Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Being Seen: A Love Primer Part I

It’s hard isn’t it?  To get it all done?  To feel that everything on the list is finally checked off?  And that list it just doesn’t seem to get any smaller.  All around you is advice about staying in the moment, letting things fall aside for time with your teen, a cuddle with your baby, a game of soccer with your kids. 

That would be nice if it weren’t for the reality of meetings, shopping, cleaning, driving, practices, rehearsals, deadlines, and the maintenance of friendships.  It’s hard.  There’s no two ways about it. 

I see you.  You.  I see that you are tired, and the day has only begun.  I see you sigh as you do the thousandth run to Target, put your bags in your car, check your phone, shake your head and wearily go back to the bullseye for what you forgot.  I see you in the hallway, on your way to the cafeteria, in the auditorium, with the panic in your eyes that you are worried that you will be alone again.  And worried more that you will have to talk to strangers. 

I see you, at the deli counter checking your watch, eyeing the hot foods aisle and wondering if you can just do that to spare your feet, hands, and heart another evening of rush.  I see you, trying to scan as many items as you can and smile furtively at the irritated woman in front of you.  I see you as she snaps at your inability to do the simple thing she asked of you.  I see you slouch a little more as the smile and good wishes you offer go completely ignored. 

I see you at the cemetery, arranging the flowers and sitting on damp grass with dry eyes, because every tear you could have possibly shed is long since gone.  I see you, on the airplane, struggling to buckle your seat and making yourself smaller knowing that people are looking at you with disgust.  I see the beads of sweat on your face as you try to answer the question, consider the opinion, offer a solution.  I see you still your right hand with your left at Bible study.  I see you.  I really do see you. 

How often do we really see each other?  How often do we see what’s left out or over?  Because I have become convinced that a lot of what is wrong right now comes from this, this idea that we aren’t being seen.  Without being seen or acknowledged, we pass through life as ghosts, uncounted.  And sometimes, if the circumstances align, we are revealed in ways that are disastrous to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to the whole world.

I’ve been quiet over the summer.  I haven’t been here and talking to you.  But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been hearing, reading, and seeing what has been happening—heartbreaking doesn’t even cover it.  Bombings, shootings, world-wide terror, home grown anger and historic rage.  For the first time, in a long time, I had difficulty articulating it.  I’d sit here and wonder what I could possibly say that made any sense at all.  I’d start. I’d end. 

“What difference does it make?” I’d wonder.  But the feelings kept coming.  The itch and discomfort of what I’d see around me.  The sadness, the lack of accountability, the fear that leads to vengeance, the missing kindness—the one key to turning it around.

So I decided if one post wouldn’t cover it, I’d write four.  All interrelated.  Not about what we’re doing wrong, other than to identify it, but what we can do to put it right

And it all starts with this: being seen 

Both off social media and on it.  Because I think the reason the bad feelings and ill will continue on into cyber space is exactly because we aren’t being seen.  It is then easier to collapse behind a screen and spread unrest by taking extraordinary measures to being “seen” virtually. 

Stay with me.  Please just stay with me.  This is the first part of this series that talks about the beginning and ending of all things: love.  That’s the end game, that's what we're striving for.  This is just the first part, Being Seen: A Love Primer Part I. 


We are out and going to get a treat for Joe’s lesson; after not playing for years, he’s impressed himself and his teacher with his memory of strings, notes, hand positions, and how gracefully to hold a bow.  We walk in and I immediately get upset seeing the signs proclaiming the return of pumpkin spice.  “Don’t get so upset!”  “But it ONLY belongs in A PIE!”  We both giggle.  And I look at him and think how much more will I get to have?  How much more giggle space?  How much more room?  How possible is it to like someone this much and love them even more? 

Two young men who were locking up their bikes before we came in, come through the line.  The smaller one, blond hair, bronzed skin, dark eyes, bumps past Joe and doesn’t look back.  The rudeness here astonishes me.  I hear him now talking to his friend about how he doesn’t want to pay for anything.  The server asks him what he’d like.  The server’s barked at.  Biker 2's voice changes from petulant and defiant to the grating noise the adults make on the Peanuts specials.  I look with concern at the server.  He is completely at ease.  This makes me even more worried. 

Why is he at ease?  Why did he not say, “hey they were ahead of you!”  Why is the barking and the order and the lack of civility not bothering him more?

They are alike in so many ways: blond, of the same age, give or take.  One is working there and one is not.  The only difference as far as I can tell—cosmetically, in any case.  Joe walks up next.  I put a hand on his shoulder to steady myself from giving—gentle people, the name I want to give this rude sweating boy-man is nothing to do with being a child of God—the most vicious stare I can muster.  I focus on Joe.  “Could I please have a chocolately chocolate chip frappuccino please?”  The server nods. 

“Hi” I say brightly, figuring my smile can make up for a whole bunch of ills and place my order too.  He nods, I scan.  We wait.  Rudeness continues to swirl all around us.  Bumps, irritations, no words said.  Joe gets his and pipes his thanks.  I yell mine over the heads of the rudes.  The ghost of a smile on the barista behind the counter gives acknowledgement.  It’s not much.  But I’ll take it.  Joe grins too.  We did some good.  We saw him.  He saw us seeing him.  We said we see you and we appreciate you and we value you.  We know it’s your job, but thank you for doing it.  Thank you for doing it the way you are doing it.  Thank you. 

And another.

We are in line at the ice cream shop.  A large family is in front of us.  A well-dressed man, and another more casual, the third a good mix of the two.  The women are wearing robes, some have headscarves, some don’t.  The children are crazy, as every child in the world is in an ice cream shop.  I hear Arabic.  I see glances at my uncovered legs.  A child kicks me twice, Jake says, “Mommy, she kicked you.” 

I look for the mother, and she meets my eyes and says nothing.  The third kick I stop, saying, “don’t kick me, it isn’t nice.”  An irritated stare from the suit.  Barked orders at the server.  The list of treats becomes longer and longer.  The girls are asked what they want.  The server asks what the women want, he is told, “don’t ask them.  I will decide what they will have.  Just do it.”  So he does.  They pay.  No thanks are offered, a wish for a good day is given but ignored.  The line behind me grumbles.  

Some racial slurs are offered and when I turn become muted.  After all, I am brown too.   Still, I smile brightly and said, “hey could I please have—“
“Chocolate with rainbow sprinkles!” 

And we go on.   As we sit, the boys and I, Joe looks over at me and says, “well it happened again, right mommy?”

“What do you mean?” I ask wondering about the slurs and the news and equations being made in a fresh brain.

 “They were really rude to the scooper.”  I nod slowly.  Joe sighs and picks up his spoon, “It doesn’t seem to matter what you look like, everyone is rude just the same.  No one decided to see the guy behind the counter as a person.”  I unclench. 

“That’s true,” I say.  

The choice to see is completely and ironically color blind.  It is not bound by socio-economic status either, or by gender.  It is just a way in which we’ve lost step with the body human. 

We have lost sight and, in that way, we have lost God. 

I don’t think that’s overstating it.  I’ve written about the importance of empowerment, kindness, and justice.  Now it is clear though, that what we see is not even a portion of what we’re missing.  We do it in every facet of our lives.  On social media, the very vehicle for public sharing (and shaming), what do we see?  Who do we acknowledge?  What is the result of not hitting “like?”

Illustration of Lazarus at the rich man's gate by Fyodor Bronnikov, 1886

Last week's Gospel reading was Luke 16, Lazarus and the Rich Man.  The interpretations are many and varied, but what struck me and Jake was simple fact that the wealthy (unnamed) man stepped over a bleeding, starving, desperate Lazarus daily to get into his home.  It's really as if he didn't see him.  

That is, at least, part of the point.  Maybe he did see him, but it had become a part of his landscape, as familiar as the plants near the stoop or the woman selling figs nearby, or the children playing.  It was a part of his daily life, he became desensitized to it, and just saw it as a part and parcel of his existence.  Nothing to do or say or see or move upon.  He ceased to see him.  

We're doing this.  We are all the rich man.  We are all Lazarus.  We are not seeing.  How many times have you seen the meme about people on their cell phones?  That the real zombie apocalypse is upon us?  Our virtual sight has completely superseded our actual vision.   I take out mine as soon as I start to feel uncomfortable; at times, to appear busy.  Without an outstanding emergency, there is nothing that cannot wait for a reasonable time or break in which to check it.   And it isn't just that I am forgoing engaging with the world as I look at it through a screen, I am sacrificing my safety too.  Because how well could I possibly know my surroundings if I am busy looking at a small screen instead of seeing what's around me?

We are losing sight of each other and as we move in distance around one another, we begin to lose our humanity, our commonality, and what God wanted for us, so desperately.  God’s Bible is made up of two parts an Old and New Testament.  Gospels were created under the divine guidance of God by certain authors.  But the Bible as we know it?  The Bible that sits here with me now, this has been culled together by early Church fathers.  Not the content mind you, the order and the organization.  It has been translated over and over and over again.  It is interesting to me then, that so many have used this word to justify actions of alienation, violence, submission, discrimination, ostracism…it goes on.  As humans there are no limits in the means we can hurt each other and in doing so there are just as many ways in which God’s word has been used to justify it.

Writing and reading have been my way to process everything I see for so long now.  Writing is easier for me than talking—to most people.  But there have been times when I’ve written and people haven’t read it and just made snap judgments and comments that are hurtful.  Or there are times when they’ve read and landed 180 degrees entirely in the other direction I’d hoped for.  It’s maddening.  And it makes me wonder how wise the words “those who have eyes let them see.”  

I don’t get it.  I reckon that often God is also shaking and saying, “okay then.  That is NOT what I meant.”  For me this is as easy as it gets, and as basic: love.  Nowhere in the Bible does it direct you to actively hate.  You can be angry and hurt yes, but hate?  No.  My job here is to love you.  Love you as much as I possibly can.  God will be the arbiter and the judge.  I do not need you to do it, and I do not need to either.  It’s impossibly freeing.  Judgment is left for God, and I am free to love.  But I know this too.  God sees me.  The real me, the scared me and the insecure me and the prejudiced me and the weary me.  God sees all this.  God knows it. 

So anything that can take me away from the job given to me to love as much as I can has to be curtailed.  Whether it is a friendship that has taken a sour turn, a relationship that is more need than want, a job that is everyday rather than necessary; all of this needs to be reevaluated, reconsidered and reworked. It is okay to eliminate the cataracts that are deliberately obscuring your vision.  No one—no thing—has that right.  Because if you continue you will look down to avoid it, your eye will turn inward on what’s safe and familiar, you will no longer seek, you will yield.  That is no way to live.   You cannot look up and declare, “madness” and then look down again.  You have to keep your gaze directed upward.  Do not avert it.  Do not shield it.  See and be seen.

It sits uncomfortably, doesn’t it?  Since we’re already there, let’s make ourselves more uncomfortable because out of discomfort comes growth, understanding and change.  Don’t turn away.  Don’t turn away from the questions you are being asked by the news, your neighbor and your children....

Like mine.  Like my Joe, who asked, very quietly in the car after our celebratory run: “What is Black Lives Matter?”

Joe is 11.  For the most part, he lives a life of privilege.  He has a two parent home; he goes to a great school in a non-violent neighborhood.  He can get there safely and return the same way.  The adults in his world are committed to both his mental and physical health.  His parents can give him three meals a day and snacks.  He has the opportunity and ability to read, play sports, play music and play in general without fear.  He has a clean bed to sleep in and new clothes to wear.  His shoes fit and new ones are purchased if they don’t.  He is told over and over and over again that he is loved.

This portrait, for much of the country’s children, is the exception and not the rule.  That is the truth.  And we believe in truth telling in our house.  So instead of saying “it’s complicated,” or “can we talk about that later?”  I pulled over under a shady tree and turned around and told him some of the following:  (Before I share some of it with you, please know this: I am not an African American history scholar, a representative of the BLM movement, or writer of Black culture.  What I know is from what I’ve read, seen and felt.  There are resources to explore further, and Joe and I have done so.  Please take a moment to do the same.*)

As this nation grew and the need for field labor increased, America engaged in the slave trade.  Joe knows some of this from school already.  He knows Africans were brought to the U.S. on slave ships.

 What he doesn’t know are the conditions of that capture.  Men, women and children captured by nets, with whips, and herded
Artist rendering of slave ship.
See also images from Charles Wright Museum in Detroit.
like livestock into the bellies of large wooden ships that were inadequate to hold those numbers.  Chained into position, they were forced to move the ship to a different land.  Those journeys are collectively now referred to as the “
middle passage,” [in fact many scientists believe that a current trend toward salt-sensitive hypertension in the African American community today can be traced back to that ordeal—the lack of food for those who survived (and many did not) has had a direct effect on the current health of many African American men and women today.]  The reason why this is important?  It is a tangible way that I can see history visiting its weight on coming generations. 

Once they arrived, they were separated from family groups and communities, not knowing language, stripped completely nude and placed on auction blocks in shipyards to be ogled, checked and purchased for labor.   I cannot imagine it, can you?  Please think of it if you can.  Thirsting and hungry, disoriented and sick, scared and angry, you are pushed and any clothing you had removed.  Beaten and starved, still in chains you are forced to look at faces so unfamiliar and have your mouth opened, your teeth checked, your genitals squeezed, your back and legs slapped.  Your heart is racing, you have no words and no one will listen.  When does resignation set in?  When would it for you?

When you finally arrive to the shack in which you will be living, you are handed over to faces similar to your own who have had similar journeys and if you are lucky you will be given some food, find someone who may be able to speak your language and find a place you can finally stretch out to sleep.  

In the days,
weeks and months that follow you learn quickly you must work long hours in fields, being beaten if you stop, killed if you try to leave.  You will not be paid.  You have no rest.  Everything you say or do has to be done with permission.  You may find love and have a family.  But your wife and child are not recognized as such, and your wife can be repeatedly raped by any white man who chooses to do so.  Your child can be taken from you and sold alone as young as 2 and you will never see her again.  Can you imagine it?  Knowing that your wife is being sold and will be taken to the block and stripped naked, perhaps still leaking milk from nursing your son? 

Actual  "lynching postcard" from 1891

And if you try to rebel or escape, if captured you’d be killed perhaps that would take the form of lynching.  It is absolutely unfathomable to me that this word has lost its meaning.  Lynchings were brutal public exhibitions.  But unlike others, this was a family sport.  Men, women and children would come to watch a Black man killed. 

This legacy is, in part at least, what I think has become a movement.  Because out of this people who did not freely elect to come and build America, recognition as human has been an inter-generational struggle.  If there is any doubt of this, consider what happened once slavery ended and sharecropping took its place?  When has there been a time, collectively or historically that blackness has been seen and given its place as equal on the keyboard—without a fight?  Men who had to call someone younger “master” all their lives, and never taught to read had to pass strenuous literacy tests in order to register to vote.

Joe knows a lot of this history.  We’ve been to sites where they’ve been able to look in slave cabins and see the conditions where dozens of people had to live with no privacy as compared to the master’s house.  (I’ve made it a point to
show inequality as I have balance.  The explanations never get easier, and it hurts every time.)

As the years have gone on and despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, African Americans have spent so much time in the shadows, as described hauntingly in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; where they are not seen.  Living in projects where they are not heard.  The successes achieved have been despite the odds not because of incentives.  In fact, once I told a professor of mine that the only positive connotation of blackness I could find was financial: to be “in the black” meant solvency.  In fashion--in art, black is a negative.  Less than and not equal to.  

One particularly haunting memory I have is sitting in a classroom and hearing how V.S. Naipaul had written that a particular tree that grew fruit was not native to the soil, but instead grew there from the ingested seeds of the buried bodies of slaves brought there, in whose stomachs resided the possibility of something else thriving in a place it shouldn’t

How can such meanings move along without a collective scream so deep and low and harrowing that the whole world seems to shift at its sigh?   

Sometimes hurts run in such quantity that there is no reservoir big enough to hold it.  We all have moments like that.  But what about collectively?  What if you bear on your skin the incalculable proof of your worth?  What if you have a deep held knowledge of something that isn’t right but you cannot articulate it?  How long before that boils over?  How many generations of shared memory?  At some point, the need to be seen becomes overwhelming. 

"Gordon 1863" 
Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved, envisions her 
scars to form that of a chokecherry tree.  
Of course all lives matter.  But for this population, overwhelmingly, they have been told that that they do not.  There is a presumption that whiteness is equivalent to intelligence, success, trustworthiness, and beauty.  I know.  I am brown.  The assumptions of my skin are very different to those of African
Americans.  But they are there. 

“It’s as if,” I tell Joe, “that your friend who is Black, well you both are sitting together and only you are chosen for something, even if you are dressed the same, eating the same lunch and are the same height, weight everything.  The only reason you’re chosen is because you look white.”  
“That’s not right.” 
“No, it isn’t.” 

 “If they just spent some time talking to my friend they’d see how awesome he is, that we’re the same.” 
“Yes, they would.” 

“It’s not like he disappears.”

James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain
Is it?  How much of blackness do we see?  Or brownness? Or difference?  How much do we take in?  How much do we ignore?  In the dark is the unknown.  All any of us ever want, truly need, to thrive and be happy is to be known, acknowledged, seen. 

I do not condone violence.  There is no justification for it, retaliatory or otherwise.  I am saying here that if we begin to understand the history of this outcry, we can begin to see one another.  And once we see one another, we can talk to each other.  And that is where it all begins.  That’s the process that is going to take us out of this.  It is a risk, just like writing this to you is.  But really, is there any choice anymore?  What will be left if we do not act?  If we do not try to understand one another?  If we do not begin to see, really see, one another?

When I went to visit a former professor in Hong Kong, we made a trip to Guangzhou.  There was the American consulate, often the last stop for adoptive families taking their baby girls home.  I saw one mother just staring at her baby who just kept staring at her own hands.  She noticed I was watching and motioned me to sit near her.  “In the orphanage,” she said, “the babies stopped crying because no one ever came to see them.  So they usually just start staring at their own hands, to calm and soothe.  I just want her to know that I’m here.  That I see her.  That I’ll always see her.”  I nod.  “It’s the way she will process her world.  I need to let her know she’s important. I really see her.” 

Do you know why babies, all babies love "Peekaboo?"  Think of what's said.   You close your eyes and cover them in front of her and then in a surprised voice and engaging smile, say "Peeakaboo!  I SEE YOU!"  
Why Peekaboo is Important for Babies
The baby giggles with delight and surprise every single time.  She is seen!  You are happy to see her!  You weren't looking and now you are!  How grand, how amazing, how fantastic!  

How simple.  

Please pull your hands away--and look with wonder and surprise and what is in front of you.  Ease pain, share your own, offer a good morning, accept one in return.  If there is something that bothers the corner of your eye, take the second or third step to make it right.  There is no time that is wasted in service of the acknowledgement of another.  

So I am telling you: I see you.  You.  And I am willing to say that I don’t understand why you look sad and upset.  I don’t know why your forehead furrows and your fists are clenched.  I am lost why you seem so very afraid.  I don’t understand, but I see you.  And I will sit with you so you can tell me the whys.  All of them, every one.  And hopefully, in that beginning of all things we will understand.  It’s not much, I know.  But it’s a start.

Then there are those who have made themselves small.  Who want desperately to disappear.  Whose voices are low and quiet.  Whose clothes and hair and movements make them blend into the scenes behind them.  Yes, you don’t know them, but they are there.  And sometimes when they keep going unseen for long.  They become loud.  One sense gives way to another.  They are tired of being unseen so they want to be heard.  And sometimes explosively.  That’s next.  Stay with me.  I promise it’ll help.   Please stay with me for Hearing Grace, Part II.

*At this writing, the newest Smithsonian is being unveiled.  The National Museum of African American History and Culture, its architecture designed to look like a  Yoruban crown, is a landmark achievement.  

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