Saturday, December 31, 2016

on the evening of my father's retirement, an ode

I always imagined
retirement to be
raucous revelry.

it was the wind down
of a weary body
saying the decades
of five, six, seven
days of work each week
would be enough.

I remember strong hands,
the company t-shirt beneath
layers of flannel,
always a pocket for your cigarettes
and on particularly cold days,
a carhartt jacket: your uniform.

A flat pencil wedged between
a too small black stocking cap
and your ear,
a seafoam green work van
with an ever-present metallic tang of copper --
a scent that still transports me home,
wedged into your passenger seat
amidst boxes of joints, pipes,
and sandwich wrappers from lunch.

The other day,
I held your hand as I
walked past you in the living-room,
your gnarled fingers you have
literally worked to the bone,
joints that don't bend like they used to,
some that don't bend at all.

These were hands that drew dreams
on the back of envelopes,
a legal pad,
whatever scrap paper you could find --
dreams wedged between
phone numbers for jobs,
sketches for a better life.

These hands, these drawings,
taught me to work hard and hope
and dream,
to figure out a way,
first on paper then
by trial and error,
our homes filled
with half-done projects:
my inheritance.

There was a lightness
in your voice yesterday
when I called to ask
if you were finally retired yet.
You were,
and trusty Millard Van #71
had come home with you permanently, all
clean and ready for a fresh start.
the perfect beginning
of a retirement in the new year.
That would be enough.

My dearest papa,
may you enjoy the rest
of retirement. You, more
than anyone else I know,
deserve to revel in time.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"We Will Remember the Silence of Our Friends": Black Lives Matter

It was nearly the end of my second year of teaching and it was the seniors' last day. The bell had rung, their papers flung sky-high in the gymnasium lobby as they left our building for the last time as students. I round the corner of my hallway and a senior is walking out of my classroom. He grips me in one of the tightest hugs that even two years later, I cannot shake. He is crying. I am crying. This has been his safe place and now he is leaving. He doesn't let people in easily and so the fact that he is leaving the ones he trusts -- that safety net that he so cautiously created -- is terrifying.

It is two years later and I am meeting him for lunch. He pulls up in a Honda that he paid for with his own hard-earned money. He is earning more scholarships and grants toward school than when he started; his position as an RA offered to him a dorm of his own, a home, which is one of the only times I have known him to have a stable living situation.  

It is five days later and I wake up to the news that Philando Castile has been killed by a St. Anthony police officer. The shooting was in my school district, near an intersection where I see many students as I drive home from work: 0.8 miles from one of our elementary schools and 2.6 miles from the high school where I teach. Philando was a father who was killed in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter. He worked at a St. Paul school where he was respected. I look at his picture and I see a warm smile that I hope would work in a school. I bet he wasn't afraid to slide a kid a cookie when he was having a hard day.

My head drops into my hands. I think back to Saturday when my former student picked me up in the car he is so proud to own. This shooting could have so easily been him. Then I begin thinking of my other black students. The list is long. You see, I'm a teacher who works primarily with students of color. Some trimesters, my classes are 70%+ students of color and I wonder how safe they feel driving around or walking around our school district. I wonder how many times a month, a week, a day, they have to think about this. Do they grip someone they love in a tight hug before they leave home? Do they wonder if they will make it home that day?

I'm not trying to be histrionic here. The longer I teach at my school, the more I learn about the covert prejudices, biases, and racism that exists in our world and the more I worry for my students. They are only seen as innocent kids for so long and sometimes by the time I meet them, it has been a long time since they were ever perceived as innocent or good. These students are people that I care a lot about and I want you to listen closely as I tell you that it is hard to be black in America for a lot of complex reasons that don't always make sense to you or me. But I hope we're both willing to listen. 

Let me tell you a few stories.

This fall I had a student who was sitting in his neighborhood park completing a nature assignment for our Romanticism unit and he was questioned by a police officer. This happened in his neighborhood, when he was just sitting on a bench. His sophomore year he used to hang out in my classroom in the mornings with a couple of friends. At one point, I introduced him to some Boy Meets World or Saved By the Bell and that's all they wanted to do in the mornings before school. Story; counter-story.

At the NFL's national speech tournament this past June, I heard coaches complain about students of color getting to the final round because they were playing the ethnic card or the race card or the immigrant card and they can't compete against that because they only have white students.** Don't believe me? One of the finalists addressed this issue before his performance and it gave me goosebumps.

"When doing dramatic interpretation, states that students should select pieces of series social subject matter appropriate for their gender, age, or race. In 1998, Time Magazine placed the autobiography of Malcolm X as one of the top 10 nonfictional books of its time. I have competed in over 20 tournaments this year, performed over 100 times, and received over 1,000 ballots. Yet one thing remain prevalent: many judges have told me this year that they would not like to see another black kid do another black piece about another black experience. And well for them, here is another black kid doing another black piece about the black experience."

5 out of the 7 students I coach for speech are students of color. If they want to tell a story that resonates with them, that matters that this story is being told but not listened to, then they need to tell that story. My speech students are smart, caring individuals and they go about their speeches thoughtfully. I hope that we can do the same as their audience. This isn't about some unfair advantage. It's about the unheard being listened to.

Let me tell you a real, personal, non-sugar-coated story about how I am not so very great.  Lest you have gotten this far and thought otherwise.

Ready? Okay.

After college, I lived in Minneapolis for several years. For about a year and a half, I lived just south of downtown in the Whittier neighborhood. Because we had a Fishes & Loaves program in the school behind our apartment complex, there were often quite a few people who were homeless around, especially after work. Many of whom were African-American. I was taking a SEED class at the time -- an equity-based seminar to help talk about some of our hidden biases and how those things come out in our classroom and our community. I began to be aware of how uncomfortable I would be walking around my neighborhood. I didn't always feel safe even though I was rarely accosted and I didn't have a good answer for why I felt uncomfortable. I mean, I was a young woman living in the city, so I knew I needed to be aware of my surroundings, but this wasn't that. I didn't know what to do, so I was uncomfortable for a while. Which, let me tell you, is not very pleasant. But I was willing to sit in that discomfort because I knew that something needed to change and ignoring it wasn't going to accomplish anything.

As we dug deeper into biases and assumptions in my SEED class, I realized that I was uncomfortable because of the associations I was unconsciously making about these African-Americans who were homeless with stereotypes or assumptions I had. I mean, I'm a teacher who works mostly with students of color, right? I should not be worried when there are more black people around my block. And yet, there I was, like a young girl fresh from her small, not-diverse town looking wide-eyed at her neighborhood. Again, not pleasant to see yourself in a different light.

Do you know what I did? I started looking people in the eye as I walked around. Then I started to wonder what they would have been like in my 9th grade class or my 11th grade class. I wondered when people stopped seeing or knowing them as that goofy kid who always took the window seat or the quiet kid who drew a lot or the star athlete (or the *not* so star athlete) and they instead became someone that others avoided looking at. My roommate and I also volunteered at the Fishes and Loaves meal. Did I solve systemic racism or homelessness or all of my internalized biases? Nope. But it did help me see handfuls of people in my neighborhood as humans who had a story, who had a teacher who probably adored them. And that, my friends, made a difference in how I lived in my neighborhood.

I'm not trying to tell you that these experiences are the only black experiences. I am hoping that you hear stories of these students, stories from your neighbors, coworkers, friends, or even people you pass on the street, and you listen. Don't take their story as the experience, but don't count it out as an exception, either. Understand that these are stories that people have lived through that make them feel less like a human and that's not okay.

I don't really have any answers for you. I have a lot of grief about Philando Castile's death so close to home and Alton Sterling's death and I've made this post a lot about the stories I have heard as a white person who barely -- barely -- has her toe in the world that a person of color lives in. Maybe that's helpful because you're also a white person who has no idea what to do with all of this grief that swirls in your heart. Maybe it's not helpful and you want to have a conversation. Please do.

Here are some other stories to listen to: 
1) "Advice for White Folks in the Wake of a Police Murder of a Black Person" by Justin Cohen. 
2) "Adrenaline Rush" by Rudy Francisco.
"Being black in American is one of the most extreme sports in America. 
We don't need to invent new ways to risk our lives. The old ones have been working for decades."

3) "Say It, Sing it if the Spirit Leads" by Joshua Bennet
4) "In Case of an Emergency: a Letter to my Nephew" by Joshua Bennet
5) "How to Raise a Black Son in America" by Clint Smith - "I want to live in a world where my son is not presumed guilty the moment he is born. Where the toy in his hand isn't mistaken for anything other than toy."
6) "The Hill" by Joseph Capehart
7) "The Danger of Silence" by Clint Smith
8) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Maybe you're ready to DO something. What can you do?
1) Learn about implicit bias and confront your own. Blind Spot by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony Greenwald is a decent place to start. We can't take down entire, historical systems, but we can change how we see the world and that's an important place to start.
2) Get involved. The Twin Cities, according to statistics, is at least 26% people of color and that diversity is rapidly growing, especially in the suburbs. Since 1979, nearly 100,000 refugees have resettled in MN (2,300+ in the last year). If you live in a predominantly white neighborhood, what are your options? Volunteer at KOM. Go a cultural fair. Shop on Franklin Ave or University Ave or Lake Street. Volunteer at a school. Watch a free movie in a park you wouldn't normally go to. Participate in National Night Out. Go the the history museum and check out the "Beyond Bollywood" exhibit. I think it is through being uncomfortable that we are able to grow. Try something new.
3) Look someone in the eye and acknowledge that they exist. Say hi. Smile. Wave awkwardly. I think we would all do a lot better if we felt like our existence mattered.
4) Are these particular issues with police bothering you? Join a protest. Write or call in. Let's get better training for officers so that their gut level reactions aren't to perceive a black person as more dangerous simply because their skin is dark.

Note: My title comes from the Dr. Martin Luther King, JR quote, "In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends". Clint Smith uses it to open his Ted Talk "The Danger of Silence."
**I just wanted to note that I heard this from many places. I was able to have some cool, constructive conversations with some very thoughtful, aware coaches, but some people were just frustrated. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

the dance

a lady slid in
the grocery store door
as the man turned out:
a carefully orchestrated dance.

the space between them
hanging limply,
a little haunted
with the potential
of this almost human

life, it seems,
is a collection of
near misses.

it is not the pressing
in, the shock
of warm humanity
that kills us,
but the emptiness
that comes like an eddy,
swirling around
but not quite in,
not quite through --

November, 2015.

Monday, January 18, 2016

grief, cliched.

I heard someone say once,
that grief was a

I was ready.
when I got the phone call
I steeled myself for the onslaught:
the waves pouring from my eyes,
the gasping breaths of loss and ache --
the roar of it all.

the cliche of it all.

I drove myself the 7 hours
home to the grave,
pale hands sturdily grasping
the steering wheel,
the radio blending a melody
I couldn't hear;

the frozen corn fields a too-apt metaphor
for this grief that wouldn't come.

there are a lot of moments
people don't tell
you about losing a father.

the way I would cradle
my fifty-seven-year-old mother
in the dead of night,
crawling into her queen-sized bed
that was now a raft in an endless sea.
my body filling the indent
where thirty-three years of marriage should be.
her tears, oh,
her tears.

the mechanical way
I went about living,
neither here nor there.

the way people watch
for you to fissure
and you wish you would
that if you could,
if you please just would
follow directions:
the onslaught of memories
rack your body,
relentlessly pour from your eyes,
with no pensieve to hold them safe
for an audience

but memories were never good
at being told what to do,
never one for arbitrary milestones,

so you tiptoe around
your own life,
waiting expectantly for
the trigger.

you do settle into
the emptiness,
the dull void,
the deafening
you wrap around yourself
like a blanket.

this is life, now.

but then on some no-name day
a flannel shirt grabs
you and pulls you into a bear hug,
the plaid a little too familiar,
a little copper smelling,
like your dad's truck.
the shirt doesn't have any words either
so he doesn't pretend that he does.

this abrupt comfort
is your undoing.
the tsunami: here,
at last.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Emmanuel (Luke 1: 28-38)

It was a tall order.

She was to carry the Son of God in her womb.  She was favored in God’s sight – a status that belonged to the Israelites, but now God’s favor was here; it was real.

Yesterday, she had been engaged. Her life was following the path of all good women in her day: engagement, a happy and fulfilling life with a good man, her future spreading before her. The promise of children she and Joseph would raise to love this God of the Old Testament.

A God who, yesterday, had not seemed so close.

The angel had said, “The Lord is with you!” when he greeted her. She hadn’t realized he would mean it so literally.

She wasn’t just going to do important Kingdom work, but be part of the most important kingdom work: being the mother of Jesus – ransom and savior of the world.

A scene from the Garden of Eden came to mind. God told the Serpent that a descendent of Eve would crush Him. Later, there was the first Passover. It was by the blood of a spotless lamb that God’s people were spared. It was grace.

Isaiah’s words, so lovingly studied night after night came flooding back. His words spoke of a new lamb, one who would bear all the world’s griefs and sorrows. Thousands of years of broken, wandering hearts would be laid on this servant.

She felt the weight of her own sin, her heart a Gomorrah that was no place for a Holy God.

Her son would be an offering for her guilt – the better, perfect sacrifice that was promised at the beginning. Her baby boy would be the atonement the weary world sought. A reconciliation, at last. A thrill of hope.

What is there to say but, “I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” This a shallow echo of what her son would say thirty-three years from now: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).