A Sermon for White America: Dyson

After Saturday, I felt happier than I have felt since, oh, about Columbus Day Weekend–– and I didn’t even march.  But I felt like I did. Tom and the kids went to Boston, and my parents marched in DC. Or rather, they stood. No one actually marched because it was too crowded. I was terrified that someone was going to get hurt, trampled, bombed, or (in the case of Tom) stung by a bee. (He is allergic. In my apocalyptic state, I’d forgotten bees aren’t around in January, even on 50 degree days.) But no one was hurt. Bored, maybe; frustrated at not being able to see or move, but completely unharmed. (The cynic in me wonders how peaceful the police would have been if the crowd hadn’t been so white and female.) Katryna and I did not march because we had a show that night in Connecticut, and I am learning that in order to do my job, I actually have to not do other things. (Most people with real jobs learn this by my age. I am a little slow.)

It paid off to rest before we sang. I wanted all my strength for the full house of Connecticut folks, many of whom had marched in Hartford earlier that day. The show felt part rally, part homecoming. We started our band in the Hartford area, and there were people in the audience who had been coming to our shows since the early 90s. We sang two brand new songs–one by Katryna and Dave called “Gonna Need a Boat” and one by me and Katryna called “Tyrants Always Fall.” We also sang our updated version of “America the Beautiful.” Afterwards, many folks thanked us for coming to sing and not cancelling so we could march. I guess we were in the right place after all.

But there will be a part of me that always regrets not marching on Jan 21, 2017 in the same way I know people from the generation just above me regret missing Woodstock. What a day it was. It fills my heart with delight to see the aerial photos full of the color pink. To witness my kids becoming activists. To see all strong, hopeful faces in different cities all over the world. To feel not so alone with the grief. The grief, of course, is collective–and on Saturday, we all got our marching orders. From my kitchen, I live-streamed Michael Moore’s speech, and then caught Ashley Judd’s. To our audience, I repeated the number MM told us to call daily, after brushing teeth and coffee and walking the dog–202-255-3121. Five days a week: Monday-Senator. Tuesday-other Senator. Wednesday-Congressperson. Thursday- State Senator. Friday-State Congressperson. Let’s take over all the swing districts. Did you know Elizabeth Warren’s seat is far from secure in 2018?

About the dog that I walk before I make calls. He’s great. Did we mention that Katryna adopted his sister? All is mostly well, but he doesn’t seem to understand that we don’t pee on the carpet. This got so bad that we rolled the carpet up and put it away. So far, no more accidents–but it’s only been about 5 hours. Any advice on housebreaking a puppy is most welcome.

I have two acquaintances–women I went to high school with–who voted for Trump. I am not friends with them, but they are on my Facebook feed, and it occurred to me to check out how they were feeling about our new Emperor. One posted that in her “rainbow-flag covered neighborhood,” someone sent their “young child over to vandalize” her Trump banner. She was outraged. I can sympathize. Folks have vandalized my Hillary banner, and stolen my Black Lives Matter signs. Vandalism is never OK, in any event. What I found interesting, though, was the amount of push-back she got from her friends. One offered, “Trump’s own words and actions do not engender or support those beliefs. Again, vandalism is not OK. And neither is promoting the division, negativity and hatred for the ‘other’ which made that family believe it was ok to vandalize that flag.”

I explored the other acquaintance’s page. It turned out she’d actually gone to the inauguration, and in a post in which she was asking for advice about what to wear, I was amazed to see how many of her friends were horrified by her support of Orange Man. A few were in same-sex marriages and worried in the comments that their basic rights would be overturned. I just checked back on her page and saw a heated but civil discussion about abortion rights. It heartened me to see, in both cases, that these people I knew were being challenged; but also that they tolerated friends with different opinions. That is better than I can do. I am not proud of that. I hate confrontation, even on social media.

But. Now is the time for spirited discussion between friends who disagree. I am reading Michael Eric Dyson’s powerful book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon for White America, and it’s challenging and difficult to digest. “Beloved,” he writes–-the entire book really does read like an intimate, tender, harsh, fire-and-brimstone sermon––“your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in the place of the black bodies it wills into nonbeing.” He painstakingly catalogues the psychology behind our institutional racism, our unconscious clinging to our white status and privilege, in a tone that is in turns patient and exasperated. I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a white supremacist, or even the more PC term “alt-rightist,” but I know scores of whites who don’t understand Black anger, have a completely skewed idea of “equality” and believe that the playing field is level today, even while admitting it hasn’t always been that way.

The playing field is not level, and it will never be level in our lifetime, no matter how many Black presidents we elect. White people have to face that the scourge and sin of slavery has long lasting repercussions, that racism is institutional and endemic, an illness that affects all of us, and that we have huge amends to make. Yes, all of us; even those whose ancestors never owned slaves. We have consciously or unconsciously embraced “whiteness,”–the notion that “white” is normal and good, and that anything other is an aberration at best–– and that this embrace causes great pain to our Black brothers and sisters. We have a long way to go to to make reparations. As Dyson writes, “I want to tell you right off the bat that whiteness is made up, and that white history disguised as American history is a fantasy, as much a fantasy as white superiority and white purity. Whiteness is most effective when it makes itself invisible; when it appears neutral, human, American.” And the calculus that far too many whites accept in trading innocent Black lives for some supposed security by allowing our cops to shoot first and ask questions later is what has caused the dislocation of justice, the complete distrust of the police by the Black community, and much pain and grief for all of us. Black Lives Matter is an attempt towards reparations. Bring it on.

My father was telling our friend Edward, an African American man in his 30s, about being stopped by the cops for speeding.

“Oh, man,” Edward said. “Did they do that thing where they hold a gun to your head after you roll the window down?”

No. That’s not how they treat white men in business suits driving Priuses. But that is how Edward is greeted by cops even when he is not speeding. He gets stopped routinely for Driving While Black.

I don’t have patience for my white sisters who don’t get this. I’d rather do a whole lot of things before engaging with two women I never liked very much on Facebook to try to skillfully and patiently present a different point of view. I would rather write a song, practice piano, knit a pink pussy hat, snuggle my dog, listen to my kids play violin. Let’s get real–I’d rather clean the toilet or declutter a junk drawer. But maybe this is ministry. I am going to pray about it. The fate of the nation might just rest on us not giving up on each other.

Confessions of an Undecided Democrat–And Why I Will Remain So


I started, a few weeks ago, to write a piece on the Democrats, to confess that I was still undecided. I still am today, less than a week before my state’s primary. At the time of the New Hampshire primary, it felt vital to choose between Hillary and Bernie, and I was in agony. I could see the merits and demerits of both. (By the way, do the Republicans call their candidates by their first names? Marco? Donald? Teddy? I love that we call ours by first name.)

But today, in the aftermath of Justice Scalia’s death and the Senate Judiciary committee’s shocking refusal to even consider an Obama nominee, the choice of which Democrat hardly seems to matter. What I mean is, I would gladly, heartily, joyfully take either Bernie or Hillary. I don’t care which. Whomsoever my party chooses, I will stand behind, and I will be the cheerleader to end all cheerleaders. So all my witty zingers about Hillary’s likability (or lack thereof) and Bernie’s Johnny-one-note tendencies are in the scrap heap. I sing the body electric about both of these admirable souls, each smarter than the other in myriad ways, each braver, each more intriguing and qualified. I wish they would run as a team. How lucky are we to have them? I am going to staunchly refuse to besmirch either of them.

Because I care so much that one of them become president, and I am troubled that Democrats are coming out to the primaries in much smaller numbers than they did in 2012, while Republicans are breaking records.

Because I worked too hard in 2008 to help Barack Obama get elected, and I don’t want to see all our efforts go down the drain with another cynical Republican POTUS.

Because this election matters more than any election in history. I know we always say this, but this year it’s truer than ever.

Does anyone else hear the ghost of Joseph N. Walsh, who, during his interrogation by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s HUAC hearings said, “Have you no decency, sir?” Senator McConnell, your honor. Have you no decency? What gives? Do you not know the principles upon which this country was founded? Why do you say “no” again and again to your president? What happened to your own statement about what kind of ruler you would be? “The answer is to let folks debate, to let the Senate work its will.” So much for debate. (And by the way, what would have been so bad about letting Obama nominate someone? I think the Republicans are refusing to hear his nominee because they knew that Obama, ever hopeful about crossing the aisle to shake hands, would have chosen an impeccable moderate like Sri Srinivasan, and it would have made the Republicans look like even worse angry obstructionist spoiled sports when they turned him down.)

Were we Democrats this rude and uncooperative under George W. Bush? I don’t think so, and in that case, we had the right to be, as many Democrats believed (and still do) that W should not have taken office in the first place (hanging chads, loser of the popular vote, etc). But my recollection was that we took that loss honorably, privileging decency and due process over partisanship. We cared more about our country than we did about winning that election of 2000. Maybe we were fools. But I am proud to be a member of a party that puts country first.

The days of flag burning and Country Joe and the Fish are long gone. Democrats are the true patriots, these days. We are the ones who want to pay our taxes to keep this country strong and healthy. We are the ones who want to preserve and conserve our land and water. We are the ones who want to protect our values of justice and freedom. We are the ones who love to govern. Those other guys hate government so much; so why do they want the job of governing? So they can sit on their hands?

Every time I think of the Supreme Court and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s response, my heart hurts. It feels dry and cracked and desolate. We are better than this, I want to scream. Even Ronald Reagan would cry today, seeing what’s become of his party. My grandfathers––Eisenhower Republicans, both––would cry.

I can’t believe I would live to see the day when I would miss Ronald Reagan. But I do.

We wake up when the bombs come home

IMG_1830 (1)Every month or so, one of my children comes into our bedroom just before bedtime and collapses into my arms. “I am thinking about dying again,” the child says, and starts to sob. And I am right back there, too: seven years old, lying awake at night, the tears streaming down my face, thinking those dark thoughts. Among the top ten: life without my parents; the demarcation of the universe; or the worst: imagining some kind of not-being, non-consciousness that must be death. The thoughts would press on me until I was so sad and so scared I could barely function.

So I get it. I take the child into my arms, and rest my forehead on the child’s neck, and do my best to console. I say, “I used to feel this way when I was your age, and it made me cry, too.” I tell them what my parents told me, frail comfort though it was, as they held me while I sobbed: that it would be OK. That they loved me. That death wouldn’t happen for a long, long time.

On Friday night, Katryna and I were traveling to NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance), a conference of folk musicians that is somewhere between a festival and sleep-away camp with stringed instruments. We were to perform at the ungodly hour of 11:05pm, and because of this I was chewing gum and reading my iPhone as Katryna was driving. This was when I learned of the Paris attacks. At the time, I shut off my phone and focused on the gum chewing and stared out the window at the dark highway. It was too horrible to think about. We played our show, and we drove a half hour to another hotel. I slept poorly and got up early, stumbling into the hotel lounge where a breakfast buffet was set up. I found a corner on a couch where I ate my packed-from-home breakfast and wrote in my journal. The footage from the night before was all over the TV screens, and as I watched and read the captions, I shuddered. It would not be possible to keep this at bay, the way I’ve kept the world at bay for the past ten years or so since becoming a mother. I’d thought it my duty, in a way, to protect myself, and therefore my kids, from the news, from the world, from the violence, from the truth that, in fact, I could not promise my child what I’d promised. Because how can we know when and where death will come? And the truth also sank in–– sickly, shamefully––that I was only waking up to the violence of the world because this was Paris–a western city whose name is stamped on my Starbucks mug, a city I love and know, a city whose name is synonymous with romance and personal history, as in “Oh, sweetheart, I know it feels impossible now, but we’ll always have…..”

Bombings, mayhem, random violence are, as my friend Vijay Prashad writes, “the detritus of a disordered world. My heart goes out to those for whom the trauma of these events has become normal.” (read the whole essay,”We Are in Pitiless Times,” in Open Democracy.) Mine does, too, now. We wake up when the bombs come home.

At that moment, in the Best Western’s hotel lounge, a man across the room for me started shouting at one of the hotel’s waitresses. “Go home!” he yelled. “Go do your job!” The man was white, with an eastern European accent. Big, burley, in his late twenties or early thirties. The waitress was about the same age, Latina. She said to him, in a strong firm voice, “I am trying to do my job. Please go away from here!”
“No, you! You go do your job! Leave me alone!” the man yelled, standing up. And cold, miserable fear flooded my body. I imagined him pulling out a kalashnikov and firing away at her, and then at all of us. I stood up with my pathetic pyrex full of almond milk and Ezekiel’s cereal and walked out of there, all the way to the door of the bathroom in the hotel hallway. I actually thought, “I am going to escape this madman who is about to massacre us all. I will not leave my children motherless!” But I stopped, hovered in the hallway, suddenly getting a glimpse of my unbrave, 48-year-old self, and instead turned around and went back and sat on the couch and glared at the man. The waitress stormed out of the room, and as she passed, I caught her eye and thumped my chest, and she nodded at me. “You should not be treated like that,” I said to her. A few minutes later, the man skulked out, dragging his cooler behind him. (It turned out, I think, that the whole altercation was about him wanting to stock said cooler with extra breakfast items. The good waitress was only doing her job, after all, trying to keep him from taking more than his fair share.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, lately. More than thinking: I’ve been writing. It’s part of my spiritual tradition to look hard at my behavior (every now and then, when things get bad enough), and see how I can change. All last week, before the attacks, I’d been writing down my fears, and then looking at what they cost me. For example, my biggest fear is that my kids will hate me when they are teenagers. But what do I do when I am filled with this fear, like, for example, when my single-digit kids sass me or do something teenager-ish? I take it personally. I get huffy. I sulk. I run away and lick my wounds. I catastrophize. In other words, I move away from them. I busy myself with tasks and activities that feel safe, that have to do with a life apart from them. And by doing this, I set up the greater likelihood that we will grow apart when they are teenagers.

Someone posted this piece by Doug Muder on Facebook over the weekend called Terrorist Strategy 101-A Review. Throw bombs at Western people and hope that they attack back. This way, all the people who have better things to do than go to war, have no choice but to participate (just as I am finding, now, that I must finally pay attention). To build your army of terrorists, you need America to get involved. “…you need a big, blundering, violent America that kills children and calls it ‘collateral damage’ as if Muslims weren’t human at all. You need American troops kicking down doors of innocent families and looking under the chadors of virtuous women in case they might have weapons down there. You need the American president acting like he’s Emperor of the World, drawing other countries’ borders and deciding who can be involved in their governments.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” All these people calling for war, even dear friends of mine who said to me yesterday that they felt “vindicated” about our striking of ISIS targets, are mistaken. Just as with 9/11, calls to assassinate Osama bin Laden (I’m not talking about the tragic distraction of murdering Saddam Hussain and going to war in Iraq), and even bin Laden’s eventual “removal,” did nothing to stave the violence. No war will end these kinds of suicide attacks. There is no violent solution. This is not even a case where there is a Hitler-esque figure, where (arguably) it might make some sense to strike. This is not World War 2. This is more like World War 1, where violence just begot violence, so hideous the world couldn’t believe it was real until it begot World War 2, and it was too late, and we were dealing with mass genocide and atomic bombings.

(The same people who are now calling for war, by the way, are the same people who, when faced with terrorism at home in the face of loner twenty-something white men armed with perfectly legal rifles and shotguns, shrug at the idea of stopping these guys. These are exceptional madmen, they argue. It would be impossible to disarm them, and besides this would violate their rights. Why they think we should go to war against a bunch of foreign madmen whose government may or may not condone their collections of rifles and shotguns and kalashnikovs is beyond me. Terrorism is terrorism, whether it be foreign or domestic.)

I’m not ready to tell my children any of this. I don’t want them to know what might be looming. And at the same time, I will answer them truthfully when they ask. The answer is the same in any event: I love you. I hear that you are afraid. It will be OK. We live until we die, and the love we make in the time we breathe and smile and weep, the act of standing up to bullies, lives on, in ways that are real and meaningful. What’s real and true––the only thing that really is real and true in this moment––are these arms holding you, right here, right now.




“A Thousand Times More Frightening”


The Friday after the Charleston shooting, I met with my group of ministers—a monthly meeting that’s evolved over the past four years into what we call the Underground Seminary. We gather for Bible study, using the lectionary and focusing most often on the New Testament. Steve suggested we start by holding hands, so we stood, four of us, our heads bowed, thinking of the ministers who’d gathered Wednesday night for a similar purpose. Our lectionary text was Mark 4:11-35, the story of Jesus being rowed over the lake by his disciples; it was quite possibly the same text the Charleston ministers had been studying. The story goes like this: a storm rises in the night as they are out on the water. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps on peacefully in the back of the boat. Finally, they wake him, and he stands up and calms the waters; the storm recedes. But this unsuspected power their leader demonstrates and the resulting calm makes the disciples even more afraid than they had been of the storm that roiled them to begin with.

Steve read us the Mary Oliver poem “Maybe,” and we talked about the threshold the stranger had crossed, the need the ministers must have seen in him, the chance they took in welcoming him to sit with them as they studied and prayed. He sat with them for an hour, listening at first, then arguing and ranting. And then shooting.

“The thing that gets me,” said Steve. “Is that in that hour, he was not softened. He was not swayed from his purpose.” Right––and the fear the disciples felt about the storm was less than the fear they felt when they saw Jesus calm the waters. For many, peace is way scarier than rage, especially when that peace has been hard-won. And perhaps it was so for the white supremacist. Here were the people he hated and feared, calmly engaged in worship and discussion, preaching peace and love even as he told them he would kill them.

Racism is an infection, said Matilda, in our meeting. We seem to be programmed to identify with others who are similar, to fear the different ones. Each time we confront any difference, it can take a journey over a lake in a boat to the opposite shore. But it gets easier with practice, with the kind of steadiness Jesus evinces, with the kind of steadiness Clem Pinckney evinced. This is what it takes to calm the storm: the relatives and friends of his victims, standing up one after the other and telling him tearfully that, even as every fiber of their beings hurt, they forgave him.


And so it must be. That is ultimately the choice: if we want to live, really live, we must forgive, we must continue to welcome the stranger into our midst even in the face of tremendous fear, or we are dead, too.


Here is the poem:

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,

silky and sorry,
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth

like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer sea.

– Mary Oliver

Love and Containers

The Fearsome Beast
The Fearsome Beast

My dog Stella went out hunting in our back yard last Friday. We watched her tear through the melting snow, disappearing out back behind the barn. We saw her reappear, crouch low, army-crawl, and then leap spectacularly high, dash forward and disappear again. When she emerged, she had, clutched between her teeth, a limp, fully grown rabbit, almost half as big as she is. A wealth of mixed emotions filled our kitchen, as we witnessed this ancient drama. Sadness over the death of the rabbit, whom we’ve known for years as our occasional spinach thief, and either the mother or progeny of the other rabbits we see at various times. Also amazement that little Stella–or any dog for that matter–could actually succeed in catching a rabbit. Wasn’t it well understood that dogs would chase squirrels and rabbits but never catch them? Yet here she was, trotting around our half-acre lot in large arcs, like Achilles circling Troy with Hector’s poor body dragging behind. While this went on (for hours!), Tom and I gave ponderous, slightly bewildered homilies on the circle of life, and the realities of being a carnivore. The kids weren’t as phased as we; once they understood that some animals must murder to live, they just accepted it as a given in life; a layer of asphalt paved over the road they’d previously known. Later, they came back from their exploration of the killing grounds with reports of eyeball sightings and the like. Stella tried to bring the rabbit’s head into the kitchen, but fortunately Tom stopped her.

I have been thinking recently that everything in my own personal theology boils down to love and containers. When people ask me what God is, or who God is, I can only come up with these two analogies. Love is all around us. It’s in the air we breathe, bountiful, nourishing. It’s the food that grows on this planet–the beautiful grains and vegetables and fruits as well as the violence of animals killing animals. (Certainly a mama lion fetching meat for her cubs is all about love). It’s the exchange of compassion across a room when we catch a friend’s kind gaze, letting us know that we’re being seen and understood. It’s the moment with your child when you give up trying to educate and just hold her close until her storm passes. It’s the power that builds a building, and it’s the force that restores it when the building’s been burned to the ground. It’s everywhere. Our job is to notice it; to be present to it; to see it working (it’s always working) in our own lives. And once we see it work, it’s our job to keep it going; to give it back.

Containers are how I catch that love. They’re how I stay present. Because I am a very spacey, disorganized person by nature, and it takes a lot of structure for me to not just daydream my life away, I have containers of time to do various things: practice my instruments, write my songs and books, do yoga, go for my runs, play with my kids, do the things which bring income to my family. Containers work for me, remarkably well. With containers, I can find that narrow Way between chaos on the one hand and rigidity on the other. But sometimes I forget that the containers are there to contain love, and I become, as St. Paul said, the clanging gong. Sometimes I miss the point and think that God is the container. And so I get anxious about the fact that my little container called violin practice, or my little container called “what my kids should wear to school” is not being filled the way I think it should be. I get mad at the kids for not containing their sweet selves the way I think they should. (Though I no longer yell at my kids. I gave it up. Seriously. It’s been way quieter around here.) My way of getting mad now looks like me sitting very still with my eyes scrunched shut. “What are you doing, Mama,” one of them asks me with trepidation. “Praying,” I mutter through my gritted teeth. But they can tell I am still mad, even though I am not yelling. It’s good that I don’t yell, for one, because the not yelling affords me a few minutes to sit and think about the consequences of the discarding of whatever container my kids are refusing to be contained by. And so what? So violin practice isn’t going to happen the way I wanted. So my daughter is going to wear sweat pants to school–again. So my son is going to wear pants with holes ripped in the knees. So we are going to be late to school. So what.

Love is all around, as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song taught us back in the 70s. It really is. I may need my containers to catch it, but my kids don’t. They need me to be their container. They need me to stop trying to feel OK by checking off my boxes; they need to see that they can have their big uncontained feelings and that I will let them. I will hold those feelings, along with them. I can’t rationalize to my own satisfaction why a mother bunny can be murdered by our well-fed husky-mix, or why people I love get cut down far too young by disease or disaster or carelessness. I can’t make it fair between my two kids no matter how hard I try. I can’t make the world fair. I can’t even stay present all the time. But on the days I can, I am modeling for them how they can learn to do this for themselves.