What Can a White Person Do?: Everyday Magic, Day 825

Ferguson, Missouri is about a four-hour drive east of where I live, and yet it seems a world apart. In my town, which is far more white, there’s no news reports of riots, burning drug stores, people shaken and weeping from tear gas thrown at them, or the hometown agony of what happens when a police officer kills a teenager for what’s commonly summed up as “acting out.” Like much of America, it might be easy to think Ferguson is someplace else, part of another, more broken country.

That’s the thing about privilege: it’s invisible. When I hear from friends of color that they often face discrimination, that — according to one friend on Facebook — “it’s just another day in America,” part of me is always surprised because as a white person, I don’t see racism on a daily, weekly or even occasional basis. Part of me is never surprised because I do hear about racism regularly when I read statistics about how men of color disproportionately fill our prisons, when friends tell about being pulled off “for driving while Black,” and when people I know tell me their stories, which isn’t about the occasional inconvenience of racism, but the enduring pain.

“You have idea how hard it is being Indian in this town,” a Navajo friend told me years ago. She went on to say how the police regularly pulled her over, a mother of three, to check her license and registration, and how some store owners watched her carefully when she perused the silk shirts. I was wrongly assumed that because we had the largest inter-tribal university in Lawrence, native people would feel more at home here, but this friend was only the first of many who told me otherwise. “It’s a daily thing,” another friend said. Sometimes it was subtle, just an eyebrow raised or head turned away, but it was often daily.

I had no idea, not because I don’t care or look away, but because it’s not something running through the screen of what I see each day. Sure, I experience sexism on occasion (don’t get me started on the publishing industry). Yes, I’ve run head-on into anti-Semitism, but never in ways that put me direct danger (hearing someone say, “Don’t Jew me down” or other little indignities). Overall, though, in a land where race and class play big time in the suffering of human kind, I have an abundantly easy ride. Not so for my Latino, Native American, African-American and other friends of color. Not so for my friends with children of color, who carry the immense weight of educating their sons especially on appearing to be as non-threatening as possible.

It is easy and outrageously common at the moment for people to jump into the Mike Brown murder and Ferguson riots with subsequent pontificating, one-dimension analysis, and lots of detailed scenario-playing. I’ve read reports and listened to people, for the most part white people, explain how, although Brown didn’t “have it coming,” he acted foolishly, and Darren Wilson, although impulsive, acted in self-defense; that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about racism; that there’s also black-cop on white-teenager abuse and black-on-black crime. All of this reasoning seems bent on 1) Not understanding the power dynamics of having privilege and not having privilege; 2) Not understanding what it is to be Black or Latino or Native or otherwise not-white in much of America; and 3) Not understanding that what lit the fuse here is the systematic fire, that this one incident follows so many others, not the least of which is Trayvon Martin, another Black teenager, and this one not “acting out” in any way.

This is all a way of saying that while it’s fine for white people like me to have our opinions, we are making up our opinions from a place of blindness. Most of us (especially if we’re not married to or parenting people of color) don’t get to see everyday what it is to be looked at with suspicion, judged by the color of our skin, or held to a higher standard. I’ve heard many white people say, “Well, I just treat everyone equally and with respect,” which is great and what the best in us should always strive for, but at the same time, those of us saying this don’t see, hear, know how white privilege comes at the expensive of people of color.

So what to do about this for most of us white people? Ask and listen. Open up our perception more to try to see what it’s like more to not have such privilege. Lean into the story behind the story. Learn what’s happening that fuels such anguish, such rage, such widespread feelings of powerlessness. Ask, when you’re in a room or meeting or community that’s mostly or all white, why that is. Start at the beginning of plans for events, readings, conferences, happenings to involve people of color who might otherwise be overlooked. Reach out of our comfort zones. Be scared and confused about what to do, but grapple with opening our hearts more to understand what life, in its minutiae, is like for people of color in our workplaces, groups, communities.

Ferguson is part of the broken heart of this country where we live, no matter where and how we live. How to heal this broken heart? Remember that it belongs to all of us, and we have all have something we can do.

The Astonishing Beauty of the Last Drop of Autumn: Everyday Magic, Day 824

IMG_1910There’s something about this afternoon: the autumn colors still brilliant, maybe even more brilliant than usual against the backdrop of the incoming cold front, still a few hours west of here. A few hours later, as I download the photos onto my computer, the cold front sweeps in with the flair of giant wind that rocks the house. Temperatures plummet. All changes right here, right now, inside and outside, for the people close to me who are the drop in the ocean of all the people I’ve yet to meet, and for this rolling land, having held summer and its aftermath close to the breast for months.

IMG_1880For some of the people in my life, this has been a watershed time with lots of swimming through hard stuff: deaths of people way too young and/or too beloved, grieving that doesn’t let go, health crises without easily-attainable answers, even trouble breathing or sleeping deeply enough. It’s all hard enough when the weather is lovely, the trees are loaded with coppery gold and rusting reds, and the squirrels are fat and happy. When winter lands big and fresh, what will happen?

IMG_1875Yet those of us seasoned by the seasons have a sense of what will happen: the big cold will come, the thaw will interpret that channel and remind us of fall lost to spring ahead, the weather will change again on a dime and a quarter and half-dollar, and before we can get too used to it, change for the worst or the better. And so on. The same for whatever’s hard, impossible or too distant to yet imagine.

IMG_1893Here we are, right on and over the cusp of the season, some of us feeling like we’re riding barrels over Niagara Falls, some of us lulling down the easy river, but all of us — if not now, later on — afloat. May we hug the shorelines soon, may we love the speed and rollicking swirls of the ride, and may we find home in whatever weather houses us.


The Tender Side of Loss: Everyday Magic, Day 824

Ken in the deep woods
Ken in the deep woods

In the past two weeks, the Royals lost the World Series, my favored candidate for governor (when the stakes were outrageously high) lost the election, a dear friend lost her daughter and several other friends lost their lives or are reeling from the loss of their best beloveds in recent months. The tumble of leaves from trees don’t help, but this bright and abiding sun does, as does hugging each other, and leaning into the tender side of loss.

“I don’t know how I’m going to live through this,” my friend told me a few days after her beautiful 38-year-old daughter died. “Breath by breath,” I answered, easy for me to say because I’m not ripped apart by pain so deep that simply taking the next breath is hard, let alone getting out of bed. Yet this is what loss has continually shown me through my own experience and through what I witness of others surviving such agony.

IMG_1750There’s something about loss that’s utterly tender and bare. It brings us together to read the tiny nuances and big love in each other, to notice the flight of birds or sudden presence of moon and deer (as friends have noted lately on facebook). In reading one another and the world from the vantage point of loss, we find something often out of reach or not of note when we’re fat and happy with ease and plentitude — moments of poetry when life is compressed into its essence. As Adrienne Rich writes at the end of her poem, “Dedications,”I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read/ there where you have landed, stripped as you are.”

Some of these losses aren’t life-shakingly important (I mean, it was just a game, and the Royals may go all the way next year). Some change everything, a stone in the center of the pond that actually ripples out to change the shape and depth of the pond. Some make some of us want to run to a kinder land, but there’s no escaping where we’ve landed. All ferry us to the tender side of life where each moment is seeded with astonishing beauty, expansive depth, chevrons of geese calling us awake, and traveler moons charting us asleep. How we treat each other matters the most now (and always), witnessing one another’s impossible pain by letting our hearts and arms open.

Kansas, I Love You, But Your Broke My Heart Again: Everyday Magic, Day 823

Last night’s election sent me to bed with a tremor of despair and a dull ache in my head and heart. Once again, the people of my beloved state, my chosen home, voted against their own interests for reasons beyond my comprehension. My people have once again elected someone ruling by an ideology that excludes many if not most of us. Our governor, in his last term, slashed spending for public education, diminished teachers’ rights, destroyed the arts commission (shutting it down, essentially, in the middle of the night when it was still funded), cut funding severely to social services, and in every direction, dampened down public support for our most vulnerable populations.

I know and accept that Kansas has a long history as a Republican state, and I have many beloved friends and family members who identify as Republican, so I’m not, in any way, attacking the Republican party here or what I understand as some of the deeper values that might separate Republicans and Democrats. What hurts is how one Republican has pretty flagrantly disregarded due process, transparency, and democracy to put in place his goals. I share two such examples.

One of the governor’s first initiatives, when last elected, was to shut down the Kansas Neurological Institute, a state facility where people with severe disabilities live in family units, often with staff who have worked alongside them for dozens of years. Many of the people there are blind, deaf, on feeding tubes, in custom-made wheelchairs, and living with extensive developmental disabilities. In light of no comparable support in the community for many of the residents (and over the last decade, all who could be moved into community facilities were moved), the main option would be nursing homes, which aren’t (in most cases) set up to handle such care. Without such care, many residents wouldn’t survive.

Funding this institution is a drop in the ocean of the state budget, but the governor tried, without process, to close the doors in short term. Luckily, the families of the people living there, the legislature, and many citizens spoke up.

Another example is the now-defunct Kansas Arts Commission. Within a month of taking office in January, the governor issued an executive order to shut down KAC. Cooler heads in the legislature prevailed, and the legislature even went on to fund KAC for the upcoming fiscal year. All of KAC’s funding was matched 150% (from federal and regional arts funding), which, in turn, fueled tiny arts centers throughout Kansas, music and visual arts programs for teens and elders, community arts events in many towns, and small fellowships for artists. Within four months of taking office, the governor shut down KAC on a dime even though there was funding to keep the small staff going for several more months and more funding granted by the legislature beyond that. Then, to make sure KAC didn’t start again with the new fiscal year, on a Saturday morning after the legislature had finished its session, the governor vetoed the funding for the next fiscal year without time for the legislature to  re-assemble to consider overturning the veto.

Now, because of public support, we have a new arts commission, but in the meantime, we lost several years of federal, regional and state arts support, many smaller arts centers in rural areas closed, projects collapsed, programming diminished, and all for no good reason.

Multiply this examples across public schools, universities, social services, health care, environmental protection, renewal energy potential, and many other areas — all with case studies we could share of what’s gone wrong.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of good-to-the-core people in Kansas — people who would drop everything to help you fix your car, bake you a casserole in a flash, or reach out to you,  even if you’re a stranger, when you most need a human touch. Meanwhile, the sun shines with all its charm, the last yellowing leaves dance in the wind, the expansive blueness of the sky holds our view, and it’s a new day. A new day, but a hard day too in a place of such beauty and sweetness, such mystery and surprises, it will take your breath away.

A Moment of Stillness in Grief: Everyday Magic, Day 822

It has been a week for the record books in my life. Monday, my aunt, who I loved but barely saw in the last four decades, died after a short illness. Tuesday, a young woman I watched grow up, a dear friend’s daughter, died after valiantly fighting, loving and working to survive advanced cancer. Wednesday, a friend’s ex-husband killed himself. And today? I’m going to a funeral, and not for any of these people but for an old friend and poet, Philip Kimball, whose storied life we’ll celebrate. When love and grief, which so often go hand in hand, gallop into a week, there’s no sense in not opening wide the doors.

Now I sit on the porch, my almost-all-finished cold/sinus deal fading enough that I’m not too sleepy or hyped up on cold medicine. The green leaves of the Osage Orange shine in the sun as bees weave between the leaves, some of which have brightly yellowed. The cedar nearby moves its arms in slow motion. A hidden bird chirps, “Now. Now, now.” My car naps on the cement landing. Crickets do their spinning clicking flight from forest floor to leaf.

The stillness of this moment is full of blue and yellow light, the dog’s pacing across the planks of the porch, the hum of important cars in the distance on their way to somewhere possibly desired. It’s likely the last, or one of the last, summer-ish afternoons in the center of autumn, balancing between the lengths of heat a month ago and the nipping of cold a month ahead.

I believe in the utter beauty available to us each moment, but there are some, like right now, when that beauty magnifies itself. Slim golden leaves rain down, then pause. The buzz and bark of various critters, on the hoof or the wing, swirl through the air. And the air is lusciously easy to inhabit, the perfect temperature for human ease and comfort.

What is there to do? Nothing, so I lie down on this outdoor futon couch, pull an old, thin quilt over myself, and close my eyes, so grateful to land here, and so grateful to travel all week through love and tenderness, which is why, more than anything else I can fathom, we are here for each other.

Loving Rachel Rolfs: Everyday Magic, Day 821

Rachel, her brother Micah and mom LaVetta in 1983

This was a girl who grew up in the background, preferring to help others shine and sing. She was existentially kind. She was enduringly generous. Her presence made all things possible wherever she landed, and where she landed, she rooted down, making herself a sheltering tree that cleansed the air and strengthened the soil.

This was a girl I watched grow up, meeting her first at the Kansas Area Watershed Council in 1982 when she was dark-haired, quiet, and sweetly attentive to the younger kids. She helscan00241ped in the kitchen. She brought her loving ways to all our circles and meals, laughing at the antics of her younger brother Micah and the crazed stories of elder Bob Lang. From that time on, I saw her quarterly at all the gatherings, growing up on the outer edge of our crowd, fully there without tak248581_195740060472851_3679981_ning up much space.

This was a young woman with immense capacities. She could balance a budget and keep complex books for several projects and businesses at once. She could herd a crowd of children with story and crafts. She could make an intricate rainbow invitation of color and fold for her wedding. She could navigate her divorce and new wave of life with grace and fortitude. When Micah was dying, she sat by his right shoulder, singing to him for hours into the night. At his memorial service, she stood tall and broken-hearted, holding all who held her. Her hugs were legendary — the last time I experienced one was in front of the kale at the Merc, and as I leaned into her, I felt enveloped by softness and strength.

10556528_729637390416446_9124468400539768559_nThis is the woman who died too young by most of our expectations of life and justice. Told by a gaggle of doctors last summer to pack her bags and prepare for the end, she politely replied, “No, thank you,” and instead sought out whatever would bring her the best chance to live a long and lively life. Even upon getting her diagnosis, she found a solid name for her condition reason enough for gratitude and had her mom, friend, and Verne dress up at the hospital to celebrate.

In her last months, she sought out healing and traveled from the background to the center of her own story. She let herself be utterly loved. She spoke up about what she needed and didn’t need. She brought every ounce of gumption and grace to the daily struggle of intense pain and a bevy of shifting ailments and limitations. She shone the light on her innate and well-practiced courage, there all along and now visible to all of us as a lighthouse is to ships on the approach. She made her own choices. She embraced language that named all this on her own terms, asking her to breathe along with her. In concert with her wishes, Verne and LaVetta put this on the gofundme site that helped many of us support the out-of-pocket expenses of her care:

This interesting healing crisis/opportunity also provides each of us who know and love her, an opportunity to breathe in love, and breathe out fear. We can learn, live and grow, allowing positive thoughts and words of healing to be gifts to ourselves, as well as each other. What a beautiful gift to be on this journey with such a beautiful warrior goddess.10659262_767838069929711_7467646888006635553_n

This is a woman who took on serious illness, dying and death as a journey into and beyond deep healing. We gather around her fire of courage, her sheltering tree of life, her autumnal garden of blossom and falling, her beautiful face and clear eyes, and say goodbye to this girl, this woman, this beloved one.

No More Waiting on Weight-Loss: Everyday Magic, Day 820

“Are you waiting for time to show you some better thoughts?” William Stafford asks in one of my poems, and for me, when it comes to weight-loss, the answer is a resounding yes.

Since I turned from a skinny, hyper kid into a not-so-skinny, hyper adult, I’ve lived the illusion that eventually, I would lose the extra weight and be, if not skinny, at least not fat. Like so many of us, I vowed to get rid of, release, launch away from, and otherwise toss off first 10 pounds, then 20, then….. New Year’s resolutions, Rosh Hashana and Days of Awe thoughts, beginning of any new season, and even Chinese New Year reminded me of this, all based on a good measure of habit, cultural pressure, family legacy and mythology, and self-inflicted stupidity that I was not enough if my weight was too much.

The path away from big-belly-jiggle is lined with discarded diets and new ways of “healthier,” and telling myself how much happier and healthier I would be if I weighed even 15 pounds less. I also teetered between what always felt like mandatory extremes: patrol myself vigorously to lose weight, or mushroom into a self-hating morbidly obese creature. Because it is true that I am thrilled when I lose weight, and I tend to enjoy better digestive experiences when I’m more careful with what I eat, and it’s true that I’ve lost weight at times from watching myself like a hawk, and I’ve gained weight when adopting a laissez-faire attitude, it’s hard to leave behind the weight stories.

Old stories die hard. Or not. It’s the “not” that I’m considering now as I realize how I have made some changes somewhat easily by listening to my body and actually acting as if I love it. Over the last decade, I became a yogi and yoga teacher (who would’ve thought?), took on weight-lifting, amped up long walks, and even began swimming regularly (in the summers) and occasionally biking and dancing again. I’ve gone from someone who exercised maybe once or twice a week to someone who generally does something energetic and physical everyday, and I’ve done this with this body, not waiting for another body that could do squats with a smaller bootie.

What if my life isn’t predicated on a silly premise that once I lose five or ten or twenty more pounds, I’ll have arrived where I need to be? What if being here and now at this size and shape is home? How do I replace my decades of not-so-good thoughts about all this (“I’ve just lost a pound, and if I can keep this up, in three months, I will look and feel fabulous!”) with something better, not just for now, but for the future so I won’t keep wasting the beauty and vitality of this shining world?

The answer once again comes from the living earth and sky outside the cluttered attic of my mind: the wind picks up, the cottonwood leaves flutter, a chevron of geese pass over, the sunlight dances on the old quilt of this bed. Wake up. Breathe. “What are you waiting for?” the stillness and motion ask. “Nothing,” I answer.