Make America Smart Again

Once again, as with the women’s march, the signs were the best thing about the science march.

Hard to say which one was my favorite, but “97 percent of scientists say Donald Trump is a dumbass” made me laugh every time I saw it. The knit hats that looked like brains were also nifty, but you didn’t really need them on a sunny April day. In Chicago I was one of an estimated 40,000 people who walked and waved mostly homemade signs. The one my heart supported urged: Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education. It’s truly not normal when people have to make a statement in support of real facts as opposed to alternative ones. At least alternative facts have inspired many a satirist.

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The Chicago crowd was very family-friendly. My friend Kate and I stood behind a family of four with two boys, one stroller-age, and there were plenty of young scientists among the marchers. Also people wearing lab coats, and I overheard science teachers talking shop. My guess is the crowd was a mix of professionals and tree-huggers. My son is a scientist; I wrote that on the back of my sign, a picture of Mother Earth. Science saves medical patients and keeps the air we breathe and the water we drink clean (except when it doesn’t, as the people of Flint know). We take this for granted. The proposed funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency means we shouldn’t continue to assume this. No one seems to have pointed out to the current occupant in the White House that jobs will be lost if he has his way. Research employs people as well as makes lives healthier. I know this; my son works as a research assistant.

The speakers – whom we actually heard this time – were diverse, and I especially appreciated hearing the African-American neuroscience PhD Garry Cooper. African American boys have a graduation rate of 57 percent from Chicago public schools, according to CPS figures. That’s in the overall context of improving graduation rates in the system. That rate is dismal. We can and must do better. I happened to be reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited on the train ride to the city. What Thurman says (he wrote in the 1950s) about the responses of people without social power is relevant to understanding this structural discouragement and disadvantage.

Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education.

Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning: A Dialog

(Editorial note: My adult child and I are both active members of the Religious Society of Friends [Quakers]. A recent annual gathering of young adult Friends produced what Quakers call a minute: an official statement of a position. The minute has started circulating, prompting discussion. I have permission to post the statement to provide context for my thoughts in the essay that follows.)

A Concern Minute from Western Young Friends New Years Gathering

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning” – Luke 12:35 (NIV)

Enduring the past year’s national rhetoric, and watching the spread of violence and hateful speech, we see that we are in times that demand more from the Religious Society for any hope of love and justice and peace. As the Western Young Friends’ New Year’s Gathering, we call on meetings of every size and kind to consider:

How can we prepare for the times ahead? How can we join hands with other communities of faith, honor our tradition and history of action, and find courage in the face of fear? For five days at the closing of each year, this Gathering draws young Friends from along the West Coast and beyond to bring a small Quaker community into being. We create the community in which we wish to live, filled with peace and vitality. This takes loving labor, but we know, experimentally, that it is possible to live with intention while responding quickly to challenges. Living in this possibility, we call on our elders, national Quaker organizations, and meetings at all levels to help us prepare ourselves to be the right tool in the hand of the Spirit for our times. Because of these Gathered experiences, we understand that the process and strength that comes from unity can take time. This creates in us a sense of urgency to begin the work now. We offer our energy, ideas, and commitment to change; we ask that the broader Quaker community, including all branches, offer its wisdom and resources. We see faithful individuals and small groups acting on Quaker testimonies, with support from their respective meetings. But we of this Gathering hunger for action that we have not seen taken recently by bodies of Friends, actions equal or greater to anything we have done before. We ask that meetings heed this call to communal action, and discern their right collective contribution towards national and worldwide work. Although recent history shows the long arc bending toward justice, there is no guarantee that such a path is inevitable. It requires the work of many hands. George Fox asked: “What canst thou say?” We ask: “What can we do?”

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My dear older child and friends,

You recently asked what you could do to respond to the climate in our country that has produced violence and hateful speech. Being good Quakers, you followed the Quaker process for discussing and reporting your concern. My Quaker meeting received what you wrote, and, being good Quakers, we discussed it.

We didn’t come up with an agenda, although we got as far as affirming that taking action promoted hope. The question has continued to nag me, and I felt utterly inadequate to answer it. Something has arisen in me, as we say in Quaker speak, and I’m not sure I like it. I’m not at all sure you will like it. But you know I have always talked about using your gifts, so I will use my gift of writing to think this through and explain it.

I think you and many others are right that the system we have in this country for setting national priorities is wrong. So change it. If the laws in this country are wrong, don’t disobey them. Change them. I’m edging up to saying don’t protest things, change them. But I think protest has a place, as a way of showing strength and solidarity. Changing things requires a lot more energy and follow-through than marching.

One of the things handed out at the Jan. 21 Women’s March (as I said, protest has a place) was a “what’s next” flyer. The first thing it said was “register to vote.” Only about a quarter of eligible American voters voted for the man now occupying the White House. The rest voted for someone else or just stayed home. Voter turnout was 56 percent, so lots of people stayed home. When Barack Obama won in 2008, turnout set a record at 61 percent. Little and undramatic things like showing up do count.

Next on the scale of undramatic things is changing who is in office right now. The landscape looks very dismal for progressives right now. One party runs everything right now at the national level, and completely controls 24 states. That makes uphill steep. One thing I learned was do-able during election seasons was showing up to make phone calls and to knock on doors to canvass. Knocking on doors, especially when the weather is nice, is one way to have conversations with people you don’t know and to hear their concerns. If you work for a candidate who wins, you play a part, however small, in that victory. I helped elect Harold Washington as the history-making first black mayor of Chicago in 1983.

A bigger next step is to run for public office yourself. Before Bernie Sanders ran for president, he was the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, population 38,000 in 1980. Paul Soglin, who is now the mayor of Madison, Wis., again, was first elected mayor in 1973, after having started on the city’s council in 1968 as a graduate student. Barack Obama was 35 when he began his career as an Illinois State Senator in 1997.

You quoted Luke 12:35: “Be ready dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.” I am suggesting public service, which used to be a venerable term, and choice, before it was redefined for polemical purpose as “career politician.” Public service assumes that there is a public, a life and a space we share in this country that brings different people together to use such things as public schools and public transportation and public parks. There are many things the public needs; better public officials is only one of them.

I am sorry I have no advice that is especially dramatic. Some of you may be called to chain yourselves to various fences surrounding various bastions of power, but don’t feel bad if that is not your call. I happen to be studying medieval spirituality right now, and one thing the great saints and sages of the era emphasize is humility. This classical virtue is out of style today, but it’s been on my mind lately as a counterweight to public bombast and dishonesty. With so much work to be done, everybody has a part to play, whether flashy or humble. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

I hope you get more responses. This is mine for now.

Witness

When I was first trained at a journalism school in the 1980s, I was taught that journalism was about witnessing. I quickly learned that it wasn’t possible to see everything, but my eyes didn’t lie. I trained my eyes and ears and memory to see and write down and remember and write it down fast. The eyes don’t lie. It’s important to be there; journalists call it shoeleather reporting. It’s work; you don’t guess but you could be wrong. That’s why it’s called the first draft of history.

Here’s my first draft on the Chicago Women’s March on Saturday, Jan. 21, and I am glad I didn’t have to file this right away. I was in the crowd of an estimated 250,000 marchers, standing in the street on Congress Parkway, a couple blocks south of whatever was going on by way of a program with speakers. There were signs, signs, signs, and the best ones were homemade. My favorite was “Toddlers against Trump,” written on cardboard in red crayon and smeared with crayon. YUUUUUGE MISTAKE was good. The Devil Wears Pravda. Paws Off Women’s Bodies (this from a pug in a backpack, with bonus joke #puglife). Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Human Rights. Reading the signs was better than hearing the program; they roared with wit. My own sign was pretty staid: Diversity is Reality.

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As has been reported, they did cancel the march but we marched anyway, flowing down Congress to Wabash to the main stream of marchers on Jackson to LaSalle. Yes, there were grandmas and strollers and a Muslim man whose sign said “I respect my wife and her rights.” I was attuned to the symbols of religion: clerical collars, a woman wearing a kippah and a prayer shawl and pushing a stroller. I’m white and I saw young and old African-American women, young and old white women, young and old white men. I didn’t see a lot of young African-American men, but there was much I didn’t witness in a crowd of a quarter-million.

This wasn’t my first demonstration, but it’s been a while. I decided fairly last-minute to go after figuring out how to travel so I could get to work immediately afterward. I thought the event would be predominantly angry, like my Facebook feed has been. But the crowd was cheerful and polite and I couldn’t stop laughing at the clever signs. It was easy to talk to strangers. For a while now I’ve been growing slightly fearful of strangers, anticipating some sort of hostility or contempt. On Saturday I chatted all the way back on the train with my seatmate, Cindy, a preschool teacher who had been to the march. I love being able to talk to strangers and smiling at them. The march was an antidote to some sort of social toxin that has been accumulating in my system, in the air somehow.

I marched to get my own energy back and so I wouldn’t miss history. I marched for my children; my older one Adrian has lately been the marcher, but she had to work. I marched for, and with, my best friend from college. I marched because black lives matter, especially the lives of my friends. I marched because I don’t want the planet trashed or the DPAL built or the EPA gutted. I marched because I don’t want my Muslim friends having to register. I marched for my journo friends and a world of real facts, not alternative ones. I marched because I don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. I marched because I love flowers and peaceful classrooms and playgrounds and streets for kids.

I cried for a little bit while marching. It felt like all these people had lifted a weight. We can do this. Si se puede.

Vision

Fasting is a spiritual discipline. Muslims do it every year during the month of Ramadan. Catholics do it every year during the 40-day season of Lent. Fasting’s purpose is to get one to think less about appetites and more about God, about our dependence on God. For Catholics, the fast of Lent is also understood as a period of waiting. The resurrection is coming, but the road to it is long, and suffering is going to happen along the way.

I am fasting this week as part of #Fast4Power, which I stumbled onto through social media. It struck me as a good way to hang out with people of faith as our country moves into a new era that will be shaped by lots of people with whom I vehemently disagree. More bluntly, I fear a time when it is socially acceptable to be mean. But the point here is not to spin out apprehensions and anxieties but think about how to be ready to resist whatever marks a retreat from the goals of justice and common good.

I have found fasting to be harder than I anticipated. The rules for fasting resemble those for a Ramadan fast: no eating between sunrise and sundown. Muslims are also expected not to drink liquids, but that was not asked here. In spite of the short days of January, it was difficult to go grocery shopping while fasting, hard to not hanker for some of the fragrant pea soup being served at Quaker meeting meal on Sunday. Ironically enough, I find myself thinking more about food. But then I have a chance to think about the power of the thought and how it comes to preoccupy me. Recognizing that it’s a thought and not an actual hunger is helpful, and a step toward letting go of the thought or countering it. These mental machinations are familiar to me from meditation, so it is like using mental muscles to redirect the flow of thought.

I have also found it helpful to reflect on my favorite Bible verse: The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (For those who don’t recognize it or unfamiliar with Christian scripture, it’s Galatians 5:22-23.) My self-control needs work, and that muscle too is getting exercised. Self-control also comes to my mind as I reflect on and remember the civil rights movement of the 1960s. What kind of training, courage, and self-control did it take to face police dogs and police with clubs and fire hoses? And those were just the legal barriers. We could ask Congressman John Lewis, who was there. I wasn’t, but I was born, so this is not history but memory. I was part of the larger web of connectedness, learning in my youth about the world.

The other part of #Fast4Power is community. It’s not just about the self. Ramadan is supposed to work in part because it builds awareness of ummah – the world Muslim community. It has certainly helped that my husband is doing this. The #Fast4Power organizers, We Say Enough, have a daily online meeting to provide food for thought. Some servings have been better than others; the poetry has been especially palatable, and the teaching about community has made me more aware of my white individualism. It’s not my agenda, and I am here in solidarity. Thinking about what solidarity means has been a good lesson.

Which comes back to fasting. As a spiritual discipline, its purpose is to express solidarity with those who don’t eat well or enough – those who are involuntarily fasting. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are women and children, according to the World Food Programme.Reflecting on the 795 million people in the world who are chronically is perspective-giving, well beyond American shores. It’s a basic exercise in empathy: not everybody lives like me.

Community simply means we are in this together. Given the multiplicity of interest groups and issues these days, I am not sure who is included in “we.” But I know this is true, courtesy of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” My pre-sunrise tea came from England, but it surely wasn’t grown there. Today’s #Fast4Power question dealt with vision. I dream of a world where everyone has a beautiful and bountiful basket of fruit of the spirit, to sustain them when they hunger.

What do you dream of?

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I’ve been thinking about food more than usual today. I started fasting as part of a movement called #Fast4Power. I would certainly not have done it alone. I joined because I was looking for a group of people who wanted to take a morally principled stand of resistance to the bad things happening in our country today. Uppermost in my own mind because of the timing is the inauguration next week as president of our country of a man who brings out the worst in people and who doesn’t really seem to have any principles. He’s a bully who does what we teach our children not to do.

But I don’t especially want to rant. I joined the fast because I am tired of ranting; it wears me out to do it and to listen to it. My Facebook feed is a rant factory. Paradoxically enough, however, I learned about this online and have joined a group of strangers, hoping to be in the company of people who are fasting instead of ranting.

Fasting is a physical and spiritual discipline. It’s a demand, but not mean. It seems to me to be like a form of active meditation, in which I become more aware of what’s going on with me: I am looking forward to the last of the Christmas fudge… The rules of the fast are only during daylight hours, like Muslims during Ramadan. What a snap, a thought to myself: it’s January, and the days are only eight hours. If it’s too hard, I can just stay in bed, right?

But it also gives me a little extra time – no breakfast, no lunch – to be reflective. Food is important to me; it provides pleasure as well as nutrition. Fasting is a little practice in saying “no, thank you.” In being aware of routine and autopilot, of the difference between need and want.

Joining a group of strangers for an online meeting was not as weird as I anticipated (who put the I in introvert? I did!). The group I saw was mixed and people spoke from different religious orientations, which is exactly what I had hoped for. A lot of the talk was about the group effort. I do feel more committed, knowing others are doing this.

I have a picture in my mind of Martin Luther King speaking and acting from a moral center. He is my hero for that reason, and I think he was effective for that reason, and I am not alone in that opinion. It gave him strength. If fasting with a group of strangers helps to nudge the movement for social justice or resistance just a little more toward a moral center, it’s not that hard. The fudge can wait. I can wait.

The Last Roses (I Think)

I have hung up my garden hat after planting another row of garlic. It’s been nice, in a freaky sort of way, to postpone freezing weather in this part of the Midwest. But it’s unnatural, although maybe the natural order is changing a wee bit in this, which is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. Astonishingly, I did harvest a few tomatoes in rather paler colors than their intense August hues, and my roses are still blooming. Today 72 degrees. Tomorrow, a low of 32, they say, followed by lows of 25 degrees on the weekend. So I cut the last roses of fall to bring them in and shelter them. They are too beautiful to blast.

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Gardeners know that seasons change, nothing lasts, gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. Poets and reflective people are inclined to see plenty of metaphors in gardening and the march of the seasons. I love it that there are so many meanings, diverse ways of understanding what is beautiful and what is natural. I also love it that there is a science to gardening. There are things you must do: I need to water the new hackberry tree planted on my lawn and not just wax romantic about how only God could make a tree. God may have made it, but this particular tree came from a local nursery and the city planted it and it is now up to me to tend it. The poets and philosophers need to join hands with those wearing gardening gloves. There is always work to be done. It just differs by season.

Wailing is a start

Yesterday I was too tired and too viscerally scared to write. My fear relates to fascism, which frightened me a lot when I was growing up. People being mean really scares me and throws me back to feeling young and helpless. I had already imagined our neighbors down the street with seven Trump signs on their lawn banging loudly on my door, coming to get me.

I see a lot of fear from my friends on Facebook: pictures of a swastika already spotted. A lesbian friend insulted on the street by a stranger. African-American women feeling numb and bone-weary. The weary need to rest and take time to mourn. (I hope Hillary takes a little vacation, too.)

I took a long walk on an insistently sunny day and got some sleep after a stressfully long election night vigil. I also thought about biblical lamentation; never mind that my biblical studies teacher suggested that there is a difference between lament and complaint. Be that as it may, I stumbled on a strong lament/wail/complaint from the Psalms, a wonderful compendium of praise and curse, gratitude and despair:

…As for the gang leader of those who surround me,

Let their mischievous words cover them; smother them in trouble.

Let hot coals fall from heaven upon them

And cast them into the roaring fires.

May they sink into the muddy marsh from which there is no return.

Let no liar find a home anywhere in the land;

Let evil hunt down the violent man and do him in quickly. …     Ps. 140: 9-11

I understand my Bible better this morning: wailing can help. There is a time for that too.

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And then … I have also begun thinking about what I am called to do: what’s my task that uses my talents and not only takes energy but gives it back? I can stand with my journalist friends and advocate for a vigilant press because we’re really going to need eyes on someone who has a track record of dishonesty – he reminds me of Richard Nixon – and who has worked hard to vilify the press in order to undermine its credibility. I am also starting to see fake news stories, which really sows confusion. Lots of forces are at work here, actually, and this is a good analysis for those interested. I just signed up to be a supporter of the Guardian , which I had been reading for free. The press is important; freedom of the press ended up being a constitutional right for a reason.

That argument is a little more abstract than I wanted to make. A better question to pose and answer is how can I keep heart (especially since I had a really expensive cardiac repair job just this summer)? A lot of my progressive friends are angry and calling for organizing. I don’t think that is my call; anger tends to hinder me and make me inarticulate. It’s a tool I don’t use well. I think love and empathy are better tools. These things are lower on the list of progressives, derided as hippie-ish or kumbayah in our postmodern era. Yet one of the reasons many of us find Donald Trump objectionable is what appears to be his total lack of empathy  – the ability to imagine and respect what someone else experiences. As a new chaplain, I’ve had the opportunity to study empathy; it can be cultivated.

I was reminded about empathy when my friend Jana Riess posted Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers in a column she wrote about post-election trauma. To that I would add as a Quaker: what is your gift? What is your call? What can you do that will sustain you, your neighbors, and the planet? There’s a lot that needs doing. Pick the need and sign up and in.