“Write a sad story…in only four words.” This was the prompt I spotted on Facebook a week ago, posted by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I wrote what immediately came to mind, being immersed in media, conversation, and reflection on the week prior’s news of the undocumented remains of two hundred fifteen children found on the grounds of a since closed residential school in Kamloops, BC. An unearthing revealing the underbelly of my country’s colonial past – Government policy, from 1883 to the 1990s, enacted by its agents and police, whereby First Nations children were forcibly seized from their parents and placed in residential schools to have the Indian schooled and worked and punished and abused out of them. And we wonder what else is hidden and how many more remains of innocent Indigenous children are to be found?
I’ll close with the lyrics of a song I heard recently by folk singer-songwriter-activist and all around fine person, Maria Dunn.
You are that little one Sacred as the morning sun In your mother’s arms Your father’s heart the same Taken from your family By brutal, bared, bureaucracy Instead of opening your mind They shut you up in shame
You are that little one – hold on
What child denied her mother tongue Underfed and preyed upon Who among us could survive A stripping to our soul? In waves of rage that rock you now Any other might have drowned But you’re still here Determined to be whole
You are that little one – hold on You are beloved – hold on
How slow to open up our eyes Say out loud “we spun those lies” Sorry’s but a start upon the road It’s not enough Until we walk the path that shows To every child who suffers so Your life matters You are truly loved
your voice the companion to my otherwise silent walks reciting others’ poems in my ears offering interpretation and invitation into new contexts, meanings, shapes, and forms
I’d thought that glorious enough until I heard your voice recite your words interpret and invite me into hearing anew holy scripture and story
your poems a clarion call to love and justice to curiosity and compassion to wondering as I walk who am I and how am I complicit in empire’s delusion?
Naomi Shihab Nye
hearing her disembodied voice coming to you across the plaza in Columbia telling you of kindness and its peculiar kin you take the only possessions you have left – save the clothing on your back – and with pen and notebook alone take dictation, writing words that become iconic for their naked, known truth
too, in Albuquerque’s airport you hear her call and with your broken Arabic and wide-open heart you tend to the distressed grandmother both of you delayed at the gate soon a party breaks out as Arabic cookies and American juice boxes are shared community made among women dusted for those hours of waiting in something far sweeter than powdered sugar
something my heart yearns for with every poem of yours I read
This is my third and final set of poems written as tribute to poets for National Poetry Month. I “met” Pádraig Ó Tuama last spring walking with Annie and listening to him host the podcast, Poetry Unbound. Becoming a fan, I discovered he was Poet-in-Residence at NYC’s Church of the Heavenly Rest, leading virtual workshops on contemporary interpretation of scripture, guided by his work in social justice and conflict mediation in Ireland. Naomi Shihab Nye came to my attention with her wondrous poem of tending and befriending at the Albuquerque Airport, Gate A-4. Her work often sheds light on the plight of refugees, immigration, cultural conflict, and belonging. Both poets incisively invite me into deepening consciousness of my privilege, complicity, and commitments.
Please forgive this interruption. I am forging a career, a delicate enterprise of eyes. Yours included. We will meet at the corner, you with your sack lunch, me with my guitar. We will be wearing our famous street faces, anonymous as trees. Suddenly you will see me, you will blink, hesitant, then realize I have not looked away. For one brave second we will stare openly from borderless skins. This is my salary. There are no days off.
~ Naomi Shihab Nye ~
Monday’s post, Our First Panniversary, struck a chord for readers, resonating with their own growing pandemic impatience, frustration, grief and weariness. This week, again, reading of lockdowns in Italy, France and Germany; and another white man going on a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, aimed at Asian Americans prompted posting this poem. My reminder to pause, notice, see, and really take you in through my eyes into my heart.
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
– Langston Hughes –
I’d been waiting until the results of the American presidential election to share Hughes’ powerful words, written in 1935. It’s been sitting in my draft file for over two months. Today, two weeks since the unprecedented attack on the Capital Building, many in the world witness the inaugurations of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice-president of the United States. Eighty-five years since Hughes penned his clarion call. And as many have written in these past weeks, there is much work to heal from the ravages of the pandemics of racism and COVID-19. “Make America again!” May it be so.
For the past few weeks I’ve struggled to find any words that might matter both inside and out there. A few weeks back, the words of others helped me find my way through to some of mine. But right now I need to admit, as I did in reply to a friend’s ever thoughtful and beautiful blog post, that I am feeling emptied of words that might matter.
Quite paradoxical, that with the bigness, muchness, fullness of everything in the world right now, for this past quarter year living in this Covid-19 pandemic, now doubled-down with as insidious and deadly a pandemic, racism, I am empty.
I read, I watch, I listen to people whose voices I need to hear and need to learn from. And in response, I have lost mine.
Perhaps it’s a matter of laying fallow, much as I have felt myself to be these past weeks, when I suddenly realized that for the first time in my five decades’ long working life, I am now without and see no “what next.” Again, the paradox that with the full blush and burst of spring, and now summer’s arrival, at least by the calendar’s indication, I feel myself more to be in the late fall, early winter. One of life’s many liminal spaces and places.
Or perhaps it’s like this. An excerpt from John O’Donohue’s blessing for a father, sent in reply to a long lost friend, and to my own father for today, Father’s Day.
“There are many things We could have said, But words never wanted To name them; And perhaps a world That is quietly sensed Across the air In another’s heart Becomes the inner companion To one’s own unknown.”
John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us, 2008
I heard it said last week that it’s never going back to the way it was. While said in the context of the current Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings in our cities, communities, and consciousness, I think it could also be said of the other deadly pandemic, COVID-19. For both, in our news and conversations, on social media platforms and our minds, words and images of updates and opinions, reactions and responses feel like waves breaking on the shoreline. Constant, rhythmic, one after the other. No sooner does one recede when another rolls in. Sometimes soothing me with optimism and hope. Sometimes pounding with a storm’s fury and rage.
“Your fidelity to love, that is all you need. No day will then match your strength.
What was once a fear or problem will see you coming, and step aside…or run.”
Daniel Ladinsky, A Year With Hafiz, 2011
At this moment, I’m on a live stream service from a church in my community. Centered on Pride Month, I watch the video story of how in 1999 it made the commitment to become an openly affirming congregation. Since the video’s production in 2006, I hear that while so much has changed, so much remains the same. Underscored is that protest is often the catalyst for change. That our ongoing attention, care and action is always needed. That the journey for justice never ends.
Marches have continued around the world this past week protesting racial injustice and police brutality. In my city, right now receiving the much-needed steady soaking from a weekend of rain, it is estimated that 15,000 people gathered during Friday evening’s sunshine and warm weather on the grounds of our provincial legislature. Wearing masks, carrying signs, “taking a knee”, all thankfully without the eruption of the violence other cities have recently seen, though social distancing protocols to stave off infection from the other pandemic, COVID-19, were hard to maintain.
Initially, I had planned to attend, but my best intentions gave way to accepting I was unable to put myself at risk due to chronic health factors, and a growing anxiety that signaled my need to pay attention. While I would miss the march, I would be in this fight for the long haul.
After concluding my participation in the eight week The Soul of a Pilgrim program this weekend, come Tuesday I’ll begin a twelve-week book study, reflection, and conversation of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, hosted by a small group of thoughtful, seasoned practitioners of The Circle Way. Together, we will create a safe and strong container to do our real, hard, and necessary work of identifying both within and without the systemic impacts of white supremacy and racism. It is a beginning of a long and real journey.
“It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey…”
Mindful of so much that has been happening in the world around me, this past week had me thinking back to a year ago when I experienced my first Peer Spirit Wilderness Quest. Hosted and guided by the founders of The Circle Way, Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin, with their quest guide colleague, Deborah Greene-Jacobi , the stars and my schedule had finally aligned to make the trek to the eastern slopes of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. With “hindsight being 2020,” I’m grateful to have gone last year because this year’s quest had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Months before my departure, I was thoughtfully and carefully prepared with packing lists, activities to discern my intention, clarifying conversations, and closer to the date, travel and weather details. Once arrived, I joined a beautifully multi-generational, cross-cultural cohort of eleven men and women, some who had travelled from as far as Australia and Germany. Once settled, we soon began in earnest, readying our tent sites and ourselves to fast solo on the Sacred Mountain for three days and nights.
Sitting and sleeping alone, with the sun and moon, the stars and the clouds, the wind, groves of aspen, spruce, pine and fir, birds and bugs as my companions, created a mighty connection and opened a portal through which I felt the wisdom and life giving and saving gifts of Nature. I did not return with answers to questions, nor even clarity as to first step directions to take. Instead, I was filled to overflowing with gratitude and reverence for all and everything that had brought me to this point in my life. I felt a deep appreciation that was beyond words, with no regrets. And I experienced an inner consolidation of hard l/earned presence.
The wilderness quest is very much akin to the pilgrim’s journey. Both are predicated on a final stage of “coming home” to oneself and one’s community, and to incorporation (in corpus – in body) of lessons learned, questions discerned, gifts received. (Again a synchronicity with this first year anniversary is that this last week’s eighth and final practice in The Soul of a Pilgrim is “coming home.”) This to then to awaken to the next call to begin again. Last year’s quest still reverberates and compelled me to follow the energy to The Soul of a Pilgrim. Now both call me into the work of dismantling my racism, taking guidance from this kind and compassionate wisdom:
“What continues to be the deepest wisdom for me is the call to release my effort, the summons to fall into the embrace of the One who offers an abundance of nourishment. I’m learning to trust in the unfinished nature of things. This calls me to give my heart to my work, as I always strive to do, and then wrap myself in the shawl of humility to honor my own limitations.”
Christine Valters Paintner, The Soul of a Pilgrim , 2015
There is nothing I can write today that isn’t already being penned by those more astute, more qualified and more proximate to the rioting south of me in the United States, this time catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. To say the collective outrage is palpable would be a gross understatement. As I write, headlines appear on my screen reporting increased aggression and violence from police towards protesters. And all the while, the nation’s “leader” resorting to his m.o. – ironically one he tried to shut down this week – tweets with the effect of throwing gasoline on fire. To say these already volatile scenarios in American cities are being intentionally and strategically inflamed by bands of out-of-state Neo Nazis and white supremacists, taking their lead from the one in charge, might be speculation bordering on truth.
So I borrow from the words of others to help me find my own.
And a perspective I heard yesterday in a zoom conversation.
“We need to connect the demand for justice – which is an outpouring of love – with tenderness.”
Omid Safi Islamic scholar and teacher of The Heart of Rumi, May 30, 2020
Over the years at summer folk festivals across my province, I’ve heard American songwriter Mary Gauthier sing one of her most memorable songs, Mercy Now. Released in 2005, its relevancy persists as a poignant anthem for these times. Reading the lyrics over at her website for an excerpt here, I realized, with a heavy heart, that every word is as pertinent today as then. Maybe because her gift is to write with a sparse honesty about our human condition.
“…My brother could use a little mercy now He’s a stranger to freedom He’s shackled to his fears and doubts The pain that he lives in is Almost more than living will allow I love my brother, and he could use some mercy now
…Yea, we all could use a little mercy now I know we don’t deserve it But we need it anyhow We hang in the balance Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground Every single one of us could use some mercy now…”
Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now, 2005
I’ve completed the seventh week in The Soul of a Pilgrim with its practice of “embracing the unknown.” This, too, a reality of the human condition, despite our best efforts and delusions to think we know one moment beyond this one. An early morning practicing the art of contemplative photography, framed by this theme, bore these ephemeral gifts of tender mercy in image and word.
Please, can I have a God who within me beyond me enboldens, encourages, enthuses me and we
to be better to do better
for self and kin of every tribe and colour every love and gender
so that me and we may always love, live and breathe
(inspired by “Please, Can I Have a God,” by Christine Valters Paintner, in The Soul of a Pilgrim, 2015)