served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and suffered emotionally because of that experience, Daddy knew the meaning of empathy. In spite of his personal demons and contradictions, he cared for others and passed along the wisdom that has stayed with me all these years.

“Never judge another man unless you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”

I learned, at the table, that the rigorous road to freedom is paved with empathy and compassion. It is impossible to think of my father without those words whipping around in my mind like a line full of laundry in an autumn wind.

One sunny, summer afternoon in Berkeley, California, I was exiting the subway. A man, woman, and child were sitting in the entrance. The man asked for money. I told him that all I had was the lunch I was carrying. It was simple fare: a sandwich I’d made, some fruit, maybe some chips and a soda.  I don’t remember it all.  I asked if he would like it.

Yes, he said. I will never forget his eyes. His wife cried as he accepted the bag. I am moved to tears whenever I think of the incident. Since that experience, I have been generous with my lunch bags.

Every major spiritual path invites us to live empathetic lives and to take empathy to the next level: compassionate action. We’re invited to change things, to make things better. The palette of life offers a rainbow of opportunities for compassionate action: serving at a soup kitchen, making and delivering meals, passing a lunch along to someone, creating and sustaining community vegetable gardens, mentoring young people to become urban farmers, or teaching children what it means to select good food and eat well. From the White House to celebrity chefs, it’s happening.

I’ve said what I have to say this morning. Now, let’s eat. And share a meal with someone.

 

 

On: Rethinking “Provincial”

If we’re lucky, we receive a kind of grace—a mercy or blessing you might say—that helps us let go of old, limited views, so that we can see how our biased loyalties harm ourselves as well as others. Today, I feel lucky.

I’ve ranted for years about insular communities spawning folk whose blind loyalties to narrow ideologies cause harm, exploit people, and breed hatred. I once wrote in these pages, “The provincial promises safety, but there is no reality in it.”

I’m not even sure what I meant by that, outside of understanding that I’ve vehemently disliked insular communities. Now, I’m changing my view. The fact that many parochial, narrow-minded communities are pariahs of the human race does not cancel out the fact that other small communities provide safety from exploitation and bigotry. The kind of thinking that led to the massacre of nine people in a South Carolina church this month is an example of the first; the openhearted warmth traditionally found in Southern black churches is an example of the second.

This morning, as I sip tea and watch hawks circle the air in search of something that died in the night, I’m reflecting on my limited understanding of provincialism. My perceived open-mindedness of urban sophistication is gone.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition that developed into chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, most commonly known as CIDP. I was unable to walk, hold anything in my hands, or go to the bathroom unassisted. My community became a closed world of doctors and medical practitioners, hospitals and rehab facilities, and friends as I learned that only one to eight in a million are diagnosed with CIDP. The insular nature of a serious illness can offer new perspectives.

Provincial in space

A parochial mind can exist anywhere—in a family, among school friends, even in the heart of New York City—and, while I’m embarrassed to admit it, my own ideas about insular communities provided a false sense of security that, over time, became bricks in my wall of arrogance.

It’s been almost two years since my last serious relapse. I’m stable and a little wiser. I’ve had time for reflection.  Not too long ago, I met a woman who is a talented needlework artist. She’d been working at the same job for 52 years, something I was never able to imagine for myself. In contrast to my life of weaving in and out of communities on this or that coast, she’d remained planted in the community where she grew up. She married well, and looking at her needlework it was clear that she was inspired by a broader outlook on the world. Yet, she was still connected to her community. She knew the people and their families, their histories, and I would not call her provincial.

Who are the provincial? Is it the uneducated hill woman in the mountains of West Virginia who saved me from bleeding all over the countryside? Is it the “sophisticated” urban professional who, as a supervisor, makes work life impossible for a subordinate? Are they the bluegrass and blues musicians hidden away in a back woods holler, welcoming everyone attending their gatherings with openhearted acceptance, or are they the religious zealots who insist at all costs that every person live as they live?

I can no longer paint the provincial with a single brush stroke. It’s become a heart-to-heart negotiation.

I think I’m finding an answer.

This Is What We Do. Be Responsible. Vote.

Jimmie Lee Jackson: December 16, 1938–February 26, 1965

Ensuring our freedom in a democracy. This is what we do.

Selma 2

Selma 4

On June 26, 2013 in a 5 to 4 decision, United States Supreme Court justices ruled that nine states with a history of racial discrimination no longer have to obtain federal approval for changes to voting rules.

Our work never, ever stops.  For every citizen — a vote.

Rev James Reeb: January 1, 1927, March 11, 1965

Viola Liuzzo: April 11, 1925, : March 25, 1965

A Valentine’s Day Contemplation

Love. That’s what February is about. Black history month. Valentine’s Day. I’m willing to bet that 60 years from now Valentine’s Day will still exist. Should I place bets on black history month? Maybe. Should I bet that any particular cultural monthly celebration will still exist? Probably not.

However, there is something that I feel compelled to write about because the consequences of unconsciously using words that devastate pull me further and further away from love. I am guilty of what I’m about to address: hate speech.  It’s so subtle, a stealth bomb. Words that dehumanize become habits, even within the race. We use them unconsciously. Of course this discussion has been going on since before rap music. They become so familiar that we don’t hear ourselves using them. But once we hear ourselves, the warm blanket of ignorance slips away and we’re exposed to the cold musings of our own minds.

First, I want to say that this is not about you, the invisible you reader who may happen to find these pages. It’s about me. Brrrr. How terrifyingly cold, these glacial waters of public self revelation.

I was talking with a friend about a Republican political figure. My friend, with great vehemence, stated her opinion:  the man is an “oreo.” To my horror and subsequent shame, I felt my mouth open and the words, “Yeah, you have that right…!” came flying out. There was a tug inside, something I chose to ignore; “You know this is wrong” was the tug. But I continued my chat about how this man was no longer a part of the race because he thought differently.

I’ve heard it said that you’re part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. Divisiveness is never part of the solution. With all of our brilliant optimism, historic commitment to unity, rainbow colors, boundless activism, diverse dialects, shining intelligence and creativity, and so forth and so on, we had nothing better to do than criticize this man and summarily write him out of the race.

Ain’t we humans somethin’?

The universe has a way of balancing things. After some time had passed, I was speaking with another friend about another issue. This person’s anger about a public political figure that I had concluded was on “our side” was so explosive that in the person’s description of the politician I heard a description of myself.

Here is what happened inside my body: My mouth became dry, and then an odd taste covered my tongue. My heart beat faster and I felt cold inside. My eyes seemed to lose their focus as sorrow caused me to stop speaking. I was silent. And I was silent for the next week — shell-shocked as it were. In his description of the politician was a description of myself. I had been written out of the race.

Oreo: a disparaging term, used to define someone as not being a part of the black race, i.e., dark on the outside, but white on the inside. Like the cookie.

Some black children learn this term early from the people around them; they don’t realize it’s power to dehumanize. And some of us grown-ups use the term out of habit, without thinking. This is the scary part for me — the familiarity; the not thinking.

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

“Oreo!” There was a push from behind and someone disappeared.

As I made my way back to my locker, head down to hide my mortification, I felt an arm around my shoulder. The vice principal of the middle school — a gloriously dark woman, almost 6 feet tall, and who wore her hair in a short Afro — long before it was fashionable — smiled at me and looked me in the eyes.

“Keep studying. Do your best. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

To this day, Mrs. Jessup (not her real name) is one of my icons. When I think of positive school experiences, she is at the top. As a dark skinned woman, she’d faced her own struggles growing up during segregation and within the black community. She had probably been written out of the race many times. Some of my classmates, at their peril, would call her names and run around the corner thinking (stupidly, I must add) that she didn’t recognize voices. They would yell, “Godzilla” or “King Kong.” Of course, she was well-equipped to handle racism head on — within and outside of the race.

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Over the years, I’ve come to understand that hate speech reveals more about the speaker then the person targeted. Hate speech begins within. Whatever one sees in another is a reflection of what one sees in herself. This is what I was thinking about several days after I found myself disparaging that public figure. I don’t like his politics one bit, but he is still an African American. He is human.

Many, many years ago, a dear friend said to me, “We’re the only people to write someone out of the race because we don’t like how they think, dress, speak, or who they marry.” Although we are not the only people to do so, I got the message. Then I forgot the message. But in remembering the message I’m reconnected with a global truth.

Once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity. Nazism. White supremacy. Gang wars. In Rwanda, the Tutsi and moderate Hutus were called “cockroaches.”

In big and small ways, once we define any person as other than human, we give ourselves permission to injure or destroy him with impunity.

I’m not naive or unrealistic. Hate speech will be around for a long, long while. And perhaps, as subsequent Valentine’s Day generations are born and die, we human beings will get the message of love quite profoundly. In the meantime, however, I can do my part. I can be vigilant about the words circling my insides and vet them before they reach the air.

No more oreos or agreeing to labeling someone as such. Oreos only belong on the grocery shelf.

Cat Valentine

My bad

I sent out a post that leads to nowhere.  It was sent in error as I worked out a technical issue.  Please excuse it.  Thanks, and real post coming.