Thursday, February 2, 2017

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Do you know the story of Jacob’s ladder?  We have Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, trying to flee from his twin Esau who had vowed to kill him.  Esau was angry with Jacob for taking away his inheritance.  On his way to his relative’s house, Jacob laid down to rest, and dreamt of a ladder descending with God’s angels upon it.  Jacob saw God standing above it, repeating his promise of support that he had made to Jacob’s father and grandfather, saying “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land.  For I will not leave you….” (Genesis 28:15) 

In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s ladder is the long link between earth and heaven, God’s promise of redemption and support.  This image has revisited my mind so many times in the last few weeks.  When I have read of bans and detentions.  Of outcry and protest.  Of fear. 

Let me tell you another story, of a woman who is tired and traveling with a fractious 2-year-old which has only made her more so.  She is missing her mother, too ill to travel and visit her in America, but now she is looking forward to seeing her husband and making sure he is eating.  Her neighbors will look in on him, she is sure but still.  This trip had been planned for months.  Money scraped together to make the visit.  And it was a wonderful one.  But there is a problem.  Her greencard will no longer permit her entry into the United States.  The TSA agent has detained her.  And her child sensing her fear, begins to cry.  She tries to call her husband, who is frantic with worry.  He tells her he is trying to find someone to straighten everything out.  He asks if she is well, if their daughter is all right?  As the hours pass and the tension mounts, and she is regarded with piteous suspicion she looks forward to the double doors that clear customs and wonders if she will see her husband on the other side.

Then there is another mother, who hasn’t seen or smelled or considered home in over a year.  Ever since she had to flee with her child and her brother-in-law, when she had to barter and steal to make sure her family could eat, when she worried about the anger forming in her nephew’s eyes as he struggled to understand that asylum can also mean “trapped.”  She has not bathed often and even when she has, it has been in cold water.  Her digestive system is in ruins because she eats rarely, preferring instead to give her portion away to the children.  She has been forced to undress in front of strangers and sleep on floors.  Her university education and love of poetry no longer matter.  Another woman in the temporary camp she lived in for 6 months told her that her husband’s cousin, a law professor, was now a check-out clerk.  Despite the humiliation she has endured she says she will do the same.  Anything was better than worrying if she was going to be alive by the day’s end.  She prays constantly.  And finally, the interviews are over and she is here, in the United States.  But she is barred entry.  Her accented flawless English, cultivated from years of pouring over the Romantics, is mocked.  She closes her eyes, and takes a seat.  And waits.  In a clean airport, at least, she does not have to fear being raped.  But she has not stopped asking God for deliverance.  Her eyes seek heaven.

When everything on earth is gone.  When someone is vowing to kill you for stealing a birthright, you look towards heaven with profound faith.  Your clothes, food and any other cultural marker has vanished.  Your faith is all you have left.  And that carries you all the way to a new shore. 

Jacob’s ladder.  
I will not be the one to break the rung of another's faith;
 I will help her hold on to it.

I have hurt while watching voracious and blatant attacks on social media with unverified links from both sides.  And since it seems that so many get their news from social media where anyone can post anything with an email address and a pseudonym, truth and justice is being pulled further away and fear is the sole resounding rallying cry.  A dangerous wail of frustration.

When fear moves us, the ladder stretches even higher.  The rungs increase in spacing and number.  We forget entirely about bringing the kingdom of heaven here, and we forget what that means.  We forget kindness.  We forget love.  We breed our own terror.

My son wrote in his notes about the Boston Massacre, “In 1770, a snowball was thrown at a British solider and he then fired his musket killing 5 colonists.”  Can you imagine an environment of such tension and fear that a simple snowball would result in the spark that began a war?   Because when I see the fear in the eyes of protestors, the fear is mirrored in those detainees.  And such fear will culminate in an extraordinary way, if we do nothing.

Let me explain by relaying a part of a particularly frustrating conversation I had with someone recently:

“I’ve seen the order—there is NO BAN.”

Me: “It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?!  These people are protesting for nothing.  There isn’t a ban, it is the same document that has been instituted by administrations over the last 16 years!”

Airport Demonstration

Me: “I don’t care.”

“You have to care.  This is crazy.  People are just willing to protest anything.”

Me: “They’re afraid—

“Afraid? Of what!”

“It no longer matters what the language says.  All that matters is the fear that it inspires.   That should we start turning away those in need of help—

“It’s temporary.”

“Tell that to the detainee.  Tell her it’s only temporary after she traveled a lifetime to get there.  Tell him that his business, his family, the life he created after leaving another behind is no longer his to claim.  Tell him he must wait even though he’s paid taxes, met with his daughter’s teachers, volunteered in his community, gone to public meetings.  Tell him.”

“Come on.”

“No.  No come on.  I saw on Facebook, a woman I know posted, ‘I guess we’re all immigration experts now,’ complete with an eyeroll.  But she doesn’t understand, that this is just now too much.  That the democracy de Tocqueville critiqued is becoming realized while the ideals the Founders stood for seems to be radically misunderstood.”

“No, wait a minute.”

“No.  These people?  They are afraid.  And maybe for too long we’ve all just passively accepted that those elected officials embody the ideals they are sworn to uphold.  We haven’t kept an eye on them.  Now their grandstanding seems divided on party lines, exacerbated by the tension in the air.”

“That’s not the law.  That is not what it says.  We have a responsibility to the citizens of this country.  And we have a court system and Congress that were created to check and balance one another.  You know that.”

“It doesn’t matter.  It’s the state of the union.  And unless this President addresses this fear.  A very real fear to the people he represents, something will happen that will be bigger than a snowball fight.”

“A snowball fight?”

“Never mind.  It’s just that they’re afraid.  And while fear can be irrational, it needs to be taken seriously.  I would never send my child back to bed to face the monsters he believes are there.  I will go.  I will turn on the lights.  I will recheck the closet and under the bed.  I will stay and hold his hand until he feels safe.   I will do it so he feels he doesn’t see monsters everywhere when he is older and when it is the bright light of day.  For some people the monsters never go away and the shadow they cast becomes real, because no one took the time to explain that they are NOT real.” 

"The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam."
The remarks of President George W. Bush at the
Islamic Center of Washington, DC on 9.17.2001

My cousin is Muslim.  Another came into this country seeking asylum.  I am a first-generation immigrant.  I took the oath of citizenship just shy of my 18th birthday, the original oath promising to defend America and bear arms against any enemies foreign or domestic.  I am proud to have grown up here, for the intense sacrifices and scrutiny my parents have borne to raise me here.  My father said that there is nowhere else on earth where dreams can be realized.  Where if someone worked hard enough success would come despite family name or the circumstances of birth.  This, for me, is deeply personal.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There has not been a single year in my memory when I haven’t been witness to a parent (or I myself)  being told to “get out of the country and never come back.”  Through the years of both party administrations, the racism and sexism has kept coming:

  • My mother was given threatening letters at work during the Iran hostage crisis and told to “watch [her] back, that [someone] would be coming for [her].”  When my mother showed her supervisor, she looked the other way and shrugged.
  • I was jovially, loudly  (and repeatedly) warned by Mr. Adams, my high school Biology teacher, not to be found riding the elephant in the rotunda at the Natural History Museum before getting off the bus for our field trip.
  • I was asked for my contact information because the little boy in my grocery cart looked so well cared for, was I available then to nanny for [her] family?  “He’s my son,” I said quietly and placed the packages woodenly on the belt.  “He’s my son and I teach in the English Department at ----- College.” 
  • My father had full cans of soda thrown at him during his lunch walks in Georgetown and screamed at and called everything but a child of God.
  • At the park when Joe was a toddler, I went to grab something from the stroller, and saw Joe reaching over to say hi to another little boy.  They spun wheels on the playground together.  When I walked over to see him, his mother, a lovely blonde just like her little boy, abruptly picked him and said in a carrying whisper, We don't play with those people.
  • My father was punched and his cheekbone crushed by a drunken African American orderly when my father told him he couldn’t touch one of his patients in that condition.
  • We have had bricks thrown through our window.
  • Years ago, I was told I was taking away good American jobs, I remember looking up from the vegetable bins at the market and said, “I wasn’t aware you were looking for an Assistant Professorship in Literature?” 

So none of this language, as bad as it has gotten, is surprising for me.  In fact, as a minority woman, in an interracial marriage, I can tell you I’ve experienced much worse. 

If any good can come out of this intense unrest and pain—such excruciating pain—we are witnessing, it is this: that people are understanding the process of Democracy.  They are looking to understand how government works.  They are learning the names of their representatives and calling them.  Accountability is becoming important, passivity can no longer be the order of the day, no matter who is in charge. 

--Jamal Joseph

“There is no expiration date on dreams and there is no start date on activism.”  But there has to be a purpose and a common one, of a better and kinder and more decent world.  To be even more personal, I’ll share with you an insight a therapist once told my husband and myself, “You know I think you both needed this.  Your marriage needed this.  You needed to hit a bottom in order to rebuild and begin again to talk to one another.  To learn to talk to one another.”  A hard reset.  Maybe this is a truth for us all now as well.  We need a call-back to the gravity and courage of the founding of this country that sought liberty from any kind of oppression. 

I hold those truths very dearly indeed and have explained to my children that despite our personal disagreements we have to look at the manner in which the country works, and allow that process to continue.  And yet, this order?  The rationale is not sound and the agents involved to carry it out, do not seem to be equipped to undertake it. 

With one brief exception, I have not found any TSA agent to be especially kind or helpful.  I have found them to be uniformly brusque, rude and having serious misconception of their authority.  One team in Tampa took aside my then 4-year-old son, and removed him from my presence as he looked at me in panic.  They tested his small palms for gunpowder residue: twice.  And yelled at him when he, so scared and shocked, as I could see through the partition, was too nervous to place his hands palm up.  He had tears in his eyes as he was delivered back to me.  Through clenched teeth, I said, “you are not allowed to take a minor away from his parents to search him.”  The man grinned, winked and said, “have a nice day Paki.”

So these are the people who have to enforce these restrictions.  These men and women are in full charge of people who have been traumatized once, twice, many many times over?

“We have to let this play out in the court system.”

“No we cannot.  We cannot.  How much longer does a permanent resident have to wait before moving beyond those double doors?  The court system?  And if one such detainee can by some miracle find a lawyer just beyond the door to file an injunction, what form needs to be used?  No.  There is no more time.”

“There were a total of 109 detainees.  That’s all.”

That’s 109 too many

Japanese American Internment WWII

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are alone in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).    Step-by-step, rung by rung we have to climb this ladder.  We cannot do it alone.  And we must help each other reach further.   Fear cannot divide us.  We have to confront it; we have to ask the hard questions of why we are scared.  We have to recall Japanese-American internment, Chinese labor camps, and the lingering shock and acrid residue of war; we must face our fear. 

Your humanity and decency calls upon you to act in kind to another.  To believe in both of those ideals despite any evidence to the contrary and to see them in another.  We must try.

Remember that woman, that mother trying to calm the racing of her heart and seeking with eyes to find recognition of her humanity in another's?  That woman could have easily been my mother in 1973.  That child—me.   That man seeking asylum and rest?  Jesus.  There can be no greater evidence of God than our love for one another in the face of our differences. 

I have to thank you for reading this, when you are most likely tired and weary of reading so much on the same.  When you have seen and witnessed and borne pain yourself, watching friendships end and relationships crumble.  The first person I know I must reach is the person whose views are in absolute contradiction to my own.  So I foresee many formidable arguments in my future.  But it’s worth it.  Change cannot come without discomfort, and challenge will sharpen our own ideas.  Combined is a path toward cooperation and a willing hand to continue the climb.  In its undertaking, I wish you peace, strength, and above all else, courage.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Differently: A Season of Hope

“Oh Sam!” My head is in my hands.  It's been hours.  Hours.  Hours.

Every day I help Sam take notes from his History textbook.  The whole pedagogical point, I believe, is to teach students how to read material and glean for the most important points that they will then highlight to remember.  The filters required for such an undertaking though, require time, practice and interest.  It should be getting easier, faster.  

Neither is true for my middle son.  He struggles.  He clenches his fists, he cries tears of silent anger and fear.  He looks at me, sheer sorrow contouring his face, “It’s not my fault that I’m slow Mommy.”  I am silent.  After a minute cataloging my own shame at pushing this most sensitive child, I take his hand and unclench his fist.  

“What’s going on Sam?”  
“I just can’t do it like everyone else.  I can’t remember right.  I try but I just can’t.  I’m just slow.”  
“Sam,” I swallow hard and try again “you are NOT slow.  You are not anything but you.  And who you are is pretty great.”  

He nods, withdraws his hand and tries to look at the American Indians and consider the small section on the Trail of Tears.  Maybe he doesn’t believe it, but it’s my job to make it okay.  Because Sam thinks differently. 

“Are there words here in this passage that you aren’t sure of?  Do you know what all the words mean?”  Shakes head.  Okay, so give me one.  We look up “crop,” “harvest,” and “territory” in our student dictionary.  We talk about the meaning in the sentence.  And we re-read the passage.  His brothers are playing and laughing, Sam looks over at the noise, acknowledges it and sets his face forward.  He doesn’t want to be here anymore than I do, but it’s what’s necessary for him to learn.  

“So the tribe moved from Virginia to Oklahoma right?”  He nods.  “Why do you think the book calls it the Trail of Tears?”  Shrugs.  I move both Sam and myself to the huge map of the United States we have.  “Find Virginia.” He does and he traces the path from Virginia to Oklahoma.  He looks up at me with worry, “that’s a long way.”  I nod.  “They did that on foot?”  Another nod.  “That’s why so many people died.  All they were doing was staying in one place the way they always had.  Then one day they were forced to move.  That’s not right Mommy.”  He got it.  It took the better part of this weekend afternoon, but he got it.

Sam thinks differently.  

His brain processes information in ways that are visual and tactical.  It is a much longer way of learning than our fast-paced system allows for.  It means longer nights and varying methods other than memorization that allows an answer in and out quicker than a revolving door.  For it to stayknowledge, understanding—it has to be done differently. 

Because of the different way Sam thinks he may be the last one to answer, but he’s the first one to go to another’s aid.  He was the first of his brothers to receive a “caring band,” a rubber bracelet given between students at school acknowledging an act of kindness witnessed.  In Sam’s case?  It was seeing a child sitting alone at lunch and making sure he sat with him and stayed until that child was laughing and talking and feeling okay.  

He may forget steps in problem solving but thinks fast to stop a hurt before it happens: “But why did Api say that to you?” asks Jake  “JAKE!  Mommy doesn’t need to relive that.  She went through it once.  Don’t do that!” 

Sam has no shortage on love.  And I believe that being different has made all the difference.

I’ve written about my remarkable middle son before, and he still stuns me with his optimism and his sheer tenacity.  It’s easy, almost expected to boast about our child’s achievements, academic or otherwise, to demand excellence because its glory somehow shines a singular light on our own perception of our parenting.  But Sam tries harder, fights harder and thinks differently, and I have to tell you, in helping Sam, in teaching Sam, I’ve found myself learning a lot more about how to think of everything differently.  

And that’s what I’m inviting you to do this Christmas season.  Whatever you have done or thought or considered—do it differently.

It may be unusual to have a holiday post begin this way, but I don’t think so, not really.  This season of advent, of waiting, we consider the coming of Christ.  A man who was very very different.  Who sought not the high but the low, who spent time with the least to give them his best.  Who did not judge or condemn but shared love and promises of a hopeful future.  Then as now, different is difficult.  Different is scary
We need to be different.

Our thoughts about people, places, things—they need to be different.  We can no longer accept blindly what is told to us.  We have to search for another side to understanding.  We need to look harder at what labels we have placed and the jars in which we have placed our dreams.  Our categories need to be more fluid. Because when we open ourselves up to the possibility of difference, we find grace.  And we are all in desperate need of it.  Sam’s figured this out already.  I’m a much slower study. 

In one of the best shows on television, This is Us, the winter finale finds Randall’s biological father, William, in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting saying words that shook me hard: “I didn’t know if it was from God or what,” he said, “I did not expect God’s grace but now I had to open myself to the pain of it…to feel the joy of it.”

I had to open myself up to the pain of God’s grace
 in order to feel the joy of it.  

Because in that reconciliation is healing.  Man, do we need healing.  Our hurts are high as a people.  Without allowing for the consideration of forgiveness, the idea that we can look at a situation differently, that no wo/man should be defined by one mistake, we can begin to feel grace.  And grace doesn’t always come softly as a winter snow.  It can come by fire.  

"If you are doing anything of worth, then the enemy is
doing everything in his power to make you quit.  The
pressure, the discouragement, the inadequacy all
is a giant ploy to shut you down. What are you going
to do?" Jennie Allen 
The one thing I know as I stumble older and learn to talk better, is that the enemy has already determined that any step toward grace, toward acceptance of a different way of thinking that’s inclusive rather than exclusive, means a step away from loneliness and pain.  So the fight is out there, and it’s hard.  “Be one of us.”  Everything points to it.  No one wants to be alone.  No one wants to be considered “different.” 

So no, grace doesn’t always come to us softly and quietly and gently.  If there’s a battle present that is being fought that is making you unable to turn your head in any direction at all, then it’ll come painfully.  And as that bond breaks freeing you from whatever has held you back?  Well, then there’s joy.  So great and so plentiful.  I want that for you.  We need to be different.

Different can be twisting a situation from rejection to opportunity.  That person you want to get to know better?  Who you keep asking out for coffee only to get a non-committal answer?  It’s time to let that go.  It’s not that she doesn’t like you.  She just doesn’t have the time to get to know you.  And that is freeing.  Because now you have the time to caffeinate with the friend you already have and deepen that bond or rekindle one altogether. 

Different can be action rather than reaction.  You have an opinion, a strong one about the refugee crisis.  Look at your week.  Consider what you could have done without.  The coffees?  The take-away meals?  The $22 pizza?  Calculate the cost and donate that amount to a service agency of your choice.  It was money you never missed.

Different is looking at another and finding commonality.  Right now what scares us?  Islam?  Blackness?  Whiteness?  Gender identity?  In my son’s classroom there are many nations, many faiths, many layers of difference.  But you know what?  When I ask another parent how her son is doing (because help me sister, I actually became a room parent this year), she tells me.  And it no longer matters that she is in a hajib, and I am not.  What does she represent to me?  A mother who is worried about her boy.  I get that.  We’re the same.  Under all that difference.

Different is loving anyway.  Remember the scene I described in This is Us?  Well, shortly after William’s beauty of remarks, another man speaks.  This one is white and talks of searing pain at being left behind suddenly and rejected absolutely.   Later we find out that the man who was speaking about pain and rejection is William’s lover.  

When asked about how the audience may perceive this shift for his character’s father, Sterling Brown said, “I think the writers came up with a really wonderful way of organically introducing that this man who has been an artist his entire life, who had gone through NA, who’s been fighting cancer for quite some time, was able to make a soul connection with someone. 

And the reason why it sort of speaks to me in that way is that any time you get a chance to introduce someone to someone that they already love who may be different than what they anticipated them being, do they rescind their love, or do they now have an eye-opening experience of saying, ‘Oh, man, I love this man. I didn’t see that as being a part of him. But now that I know that it’s part of him, I love him. I love him.’ So, I’m hoping that it’s a situation like that, where people who are very much enamored with William, when they find out this new aspect of his humanity, will stay right there in the midst of that love.”

What I took from this was profound, and I wish I could imprint it on every billboard in America: “Love him anyway.”  

In the nutshell of our souls, the fortune buried deep within?  The lesson we struggle so hard and violently from?   Love anyway.  

If you loved William before, nothing fundamentally about him has changed—except the gender of someone else he loved in his long painful life.  You can still love William.  Because he’s still amazing William.  And we can love our friends and family no matter who they choose to love because of who they are.  LOVE ANYWAY.  Any which way.

Love hard.  Love constantly.  And love absolutely.  But more than anything—love anyway.  Despite it all.  And because of it all.  You must love.

You are different.  Thank God you are different.  Thank God you think and walk and talk and act differently than I do.  Because of your difference, I am who I am.  What a horrible world if the colors were forced only to be primary and not a box of 120.  I hope there will never come a time that I am in a room with people who only think like I do; I hope I will always have the opportunity to be asked to think differently.

I want to tell you an old story I know.  Of a young girl, terribly young.  She was promised to a man who was much older than she was.  But he was in a good position in the community, it brought honor to her family, so she agreed to it.  It wasn’t the practice for her to have an education, so she didn’t have any real schooling.  

She didn’t understand a lot about anything, but she had great faith in her community to guide her and keep her safe.  She was so worried about messing up, disappointing someone, her parents especially.  So when she found out she was going to have a baby, she just didn’t know what to do.  She tried to explain to her fiancé, and he was shocked and angry.  She waited to find out what would happen, because to be so different meant causing a lot of pain to a lot of people.   A young (potentially) single mother was tantamount to being an outcast, for someone with little education and no means of financial support. 

I know the first thoughts:  How could she be that dumb?  To get pregnant so young?  So now she'll never get a job or contribute.  I bet she doesn't even know the father.  And I'll be working just to feed her and her kids.  

But what if we looked at it differently?

A young woman scared.  Feeling that everyone will refuse her.  Worried about how she will provide for her unborn child.  Worried about what mother she could be when she was little more than a child herself? 

What if we saw her as someone who was trying?  

What if we saw her as someone who was about to embark on a most important task that we could help with?
What if we supported instead of assumed?

What if we saw her for who she was, not what we placed on her?

Because you know this young girl.  You know her story. 

Because that young girl was Mary.  And her baby came to find you.  Mary chose differently.  And when she saw her son choosing a road that she may have found unsafe, saw him healing others, only hearing about him because he kept choosing differently, it must have been hard.  But what would have happened to all of us had she not chosen differently?  What would have happened if she didn’t encourage her son to do the same?

God picked the most unlikely, the least of whom anyone expected anything from to create a miracle.  He chose an unwed teenager to be the mother of his only son.  He chose differently.

He wants us to be different too. 

He’s still searching for you, you know?  And you can be found so easily.  By thinking differently and loving well.  Because in removing the obstacles you have set in your mind you allow yourself the room, the permission, the fire, the grace and the joy to come to you.  And then just as much of a miracle born in the least of these, differences melt away in the light of the greatest of all. 

Its time.  It’s time to be different.  May the grace and peace of this season of possibility give you hope and courage.  Merry Christmas to you.