Your Lives Matter to Me

your lives matter

Last week I read a Facebook post by one of my favorite writers, Bunmi Laditan, the creator of Honest Toddler and author of Toddlers are A-holes.

She wrote:

“So many times today I’ve started writing a post and stopped. What do I say? How do I even say it? I couldn’t write. I felt like every time The words kept getting caught in my throat.

I envy some of you. You can go through today and not say anything because it doesn’t change your life. It doesn’t affect your people. It doesn’t affect your brothers, sons and fathers. You can talk about fashion, books, and make dinner plans like your entire world isn’t on fire. Like your heart isn’t crumbling and your chest isn’t exploding.

Yesterday, five police officers lives ended out of misplaced, murderous retaliation by a few individuals over the systematic abuse of power in the United States.

Families of police officers are afraid, even more so than usual, to send their loved ones to work. They feel like a target is on their backs. They feel like their lives are more at risk, not because of the person they are, but the badge they wear. When they say goodbye in the morning, they’re deathly afraid they’ll never see them again.

They feel like a black person.

Except for us, at the end of the day we don’t take off our skin like they do a uniform.

I find myself trying to process how much denial it must take to not comprehend that all black people want is for police, and the entire country, to treat them the same way they do whites.

We don’t hate police officers. We don’t want them to die.

We want the bad ones to stop killing our friends and family members. We want the ones who do to end up in jail and not with swollen GoFundMe accounts.

Can you really not wrap your mind around that? Is it so hard? Do you really think all of these deaths and videos show justified killings?Do you really believe that race is not a factor? Are you seriously telling yourself that these people would be dead if they were white?

Do you know how painful it is to see you do mental gymnastics to justify us getting murdered? Do you know how torturous it is to see the victims get re-victimized in the media? Do you know what that does to the psyche of a person of the same color?

Is it so hard to get that when people say “black lives matter” they’re not saying that they matter above white lives?

If women in a country were being systematically mistreated and they began saying “women matter,” would you really respond with “all genders matter”? Can you not get that they aren’t saying men don’t matter, but that they want to be treated correctly? Why is that so difficult? Why can’t you understand that?

Can you really not fathom that after only 152 years since the end of slavery when blacks could be owned as literal property (ie. not being considered a full person with full rights) that aftershocks of that still exist and are deeply entrenched in our society?

Do you really believe that the ending of black people being owned as things 152 years ago, THINGS like shoes or dogs, immediately elevated blacks to the same status as the whites who controlled the entire government, all commerce, and all law enforcement?

Can you not absorb that black people experience racism in their lives on a regular basis and that it can be deadly? Do you not understand that we live with that every day and operate on an entirely different set of rules?

Can you not accept that what we do not hate police officers but want bad police officers to be held accountable? Have you not seen acquittal after acquittal, whether it be Rodney King or a more recent blood-soaked incident? Can you admit that the system is not equal?

152 years ago black people could be bought and sold like food. They could be tortured. They could be raped. They were on the level of animals. Changing the law did not suddenly make things all better. Things are bad. They have always been bad. Not talking about it does not make it better. And they will stay like this, they will stay deadly, until you, YOU, admit it, not just to yourself but to your friends, to your family.

If you’ve been staying silent or safe by throwing around words like “all we need is love” or “stop the hate” when what you need to say it “This has gone on long enough. Black people are being mistreated. Get the bad cops out and keep the good cops safe” it will not end.

Aren’t you tired of this? Aren’t you sick of the same story happening again and again?

You are probably not a bad person but the bad people depend on you to operate successfully. They depend on you being too afraid to confront your friends and family. They depend on your desire to be comfortable and safe.

What you are unwilling to face will never change. If you’ve said nothing about this then you’ve said everything.

That is all. That’s all I wanted to say.”

(copied verbatim from https://www.facebook.com/BunmiKLaditan)

Her words shook me.

I’ve always seen myself in the role of “good white person.” I’ve patted myself on the back for acknowledging that systemic racism exists, for checking my privilege, for agreeing that #blacklivesmatter, for feeling genuine heartache every time a black man is killed by our police and genuine fury that there are people who continually try to justify why these killings are OK.

I’ve seen myself as an ally, as being on the right side of a clear divide.

But reading this raw, angry, pain-filled exposition on what life is like for black people in America, changed my perception of where I stand in this narrative.

As a white woman, I can feel compassion for a community of people who are so consistently faced with injustices perpetuated by people of my own race. Through the power of empathy, I can share a trace of their grief and their anger and their despair.

But what I feel is only a faint shadow of what they experience.

I can separate myself from my vicarious sadness and anger and frustration. I can walk away. The reality I lament is not my reality. It doesn’t define my existence. It hasn’t dogged me my entire life. I’m not branded by the inheritance of hundreds of years of oppression.

There is a privilege in compassion that I hadn’t, until now, understood. And I think we – the “good white people” – need to recognize this.

I also think we need to acknowledge that even though we see ourselves as allies, even though we strive to change an unjust system, even though we feel pain and anger on behalf of the black community, we aren’t the major players in this drama. If we really want to eradicate racism, we can’t be.

White people have defined the narrative for too long. Even our compassion is a sign of the ascendancy of our role. We need to step back, to embrace humility. We need to listen, with open hearts, to the story that isn’t ours.

 

The World Is Too Much

angel of greif

I began writing this post with this sentence: “whenever our society experiences an incident of extreme violence or injustice or an epic failure of leadership, I find myself feeling overwhelmed; my thoughts scramble and collide; eventually they collapse.”

I deleted it, then I rewrote it, and then I decided to reframe it. What I wrote about myself is true, but the context is  inaccurate– it implies that the violence and injustice and incompetence I’m describing are aberrations, that they come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end.

What we are experiencing now – the near-constant gun massacres, the violent mob mentality rooted in hate and fueled by rhetoric, the rapes that go unpunished, the racism that goes unchecked, the total failure of our leaders to lead, the feeling of impending crisis – these are not “incidents.” They are our norm.

And the fact that this turmoil is a defining characteristic of the age in which we live only serves to intensify the chaos of my thoughts and feelings. My anger and frustration and grief and despair and fear struggle for pride of place until my mind becomes exhausted and defeated; stymied by its own excess of activity.

So as much as I wish I could come up with something balanced and meaningful, or at least coherent, to say about Orlando, or gun access reform, or racism, or Republicans, or the fact that Donald Trump’s face keeps popping up in my nightmares, I can’t.

I just can’t. The world is too much.

All I can do is grasp onto the tiny moments, and listen to the whispers of what is good in our lives.

Like a conversation with my five-year-old, in which she told me that she was BORN to make people laugh, and the pride I feel in knowing that she believes her mission in life is to bring others joy.

Or the “I love you more” argument I have every night with my 8-year-old, and the powerful gratitude —  the sense of awe — I feel that despite my mistakes and imperfections as a parent my daughter loves me as fiercely as I love her.

These moments aren’t much. They come in short-lived bursts, bookended by a beginning and an end. But they are everything. They have to be.

 

Patrick’s Story

patrick's story

Ten years ago, when I worked for Catholic Relief Services, I took a trip to Africa. The purpose was for me to visit programs, talk to the people who were a part of them, and come home to write stories that would encourage wealthy Americans to invest in CRS’ work.

I traveled to Uganda and Ethiopia. I met hundreds of people and I heard dozens of stories. They were stories of loss and suffering and joy and triumph. For the most part they were stories I treasured; stories to hold on to; stories to share when hope is a bird in a storm.

But there was one story I couldn’t retell, at least not willingly, not until it came heaving out with my sobs on a night when I couldn’t sleep.

It was a young man who told me the story – I think he was about 16 at the time. He said his name was Patrick. I was in a camp for internally displaced people (not the same as refugees: they hadn’t crossed their home country’s borders), in Gulu, Northern Uganda.

If you have ever heard of Invisible Children, you know something of the decades-long war in the north of Uganda, where Joseph Kony and his LRA have made terror their career. The camp was a safe haven (though not very safe nor much of a haven) for people whose lives had been destroyed by LRA forces.

Many of the people I met were former abductees who had escaped their LRA captors. I spoke with a woman who had endured gang rape, many times over, who escaped when she became pregnant, and who delivered her child alone in the bush while running away.

I met another woman whose lips had been cut off because the LRA caught her riding a bike. I saw people who had lost hands and ears for much the same reason.

And though those stories make my eyes well as I write, they don’t compare to the horror of Patrick’s story, which makes me reel even a decade after hearing it.

One night when he was around 12, LRA soldiers came to Patrick’s home. They killed his entire family and they abducted him to join hundreds of his adolescent peers as a soldier in their army.

Before becoming a soldier, he told me, you went through a process of indoctrination. They stripped away your ties to everything — your community, your peers, your identity.  And then they gave you a gun.

Patrick’s captors drilled into him that his gun was his only ally, his only family, his new identity, his everything. His life depended on it — and on his obedience.

All the boy soldiers were trained to accept the impossibility of an independent future. But hope springs eternal and there were still those who tried to get away. One day, a few boys in his group made the attempt. They were caught.

When the escapees were caught, they were brought back to the camp. Patrick and the remaining boys were forced to kill them. They were forced to dismember them, cook their flesh over a fire, and consume it from the skulls of the children who had, just day before, been their peers.

* * *

For a privileged white girl from the American suburbs, listening to Patrick’s story was shattering. It was terrible beyond anything I imagined possible.

But Patrick was matter-of-fact in his retelling. There was little emotion and no drama – it was his reality after all. He was a child who had lost everything and, in his emptiness, been forced to commit an act that could have destroyed his humanity forever.

Somehow, Patrick kept his humanity. He escaped and made it to the camp where he was working with a miracle of a Catholic nun to restore some sense of himself and his place in our world. The trauma he’d experienced had hollowed him, but there was enough of him left to strive for a future.

The night after I met Patrick, I went back to my room in a hotel that was so heavily guarded I was afraid. I was supposed to meet the rest of my co-workers for a big dinner celebration, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I stayed in and revised my notes and cried until I vomited. I slept and I dreamed terrible things, and at some point I was certain I’d heard the sound of gunfire.

I came home with this story buried deeply underneath so many others. I shared the other stories liberally, but this one, Patrick’s, I held within me. It had grieved me so terribly that I feared I would hurt others if I told it. I still have nightmares of skulls boiling in cauldrons over campfires.

But it’s been ten years and whenever this story resurfaces in my memory, it comes back fresh and it fells me with emotion. It is with me again now, as I am reading, over and over, new stories of refugees torn from their communities, stripped of their identities, striving in desperation to escape a reality that could destroy their humanity.

* * *

Patrick’s life was derailed by an army of terrorists, acting under the mantle of a distorted version of the Christian faith. The “Lord” in LRA stands for Our Lord, the one whose birth we plan to celebrate in a few short weeks. He escaped with his existence, and I hope he has carved out a new life for himself. Maybe he has.

As an IDP, a person displaced within the borders of his own country, Patrick wasn’t granted the official status of a refugee. His rights to resettlement in a safe territory aren’t even protected under international law.

“Refugee” isn’t a term thrown around loosely in international officialdom. When we discuss refugees, we are talking about people who have had to prove that they were forced by persecution out of their home country, with no possibility of living safely within their own borders in the foreseeable future. And then, to come to America, they have to prove that they don’t pose the same threat they are fleeing to others.

These are people who have been victimized, terrorized, forced from their homes, and left without a shred of hope of regaining the lives they lost. The only hope they have is found in the hospitality of other nations.

When we open our arms to refugees, we are opening our arms to women who otherwise would be brutalized, children who otherwise would be dead, young men who would otherwise be forced to fight against us. And when we shut them out, we do no less than send them to their deaths, at the expense of our humanity.

Yes, It Is About Race

If you are on social media and you live in a Baltimore suburb, you have been reading about the protests in our fair city.

You have also been reading the comments, because you just can’t resist. Actually – you can’t escape them. There are comments (and judgments) in every other status update coming up on your feed.

And somewhere among the jumble of opinions, someone has made the argument that this “isn’t about race.” More accurately, that the thousands of black people protesting on the streets are protesting something irrelevant. That this latest killing of a young man by police has nothing to do with the color of his skin. That institutional racism ended a long time ago.

The reasons why “this isn’t about race” will vary. Someone will share a CNN screenshot with raw numbers of people killed in police custody, “proving” that, technically, more whites than blacks are killed by police.

Someone else will bring up the fact that the Baltimore police department is way more diverse than that of Ferguson, so clearly it can’t be influenced by the race of the people it serves.

Black-on-black crime will come up, because it always does. And, of course, someone will bring in the trump card of Affirmative Action, whether it makes sense or not.

***

Ultimately, the insinuation will be that the pain, anger, and frustration protesters are saying they feel is invalid or, at best, misdirected. The fact that largely black communities are statistically more likely to have high rates of cyclical poverty and crime is attributed to something inherently wrong in those communities – absentee fathers, welfare-addicted mothers, drugs, gangs – denying even the possibility that the system treats blacks differently than it treats whites.

That, my friends, is racism.

When you have a minority population begging to be heard and a majority population refusing to hear them, you have systemic injustice.

The people protesting on the streets of Baltimore this week aren’t asking us for much.  They aren’t looking for a reason to break laws or injure police. (The few do not define the many.) They aren’t asking for special privileges or for a free ride through life.

They are asking us to listen to them. They are asking us to acknowledge that they have experienced pain and injustice because of the color of their skin. They are asking us to believe them when they say that the injustices they have faced aren’t isolated experiences but a fundamental part of their daily lives. They are asking us to imagine what it would be like not to have the benefit of the doubt, to be mistrusted and judged the moment people look at you.

They are asking us to see them as people with a right to define the narrative of our society.

CORRECTION Suspect Dies Baltimore

The One Thing I Can Say

If you are currently alive with at least a moderate amount of functioning brain cells and you have access to media of any kind, you are aware that there is a lot of injustice in our world.

There is injustice in Syria and in Iraq and in the Holy Land. There is injustice in every community where people live without food or shelter and in every city where violence rules the streets. There is injustice in our work places and in our schools an in our homes. There is injustice in our justice system.

There is injustice everywhere, all the time. But I think we go through cycles when the injustice is quiet, there but unobtrusive, demanding our attention only periodically. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we go through phases of contentment with our world, when we are able to believe that, on balance, there is more justice than injustice. To be honest, I don’t think we could survive any other way.

But then something, some instance of injustice impossible to explain away, bursts through our complacency, and the injustice that is always there suddenly dominates the landscape.

That’s where we are right now. Or at least, that is where I am right now. Because I can’t seem to stop thinking about how unjust our society is.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blog posts about what is happening in our own country, on a street in Missouri, on a sidewalk in New York, in a park in Ohio – in every part of our country where people’s rights seem to be determined more by the color of their skin than by their inherent humanity. I have been reading about racism and about poverty and crime. I’ve read facts and opinions, transcripts and OpEds. And I’ve read the comments. (I should never read the comments.)

Every time I read something I get angry and upset. In fact, I get overwhelmed. And I feel like I need to write about what I am thinking, because there are so many thoughts racing through my mind and writing has always helped me to make sense of things that seem incomprehensible.

But when I try to write my thoughts out, I can’t. There just isn’t enough of me left at the end of the day to deal with the magnitude of what is happening in our country and everywhere else in the world. I feel so small, so inadequate in the face of our problems. So I walk away from my computer in frustration, with nothing to say.

But I need to write something. I can’t stay silent. If the magnitude of injustice is so great that it leaves me feeling like I don’t have the words to talk about it, then it is far too great for me to bury in the silence of my heart.

* * *

So I will say one thing, the only thing I feel like I can say: that we, individually and as a society, need to find our compassion.

We need to remind ourselves that there is dignity inherent to all human life. And we need to remember that our own dignity — and the dignity of those who are like us — never trumps the dignity of anyone else. Not ever.

Above all, we need to care. The intrinsic worth of people who are different from us has to matter.

A wise man once asked his followers to love strangers as well as their neighbors, and to love their neighbors as well as they loved themselves. In America today, this advice is worth taking.

* * *

compassion

Stupid Girls

I was flying solo last night while my husband was out of town, so I decided to take the kids to Chick Fil A for dinner. We ate and then the girls went to play in the playground area while I finished my dinner and cleaned up our table. After a few quiet minutes of peaceful time to myself, I was startled by the noise of my older daughter bursting through the playroom door. She rushed over to me, indignant, but also clearly suffering from hurt feelings.

“Mommy!” She shouted, “This boy just said that I am a stupid girl! He said I was singing my song wrong and that he didn’t want to play with me because I am just a STUPID GIRL!”

I was pretty angry. I followed her into the play area and had a little talk with the boy who had upset her so badly. I explained that what he said about my daughter was untrue and that it had hurt her feelings. I told him that he could help make it better by saying he was sorry. But even though his big brother was backing me up, the little boy was unrepentant.

So I turned the conversation over to my daughter instead and we started talking about all the things that are true about her.

“You’re not a stupid girl at all,” I told her. “You are a very smart girl. You are a smart person. And you are funny, and fun to be around, and really, really creative.”

“Yes,” she said, “and I am nice and imaginative and I got two prizes in camp today and I am a good big sister.”

But even though she knew all those things to be true, the insult the little boy had thrown at her still rankled. She couldn’t let it go. She brought it up repeatedly last night and it was still bothering her this morning.

And every time she mentioned what had happened, she always said the same thing: that she was upset because the boy had called her “a stupid girl.” She has been bullied before by another student in her class, and while the experience was very hurtful, she never dwelled on what the child from her school said to her as much as she did on being called a stupid girl.

***

My daughter had a new experience last night, and it was one that I always knew was coming. For the first time in her six years of life, she was exposed to the fact that there are people in this world who add the word “girl” to insults with the goal of making them more offensive.

The little boy who said those hurtful words was just that – a little boy. I know he probably had no real concept of what he was saying. Insults get bandied around playgrounds like balls at a tennis match and most of the time the words kids use to hurt each other are empty of any real meaning. This morning my younger daughter was mortally offended when my older daughter made eye contact with her and said “nah-nah nah-nah.” She sensed the intent to insult, even though the words her sister used were nonsense.

But still. There was something more to what that boy said, whether he was aware of it or not, and my daughter is perceptive enough to have felt that there was an extra barb in what he said.

Because it is undeniably true that in our social lexicon, the word girl – and all of its synonyms — are often used to convey criticism.

“You run like a girl.”

“You fight like a girl.”

“You kick like a girl, throw like a girl, hit like a girl.”

“You cry like a girl.”

These are not generally meant as compliments.

During football season, when people want to denigrate a member of the opposing team, they come up with memes of players in tutus and post them all over Facebook:

Oh, I get it. It’s the whole whiny little girl thing. Ha! Ha, ha. I’d forgotten how funny that is.

We imply that men are weak or cowardly by calling them pussies – and we’re not referring to cats. Men who are strong and imposing are “manly men,” while men who are more meek and subdued are “girly men.”

Even among women, when we say someone is “girly” we aren’t remarking on her strength of character, or her intelligence, or on the fact that she has the body parts required to build another human being. We are implying that she likes shopping, and pampering, and makeup, and pretty things.

The implied negative connotation we have connected with the word “girl” is prevalent enough that Always – that’s right, the feminine products company – has released a video highlighting just what people mean when they use the term “like a girl.” It’s worth watching.

***

My daughter got her first taste of this social phenomenon last night, but thankfully she still doesn’t understand just how deeply rooted it is in our culture. The truth will dawn on her eventually. My hope is that, when it does, she remembers this: that she is the only person who defines who she is. And that what it means to be a girl — or to do something like a girl — means nothing more or less than to be her best self and to do what comes naturally to her with courage and confidence.

And one more thing – you know the song my daughter was singing that the little boy found so annoying? It was my daughter’s cover of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. It went like this:

Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star
And I love just what you are.
Up above the world so high
Like a heart up in the sky.
Twinkle, Twinkle, you’re my star.
And I love just what you are.

When it comes to being her best self, I can’t help but think that she has a pretty good start.

 

 

 

 

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

* * *

Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.