Waiting for What Exactly?

A hawk had lit where it didn’t fit and it gave me pause. That’s how this series of blogged essays began. A cardinal robbed a zygotic zucchini from my garden to share with its mate and not to be out-shined, a squirrel felled an entire body-sized leaf of chard and devoured it with a magician’s timing and talent.

Sampling the South for college prospects with my youngest daughter surfaced a set of insights impossible without this space to unpack them, as did an errant turn in an elementary school zone at pick-up time, an embarrassment unexpectedly rewarded by the kindness of strangers and a flock of cedar waxwings drinking at the head of my driveway.

I waited for nothing more than the unremarkable and somehow rich turns of my ordinary days to write, turns that I believe abound in each day if my eyes are open, if my heart is, if I am present.  The photo of an old friend appearing in my glove box or a passing word of wisdom could send me into deep and useful reflection.

Perhaps all bloggers “should” themselves into reaching for something with greater weight and in so doing, find themselves reaching away from more regular writing. If I am enjoying writing so much it cannot possibly be enough, right?

Of course, I want to say what matters, to say what heals, to say what awakens at least part of the time. I want to say something that makes a difference. More and more that has meant waiting to write. And as days become weeks and months, I wonder, waiting for what exactly? For everyday ideas to grow spellbinding? For the perfect intersection of events and insight? For the current of prose to strike like lightning from my fingertips?

If the past several months have taught me anything, it is that later isn’t good enough. Right Now wails like a storm bearing down in Spring. The Now tumbles over, under and surrounds me. Now compels me when later feels very much like never.

All the lengthier posts of recent months have a common theme — if not now, when?

Today was powerfully simple because I listened and was listened to, because I offered comfort to another mother, because I was honest with myself about something that had derailed my confidence and compromised my health and I was honest about it with someone I love and respect.

Today I bit off just as much as I could chew without choking on achievement.

Today I wrote knowing it would be a small sound and I pressed publish anyway, because writers, they write.

A Minimal Literacy

In the tangle of my blessed, white life, I’ve figured out that I have a lot more to figure out than I’ll have time for. So, I depend on the stories of others who lack the luck of my white birth to expand my literacy of white privilege, whether the stories are painful stories, full of reckoning and hard truths, whether I can personally “relate” to them, whether they are rough-rendered.

I want nothing less than fluency before I die.

Messages Image(810416739)

Credit: Jamie Kapp (check out the whole series of cartoons for a quick and easy primer on privilege.)

Yes. White privilege can be a hard concept for a good-hearted, well-intentioned white woman to grasp. It has taken many years, many experiences, trusting friends and students who are not white, a mind pried by all of these to begin, only begin, to understand what white privilege means, and far longer to act on what it asks of me.

It doesn’t mean, for example, that nothing bad happens to white people. Bad things do. It doesn’t mean that all white people are better off than all Black people. Some aren’t. It doesn’t mean that white people harbor ill will toward Black people, though some do.

What it does mean is that thanks to the color of my skin, if all other things are equal, I get a pass every day in ways that someone who happens to be brown or black, doesn’t. Let me give you a few examples.

I could go to shop at Kohl’s with my teenage daughter without being treated with suspicion. However, one of my bi-racial students from Doane did the same with her mother and encountered several humiliations including another shopper who clutched her purse as if she was at risk of being robbed when my student and her mother (who happens to be Black) passed by. In Kohl’s. Department store. A few years ago, Amy Schumer did a skit on this very topic — satire arises from painful reality.

I’ve stood in line with a Black woman dressed just as I am, with purchases much like my own at my grocery store and listened to a clerk brusquely address her and ask her for additional ID, then greet me with a smile and ask for no ID.

Every non-white student I taught at Doane College in 5 years (there were dozens), could recount multiple stories of being frisked, detained, threatened by police, authorities, or just people on the street. They were some of my best students. They had to be. The mouths of my white students often dropped, followed by comments like, “But I thought those days were past…”

We don’t know what we don’t know. None of us. At some point, I wanted to know and began to pay attention, to ask, to listen, to read, to care just a little about what might be happening to my less fair-skinned neighbors, co-workers, fellow church members.

It isn’t that I don’t want to hear about the good things. In fact, I discovered Good Black News (GBN) less than a year ago in the political scorcher that was July 2016, because I followed a link to one of the sites most-read articles, an editorial by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, the editor-in-chief, titled “What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege.” I admired her patience and candor; sadly, the list she shared in the piece did not shock me. By then, I had availed myself of the “war” stories of Black students in my college courses, those of friends and associates, and I had done some of my own “surveillance and intervention” in public spaces.

I subscribed and now I receive installments on “all the good things Black people do, give and receive all over the world” as their banner announces. At a time when I am honestly desperate to limit my email traffic, I read these and some of them I store to reread.

GBN has become a discipline as regular as meditation for me and almost as altering. I don’t read it to remind myself that everything that happens to Blacks in the U.S. isn’t bad. I read it to remind myself that Blacks are agents for so much good in the world despite the random assignment of skin color and all the undeserved garbage they deal with and to counter the persistent portrayal of Blacks as either criminals or “exceptions” to that “norm”.

Recently, GBN celebrated seven years. It is one of the ripples I attribute to our nation having elected and re-elected a Black president. I do not know if there is a correlation in its arrival on the web, but only a bit longer ago than that, I cried and clutched my daughters on the night of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I remember thinking that it was impossible, even as I watched it happen.

Months later, when President Obama spoke at Dr. King’s church, I studied all the faces that the videographer afforded to me. I watched them nod and ponder. I listened to him hold me accountable. And them. Don’t blow this, I thought. Not him. Me. The president of our nation spoke at length and candidly about race. I wanted to be among the sleeping whites who might awaken with his words.

When I went with a white friend (retired first grade teacher of my two daughters) to see the film, “I Am Not Your Negro” at the local art movie house a few weeks ago, I knew less than it seems to me I should know about James Baldwin. Beside Dick Cavett in a 1968 interview, Baldwin is a one-man, verbal wrecking ball. Run Dick, run, I wanted to shout. It is only going to get worse! On March 27, 2017, Rich Benjamin in the New Yorker notes that the movie, in its own way, “mock[s] and cheer[s] the death of white racial innocence.”

Add that to that other lenses through which I work in fits and starts to examine Black life as compared to and as shaped by white life. This is not done with as much urgency as it may merit — after all, I have nothing to lose if I remain ignorant. That’s the way white privilege works. I am trying to get clear on what I have to gain though.

Seven years. Of course, the anniversary means I missed more than 6 years of GBN but if I wanted to go back and review, I could click on any of 18 separate disciplines (things like business, the arts, philanthropy, education, etc.) under which there are multiple sub-topics. As an antidote to the stereotype-reinforcing, Black-arrest faces that appear in my hometown newspaper, it is working its magic.

Today, inspired by re-reading Hutchinson’s piece, I decided to make my own incomplete inventory of privileged conditioning that slowly grew into awareness:

That time as a preschooler when you watched Spanky and His Gang reruns and wondered at the wild, white, rolling eyes of Buckwheat (played by William Thomas) and his use of incomprehensible speech and “Otay!” As a child you did not have language for the fact that after the television was turned off, his speech was the only thing imitated with comic derision in your home.

That time in second grade when you watched Sammy Davis Jr. on TV and felt sad rather than entertained because his medallion necklace seemed like an albatross against his skinny frame and he had one bad eye and one sad eye but he laughed broad-toothed and crookedly at everything Johnny Carson said.

That time in third grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated except you don’t remember that happening in your lifetime though you were eight years old, plenty old enough to remember. And the only way you can imagine not remembering such a social, political and cultural crater is that school must not have stopped to register the tragedy and nobody and nothing at home did.

That time in fourth grade when you watched Arthur Duncan (the first African American to appear in a variety show on U.S. television) tap dance on Lawrence Welk and failed to notice that during group numbers that required hand-holding, he retreated to the background to make clear he was not “with” any of the white women.

That time in seventh grade when Sandra Pree sat beside you in class, and she had a full-on afro that was so long it almost covered her eyes and she could not stop laughing at your comically overblown white-person imitation of James Brown’s, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” And you noticed that she and you both had a wide gap between your front teeth.

That time in eighth grade when you were on a family vacation in Florida and Dad didn’t look both ways before crossing a divided highway and was broadsided by a VW bug, literally scaring the pee out of you but what scared you more was when three lanky Black men impossibly emerged from that small car somehow unharmed but understandably unhappy, because all the racist things Dad just said seemed visible in the air around his custom Fleetwood Cadillac.

That time in ninth grade when you went over to Debbie Bowie’s house whose dad was in the Air Force and had a British bride who did not drive a car and kept an utterly spotless house and you were stopped dead when her mom crooned how “hot” Michael Jackson was in the way only a Brit can and you could not imagine an American mom saying that.

That time in tenth grade when the star of the football team, Tony Smith, kissed you behind the bleachers and his lips were so full that yours felt invisible and you went to the donut shop after games for weeks to feel those lips and his scandalous and talented hands gentle at your waist, never asking for anything more than to hold you.

That time when you went to Washington, DC in your early 20’s and it took way too long for you to realize that the majority of riders on the metro were, like you, hoping they wouldn’t get mugged at any point between home and work and that skin color was a very poor indicator of criminal intent. 

Like Hutcherson’s, mine isn’t a complete list but it is sobering to me to see the trajectory of my limited understanding of Black “experiences” and especially to recognize that I thought it was pretty complete.

Hearing hard stories clarifies, sobers and balances. Receiving them exercises my flabby compassion and wimpy humility. Passed heart to heart, shared stories prevent what we learn in life from being hoarded, segregated, minimized and marginalized. Without each other’s stories, we live in a sort of poverty it seems to me and force others to do so.

Decades ago, I attended a performance of Junebug/Jack (30 years running) at the Johnny Carson Theatre . One thing stuck.

“Y’all make sure you collect the hard stories,” Junebug counseled. “Those are the ones that show you what you are made of, what your people have triumphed over in spite of all the obstacles. Soft stories — they are good too, but you don’t need those the way you need the hard ones to make it in this world.”

When the lights came up in the dark theatre after the show, Junebug (a mythic African American folk hero paired with an Appalachian “Jack” in the production) offered it in response to my question during Q and A . I couldn’t decide whether his answer was a warning or a bestowal. Maybe both. Since then, I try to embrace hard stories, mine or anyone else’s. I want to be that strong. That tempered. That ready.

Is it wildly hopeful to believe that sharing our collective past and present invites us to care and grow wise enough to shape our collective future?

It is wildly hopeful. No apology offered.

Thanks to the Race: Are We So Different? exhibit experienced  during my oldest daughter’s college visit to Kalamazoo, Michigan, my radar later picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. The thick spine should have discouraged me — a 622-page whopper. It was a much-honored book, and the poetic title borrowed a line from the novelist Richard Wright. Suns was a debut for the author who had won a Pulitzer though not for that book. Suns was about THE epic migration that in nearly 40 educated years I had never heard of. Great Migration? What Great Migration?

Ripples from a stone thrown years earlier in Kalamazoo.

After the paradigm shift that Race required of me, things had already begun to unravel in my white-washed world. Race as a social construct? What’s a social construct? I had a lot to learn and that exhibit helped me begin. It was Wilkerson’s book though that shattered my naive (and frankly arrogant) belief that I had a pretty good understanding of the arc of Black experience in the U.S.

I have come to call this veneer of mine the white person’s thin volume of Black history: first came slavery, then Martin Luther King, Jr. then Barack Obama. Along the way Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver figured in. Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks were immortalized and Ruby Bridges. I had a vague flinching response if Emmett Till’s name ever surfaced and Malcolm X’s.

In Wilkerson’s book, the lived history of millions of my fellow citizens was just barely but poignantly scratched and as I read, as I imagined Black families who must know this history well, in just the way I know of the trials and tribulations of my immigrant progenitors, I wondered what it must feel like to have a history and struggle that invisible to a nation, as non-existent as microbes were before the advent of the microscope — teeming, but not discernible to Black-blind, white eyes, parallel to the history I knew, but never touching it.

Of course, as Brown v. Board of Education codified, separate is never equal. Never. When our stories are kept apart, we are kept apart. I am determined, as often as possible, not to separate myself. There are many ways to learn about the lives of Blacks in the U.S. Late better than never, I am taking up my part, listening, and putting what I learn into constructive advocacy and action.

Sometimes it is uncomfortable. That is good. I am ready to bear my share of that load.

Un-Banking: Update on “Water is Life”

Hold on to what is good,
Even if it’s a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
Even if it’s a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
Even if it’s a long way from here.

~Pueblo Prayer

The internet (with all its trolls and click bait) carries the potential to empower each of us to make the best decisions we can on questions very particular to our lives. It is not all we need — but it can amplify our humanity rather than degrade it. I do believe that.

Despite the prediction of some cynics, the Women’s March continues to provide concrete and actionable leadership on a host of fronts important to women, including non-white women (which I am happy to see). And the links at their site are deep and information-rich! One that is important to me includes divestiture from fossil fuels, particularly the recently re-authorized pipelines that pass through Native lands, most immediately, efforts toward divestiture of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

When I wrote “Water is Life”, I was in the midst of learning many things about DAPL and the people who called themselves water protectors. At that time, I signed up for a conference call on events unfolding at Standing Rock. It wasn’t what I expected. Up front, they asked non-native people to stop traveling personally to the camp. Their well-meant support was doing more harm than good and making it difficult for the water protectors to maintain the peaceful, prayerful effort they had begun there. They talked about the centrality of prayer and ritual at Standing Rock, the value in studying all I could about water (including where mine comes from), the necessary labor that I could perform to learn about the long history of the land where my own home was built. I was being taught how to exercise solidarity and especially to join in the spirit of their movement, rather than distracting from it. Their movement.

I also learned that my bank was one of the financial institutions underwriting DAPL, the project that the water protectors have prayed relentlessly to stop as it endangers their water and disrupts sacred burial grounds.

At the end of the call, I decided a letter from me to my bank might actually do some good and certainly couldn’t hurt. Given a promise I am so far keeping to my niece to do one thing every day that infuses my little share of the world with love and proaction, I knew it was important to me to write to the Wells Fargo Board of Directors about Standing Rock.

Here is what I wrote in December 2016.

“I have worked hard to research all aspects of the DAPL project at Standing Rock. I have come to the conclusion that it isn’t good for our nation to risk contamination of the Missouri River for a resource that I believe will be less and less profitable as we continue to grow a green economy. Not only for those at Standing Rock but for all who draw water from the river, I am writing to ask you to divest from DAPL.

I am impressed with the faith, heart and resolve of the Native people who are encamped there. I am impressed by the veterans who recently came to their aid and the many Americans who are offering financial support to those facing so much adversity at the camp. I am impressed by the $24 million that has already been divested from the project. I want to be part of their efforts to protect our water and the life that it supports.

I have been a customer with Wells Fargo for more than twenty years. My current holdings in checking and savings accounts at the bank are XXXX. I love my local bank branch. The employees there have been consistently professional and caring. The manager at my branch knows my daughters and watched them grow up. They are like family. Yet, I find I can’t in good conscience help Wells Fargo to underwrite the DAPL project. I am looking for alternative financial institutions to work with me so that I may participate in divesting from Wells Fargo. I am hoping that before my search is complete, Wells Fargo will reconsider its support of the DAPL project and announce its withdrawal.

I stood by you in the face of the recent “marketing” scandal after which the CEO of Wells Fargo resigned. I even went to the bank branch to shore up the employees and let them know I still believed in them. They were grateful. This time, I find I can’t stand by you as long as you continue to fund the DAPL project. This time, I am prepared to go to my branch and tell my Wells Fargo “family” there that we have to part ways, at least for now.

This is an action I will take no later than January 21, 2017 in order to offer what protection I can to Standing Rock before President Obama leaves office.

I look forward to hearing from you. I hope to hear that Wells Fargo will stand with me this time.”

Who knew if I would hear back. I visited three other banks — 2 of them locally owned and learned about their services, their investing philosophy and what might be involved if we chose to shift our assets there. Ahhhh…the beauty of competition.

While I waited for a reply, the Army Corps began steps to undertake an Environmental Impact Statement on the project and I considered this another small ray of hope.

While I waited for a reply, I attended the Women’s March in Washington, DC. As I traveled back to Nebraska, I missed the news that eight states in our nation have proposed laws criminalizing peaceful protest.

While I waited for a reply, this in-depth magazine ran in the New York Times and filled in some gaps for me about the seminal role of Native youth in the birth of the movement at Standing Rock:

On February 13, with my funds still cozy in their Wells Fargo bed, but plans for transfer of those funds solidifying, I received a very long and detailed communication from Wells Fargo via email (my comments are enclosed in brackets):

Dakota Access Pipeline 

Thank you for your letter of concern regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline. We recognize and respect the differing opinions being expressed in this dispute, and we hope all parties involved will work together to reach a positive resolution.

Wells Fargo is one of 17 financial institutions involved in financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The loans we have provided represent less than five percent of the total for this project, and we are contractually obligated to fulfill our commitments under the credit agreement so long as the customer is meeting all of its terms and conditions.

[I have some homework to do here: withdrawing from the contract may be possible for Wells Fargo, and if it is, I imagine it carries a penalty. I’d like to know for sure what their options are. There may be a breakeven point where lost assets from customers would exceed such a penalty.]

As one of the financing institutions, we met with the customer shortly after the protests had begun and urged them to engage with the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters – through a third-party intermediary if necessary – in order to affect a more positive and productive outcome for all parties. We are also participating with other lenders in the hiring of independent human rights firm, Foley Hoag LLP, to advise the lenders to the project and to review issues related to the DAPL permitting process and consultation with the Standing Rock Sioux. We continue to monitor developments, including the decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to grant an easement for drilling near the tribal land.

[I am glad to know that Wells Fargo urged the company to engage constructively with the Standing Rock Sioux. However, I believe their description of Foley Hoag, LLP as an independent human rights firm is misleading. It is a corporate law firm that has practices that span the full gamut of litigation. They do offer counsel in the area of “corporate social responsibility” and seem to have a substantial number of attorneys working in this area, including advising clients on indigenous rights. Of course, in the brief time since I received their email, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed their position on the easement near tribal land.]

As an Equator Principles Financial Institution, Wells Fargo required this project to be evaluated by an independent consultant in order to assess compliance with the Equator Principles Environmental and Social Risk Management Framework. What we are learning from the ongoing dispute related to this project, however, is that despite the enhanced due diligence required by the Equator Principles, additional research may be needed for future projects to help us fully understand the perspectives of and risks to indigenous communities. As such, we have enhanced our own due diligence in sectors subject to our Environmental and Social Risk Management policy to include more focused research into whether or not indigenous communities are impacted and have been properly consulted.

[To be part of Equator Principles is to “adopt a risk management framework for determining, assessing and managing environmental and social risk in projects. It is primarily intended to provide a minimum standard for due diligence to support responsible risk decision-making.” (from the Equator Principles site). Wells Fargo doesn’t really need or certainly want more bad press after the public relations nightmare of setting up bogus bank accounts for customers. It is good that they are rethinking how to evaluate future projects involving indigenous people to avoid controversy. But this project lies before them now.]

Wells Fargo has been serving Native American customers and communities for more than 50 years, and today we provide capital and financial services to more than 200 tribal entities in 27 states, including tribal community development projects. We have completed dozens of Low Income Housing Tax Credit projects in nine states, sponsored Affordable Housing Plan subsidies for tribal housing projects, and provided more than $11 million in philanthropic support to hundreds of tribal nonprofit organizations nationwide in the last three years alone.

[How does one put such numbers in perspective? As invited, I checked the most recent Corporate Responsibility Report from 2015. Total philanthropic giving in 2015 was $665 million — if that is typical, in three years, this would amount to about $1.9 billion. The $11 million above over three years would represent about .06% of their philanthropic giving. The percentages get tiny when you have the kind of assets a corporation such as Wells Fargo has. Of course, $11 million dollars is not a bad thing; it is though a drop in a broad river of philanthropic dollars.]

As specified in our Statement on Human Rights, Wells Fargo recognizes that governments have the duty to protect human rights, and companies such as ours have a responsibility to respect human rights. To that end, we strive to respect human rights throughout our operations and our products and services, including consistent treatment among people, employee well-being and security, economic and social freedom, and environmental stewardship. We seek tangible ways to apply these principles through our actions and relationships with our team members, customers, suppliers and communities in which we do business.

[This guides Wells Fargo’s corporate operations and is laudable but it doesn’t really guide their investment strategy, and therefore isn’t helpful to my question.]

Wells Fargo is committed to the responsible development of all forms of energy, and while we maintain a large conventional energy portfolio, we are also a leader in the financing of renewable energy and clean technology. We have supported the evolution of energy markets toward cleaner forms of generation by investing more than $52 billion in environmentally sustainable businesses since 2012. In 2015, projects owned in whole or in part by Wells Fargo produced 10 percent of all solar photovoltaic and wind energy generated in the U.S.

[I appreciate their candor in revealing that they maintain a large conventional energy portfolio.]

Thank you again for reaching out to Wells Fargo. We are closely following the developments around the Dakota Access Pipeline, and we remain hopeful that the concerns associated with this project will be addressed without additional conflict and in a way that allows for a full understanding of all of the issues, perspectives, and facts related to the project.

[This is painfully insufficient at this point.]

If you would like more information about our support for the environment and communities, please review our 2015 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.

Sincerely,
Jon R. Campbell
Executive Vice President
Head of Government and Community Relations

In an investor statement to banks dated February 17, folks representing $653 billion in assets under management at the banks financing DAPL wrote to urge them to do everything in their power to consider a different course of action. It mirrored what I had done two months earlier. It seemed that I was in good company.

WE THE PEOPLE cared and were joining our voices.

Then, a flurry of Executive Orders from the White House — a reversal — and full riot gear donned to meet unarmed, sovereign people praying, and completing rituals consistent with their long struggle as they began to take down the Standing Rock camp under threat, an encampment erected on Treaty land that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 was illegally removed from control of the Sioux Nation. I’m ashamed of this action on the part of our government.

I learned about the atmosphere of the evacuation today thanks to a non-profit, independent news enterprise called Unicorn Riot that has been steadily and professionally documenting events at Standing Rock. Their on-going, months’ long coverage is illuminating and gives lengthy testament to the prayerful effort of the water protectors at the camp. Theirs is not sound-bite journalism, but careful (and frankly tedious) coverage, start to finish, of actions and reactions. They document under risk, as journalists have long done, serve as eyes, ears and fact checkers on the ground.

Today, I also found a thought-provoking analysis by Alex Steffen of the “carbon bubble” that helps me understand that continued investment in fossil fuels is just as fraught (and possibly more so) with economic problems as it is environmentally unsound and why that isn’t being shared broadly outside investment circles.

Will my impact on Standing Rock be greater or shrink if I become a former Wells Fargo customer? I have plenty of good options if I take my banking business elsewhere, but I will also surrender my voice as their customer. As I reflect on the statement recently sent by investors, it occurs to me that I have a role to play in giving credence to their claim that, “to date, consumers have closed bank accounts worth over $53 million and are threatening to pull another $2.3 billion.” I can make real their projections by closing my accounts. I can amplify their unified voice with my own smaller one.

Now the unpleasant but necessary work of saying goodbye to my personal banker of 20+ years and letting her know why. Letting go of what harms others is also empowering.

Just Getting Started

So much did not happen over the holidays. Did the holidays happen at all? I didn’t mean to let go of so many traditions at year’s end. At the turn of 2017, my post-election numbness grew. My knees buckled under the prospect of a new year so heavy I had to crouch to receive it.

Sure. Winter is always dark, thus the many festivals of light, from many lands and many faith traditions that cluster and, sadly in the U.S., compete for preeminence at a time when faith itself, no matter its form, begs us all to draw together around a collective fire to meet the impending darkness and cold.

This year felt darker. Darkness on steroids.

You’d think we’d have made the rounds to look at lights. We didn’t even hang our own. When my husband and I shared the holidays with our daughters, we managed to bake only the Russian teacakes because…well…butter and sugar (Russia deliciously infiltrating even our kitchen). Hours of holiday favorites on CD went unplayed and that meant they went unsung. We did not for instance hear strains of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” composed in 1962 by Gloria Shayne Baker and set to words by her husband Noël Regney, that have been covered as much as any carol and as a result are found on nearly every Christmas compilation:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see…
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite…

do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy…
A song, a song, high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea…

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
do you know what I know…
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring Him silver and gold…

Said the king to the people everywhere,
listen to what I say
Pray for peace, people everywhere!
listen to what I say
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light…

The lyrics read like a lullaby. The night wind addressing a lamb. A song high above the trees with a sea-sized voice. A call to prayers of peace. Goodness and light. For a time this winter, absent the cement of carols and most of the nourishing rituals of winter solstice (both religious and secular), nothing so poignant seemed present to me or even possible.

How I had needed the words and images in that carol from the 60’s.

Perhaps this is why the fine hairs on my neck rose when I read today that the couple who wrote the lyrics and music (with first names Noël and Gloria) wrote it in the midst of another dark time — the Cuban Missile Crisis — a juncture when the U.S. and, then, Soviet Union, were at loggerheads over the placement of nuclear missiles in Cuba, a nation that had only recently been overtaken by communism, a nation with which we have only recently restored relations (that long-awaited detente now seems to be under threat along with other gains more personal to me).

As I typed the lyrics of their song for this post, I was tempted to revise “Child” to lowercase to broaden the plea, but I can just as legitimately rethink the uppercase as elevating the importance of all children (and the innocence within each of us), rather than sanctifying the implied Christ child alone. And, without too much trouble, I can understand “silver and gold” to concretize ALL that a child needs to thrive (much of which does in fact require silver and gold). That mighty king becomes a symbol of power — in this well-known song, the shepherd boy is given rein to speak truth to power.

It seems like a lot to ask of a child. So, I’m determined to do at least that much.

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A young girl from Philly listens and learns beside a half million role models.

Why not go straight to the heart of our federal government?

When I learned that the Women’s March in Washington, DC would be held on my youngest daughter’s birthday, I called to ask if she would like THAT as her birthday present. She was disheartened by the outcome of her first presidential vote. She’d even changed her registration to the state where she attends college to help in a swing state, knowing red Nebraska was sure to go to the GOP candidate. Close as the march was to the start of a new semester, she thought hard and with some agony said no.

I set my sites to march for her if I could.

Fares for planes, trains, über, and subway were all required and highlighted my economic privilege as much as my determination to support the effort. A passable pink hat was in my closet from long gone skiing days. Friends had room for me in their lovely Capitol Hill home. I personalized a sign from Emily’s list with Sharpies and the names of well wishers who wanted to be there or to provide reassurance for me in the event of counter-marchers. Family and friends and coworkers, and the cast members from the Vagina Monologues began to fill the margins. I festooned it with favorite quotes and a signature cartoon from my husband. And the word “breathe”. While I stood on Independence Avenue in Washington DC, among strangers, I would read each name aloud. I had promised them I would notice everything and write when I returned. And keep writing.

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Friends and supporters were as near as my placard and I kept that side turned toward me during the march reminding myself of everyone there with me.

On the walk to Third and Independence, I watched clusters of people from the neighboring row houses emerge and join the stream of women, men, those who were gender-fluid, young, old, some in hijabs, some with dreadlocks, others gray-headed, buzz-cutted, Native people, Asians, families, gay, straight and bi-racial singles, couples, Latinos, African Americans, slender and heavy set, short and tall, monks in burgundy robes, others with walkers and wheel chairs and toddlers atop shoulders, strollers and snaking lines of hand-holding friends who didn’t want to get separated.

With some concern, I tracked a family who had clearly come to town for the inauguration — all sported ball caps with the president-elect’s slogan — furtively crossing the street. Not a boo, not a taunt from anyone. They must have been relieved, hopefully surprised.

With each block, the crowd grew more dense. And then, I heard it…a sound I’ve only ever heard when I was walking on UN-L’s campus during a Husker football game at the scoring of the first Home touchdown — the roar of a throng so large I felt my adrenalin spike. And we echoed it each time it erupted, passing it over our heads like the “wave”.

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Replace all the red with pink and multiply by 5 and you’ll have a rough idea.

For my money (and it was an investment for me) the Women’s March was a jubilant, exquisitely timed place to begin, not an errant and therefore ineffective end in itself as David Brooks and others have intimated about the millions who marched that day. I remain provoked and energized by the rest of what Brooks wrote the day after the march.

Maybe you had to be there or at one of the hundreds of other marches that day. (I was thrilled by news of the march in my own Lincoln, NE. I would have loved to be home and away at once that day.) Maybe you have to have dealt with the nonsense women have dealt with for generations. Maybe you have to trade cynicism for faith in something larger.

Much larger.

For me, the March was an epic chance to be surrounded and fortified by soulmates for the hard work to come, to see tears streaming down the face of the Latino woman to my right and the Muslim woman directly behind me whose arm had to be aching as she held her toddler daughter who remained content somehow. I like to think these women were feeling less alone and more hopeful in the face of fear as soul after soul rose to speak to their critical concerns. It was a time to see men supporting without overtaking, to wonder at the exquisite patience and non-violent action that such a throng can exhibit. A peaceful intensity permeated the event.* I’d never been part of such an enormous, patient and orderly tide.

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Most signs were upbeat. Once in the crowd, you were pretty much embedded. I later learned that those in front couldn’t even raise their arms. That would have scared me.

It was a time to marvel at the spontaneity and coherence in a tangle of placards left by so many with so much at stake — a living, growing museum tucked between the Washington Monument and the White House that I walked for over an hour — reading the pain, pleadings, hopes and resolve of the marchers while fortifying my own. It pained me to hear the array of placards, each carefully placed, described as littering. In fact, I noted the route was eerily clean as I made my way back to my friend’s house at dusk, retracing the route and making my way past the apparently brimful porta-potties I thankfully did not need.

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What I called the placard graveyard; all those signs left like flowers, to honor the day.

I simply don’t believe women have gone home now to settle into complacency. Story on story from the 4 million (and growing) on Pantsuit Nation tell me, where members open to one another about their daily battles, strategies, defeats and victories. Again and again, I see variation on the words, “I thought I was alone. I’m not.” and it’s corollary, “Don’t give up. I am with you.” When thousands of people respond, it keeps you strong. We are teaching each other day by day how to stand up, speak up and act locally in all the ways we can. We do need critiques like that of David Brooks, but we also need encouragement.

I’ve been busy, literally since the day I returned, when I joined the 5 dozen who brought hundreds of letters to the local office of our U. S. Senator Ben Sasse containing our concerns about ACA. A friend emboldened by her first-ever action at the local Women’s March joined me. We had to ascend in the elevator 10 at a time to his small office in Lincoln. Last week, I testified for the first time at our state legislature in opposition to a bill that seeks to divert public funds to private schools.

Now, I know how. Now, I know I can. Now, I can show others.

The hearing before the Education Committee of the legislature stretched nearly four hours by the time it was my turn. We were encouraged not to repeat what had already been offered. So, I delivered spontaneous remarks, not polished as I’d have liked, not the prepared remarks I brought and distributed.

For Valentine’s Day, I received red roses, a lovely card and this in the local paper:

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I stayed until the last testimony was offered, listening and learning, striving to listen with every cell as Evelyn Glennie, a percussionist, might urge us especially now to do — with ears and eyes and legs and arms and feet, especially feet. The larger than anticipated crowd at the Women’s March meant I was on foot for eight uninterrupted hours, during which, oddly, I never felt tired. I am just getting started.

How critical hearing and listening is after all we have been through in the past twelve months. How poorly equipped we seem to be to do either skillfully, compassionately or constructively. It will take all of us, regardless of our place on the political spectrum, using all our listening capacities — and developing ones that we don’t yet have.

The Women’s March instilled in me a belief that this was possible and essential.

Glennie believes, and I agree that all of us have “sound colors” unique to us and built upon all our experiences. Learning to “see” and “hear” and appreciate them in all their variation has never been more challenging. We tend to be drawn to people with similar sound colors — they reason like us and speak like us and choose as we do. And, those we are not drawn to are pressed upon us with filter bubbles we don’t even know are sorting us out from one another. I’m determined to learn how to listen longer and how to genuinely affirm and cultivate an ear for different sound colors.

I’ll talk soon about my specific trials with this and what I’m learning as I go.

*Despite all the media play that Madonna’s profanity got, it was truly the exception. And nobody really rallied behind those F-bombs of hers. Madonna, being Madonna.

Come Hell or High Water

When water rises in a flood, it happens so quickly there is little time to prepare. In a flash flood, the result can be devastating, fatal even. Only rarely does a flash flood provide something positive, as when years ago, a friend and neighbor, Dale Benham, pulled one of his canoes off the rack in his carport and literally paddled down Sunrise Road in Eastridge Neighborhood, bearing south, away from the elementary school in the rushing (and thankfully temporary) surfeit. How I would have relished a ride in a canoe of my own!

In a flood, all available personal resources have to be directed to bailing or sand bagging or moving to higher ground or rescue. Political events in recent weeks have surged over the banks of our collective conscience. I find myself paddling, bailing and moving to higher ground in alternation. Each time I think that I can “tack down” one of these events long enough to reflect and write, another torrent begins and I am pressed into service and support for those most endangered by the floodwaters. I have struggled to find ground solid enough on which to write.

As long as the waters continue to rush, I have decided to do what I did more than ten years ago when the roiling water of my 20-year marriage threatened to take me under. Then, I began work on my MFA and when I wrote, because of what I wrote, my adviser wondered back how on earth I was meeting the monthly deadlines of 25-page packets of creative and critical work. How was I? Up at 530 AM to write for two hours before I started to get the girls ready for school. Up until 1130 and reluctantly turning in when I wanted to keep reading the next thing offered by my advisor. My writing, I realized and told him then, had become the lifeboat, the means of safe passage that I and, by extension, my girls had clambered aboard and we weren’t getting out any time soon.

I’m climbing back in that boat today. I’m going to begin rowing at the point when I began to feel the waters rising in November, with my mailbox, now swaddled in a beautiful wrapper which announces HATE HAS NO HOME HERE, a graphic made available to me free of charge by the North Park Association in Chicago. You may have read today as I did that its message has gone viral and requests for the sign are being met all over the nation (and the world) a message which is now available in 32 languages (and counting). Turns out North Park has residents that speak over 40 languages. As coincidence would have it, my daughters’ high school alma mater had the same distinction here in Lincoln, NE.

Out of the mouths of babes — yes, this phrase was originated by a 4th grader whose parents have the wisdom not to reveal their child’s name to protect his/her privacy — what an extraordinary and admirable move on the part of those parents in an age where so many seem intent on getting their 15 minutes of fame and damn the torpedoes. Doubtless their child’s invention was part of a conversation I know many parents had with their children in November as a figure raw and rude and dark became the replacement for a president replete with compassion and grace and dignity.

Several things happened right away when I took this small action:

1.     I discovered that several workers at my local FedEx were delighted by the effort I was putting forth to make this custom sign to fit my mailbox. They were like kids at Christmas (well, it was nearly Christmas). Funny thing though, it was the first time I felt, ya know, a connection with my FedEx store, a place I often feel overcharged and frankly anonymous.

2.    It was a reply of sorts to a mail carrier who had begun a practice of rolling up my street with radio blaring broadcasts that spewed a lot of hateful nonsense loud enough to be heard from inside my house. It is winter. The windows are shut tight I assure you. I could have called and complained to the post office. Instead, my mailbox spoke out and you know, the radio volume in his vehicle went down so low I didn’t know when he’d arrived.

3.    As I unbolted and re-bolted the mailbox in its new cover, I realized that I hadn’t personally welcomed my new neighbor down the street who speaks in heavily accented English. Not only did I make and take baked goods and a hello, but I gave the new neighbor my husband’s and my names and our phone number just in case their family needed us. Needed us. I hadn’t thought like that in a long while. That’s not how our block used to be.

4.   I shared the results with some people I thought might be supportive and heard them say again and again that it was courageous to do this. That surprised me. One person said they would be afraid their mailbox would be blown up. Another said they had, “enough fears to deal with, without bringing on the wrath of someone who didn’t like immigrants”. Another said it would be neat to do it “for a month to show solidarity” but longer than that… That’s when they got that look a person has when their 4th grader is learning to play the cello.

When did expressing love for one’s fellow citizen (regardless of their mother tongue) become an act of courage? I think of my mailbox as a celebration. Today, a girl scout appeared at my door. I only buy cookies from flesh and blood girl scouts. I didn’t see the cookie I wanted most, the one called Thanks A Lot. It is my favorite partly because it is a lighter shortbread with a skim of chocolate icing. Most of all though, I favor it because the cookies are embossed with Thank you in many different languages. For some reason, it was buried under all the others. She quickly unburied it when I asked for it. As she completed her sale with me, including two boxes of Thanks A Lot, I asked if she had seen my mailbox. She hadn’t. But as she rolled down the driveway with her dad and little brother in tow, they were making a beeline for the mailbox.

My first stroke in this boat of mine was powered by love and each time I dip the oar with love, I surge forward. It is the measure by which every subsequent action I take will be weighed. It leaves me feeling clear about who I am — a U.S. citizen who refuses to let hate take up residence, who will respond as vigorously and thoughtfully as possible to every provocation to do otherwise.

Love is the lantern right now on the front of my boat as I pass through darkness.

Mni Wiconi! (Water is Life)

Having visited the Sandhills in Nebraska many times, having watched pronghorns glide over its fragile hills, watched ranchers meticulously transfer cattle herds to avoid damage to the pastures and, when those efforts fail, stanch any blowouts (bare spots) that arise using old tires or dead calves as band aids, I understood the toll a project like the Keystone XL pipeline would take on the land alone. The inland “ocean” that underlies that land is just as precious, not just to two-footed Nebraskans, but to creatures and vegetation far beyond the state line.

So, when the land that overlays the Ogallala Aquifer was tapped to carry the Keystone XL pipeline, I was one of those who gathered peacefully at our State Capitol to object.

Of course among us were Native Americans, praying for water that lay under grazing land they would never inhabit. In principle, Native Americans don’t believe land can be divided by the arbitrary fences and borders erected and/or proclaimed by the Europeans who overtook the continent — nor can the water that underlies our land. Both land and water depend on our stewardship, and deserve our reverence and thanks, as we depend on them to provide for us and the seven generations that follow.

In harmony with the principal of seven generations (codified in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace that is embraced by most Native American nations and was among the models considered by our founding fathers), all major decisions must take into account their impact 150-175 years in the future.

Given current life expectancy in the U.S., that isn’t as long as it seems — the span of a couple lifetimes actually sets seven generations in motion on our spinning home.

As a biologist, as a lifetime lover of the natural world, I know that what we do to one part of the web of life vibrates and changes everything that is attached to it — for better or for worse. Much as we try to behave as if we live independently, we are ALL ONE — all interconnected. And, what is convenient for some nearly always results in harm to the vast natural world that belongs to all of us (and to the many generations we hope will receive it after our responsible and sustainable care).

We don’t own the land — a Native American chief will tell you — the land owns us.

Perhaps this core belief has always put them at an extra disadvantage where treaties were concerned. Imagine how inconsistent it would be to argue for your land when you believe it rightfully belongs to all of creation! Imagine painfully too the cynicism of a government that would take advantage of earnest stewards who embraced such a foreign paradigm.

For years, I collected my grass clippings and leaves, composted them and incorporated that compost into my raised gardening beds. I produced a wonderful crop of vegetables each summer without any other amendment to the soil. All that I needed was already in the surrounding ecosystem. With some physical effort (which also had health benefits), I could keep my yard and garden world in balance.

This says nothing about the wonderful aroma of thoroughly composted leaves and grass, the feel of it in my hands, and the satisfaction of folding it into the hungry soil — working with the earth is a spiritual practice, no matter how small that part of the earth is.

Then, I got a teaching job. Out of town. Composting tumbled off my to-do list. And within a couple short years, my garden wasn’t producing at all like it had.

That fast. Next year, I will return to composting, apologies to my patch of the planet.

The elemental nature of food and our connection to it has sometimes been conceived as a form of protest — whether boycotting grapes or apples or a particular processor’s or retailer’s products. Sometimes protest takes the form of refusing nourishment altogether. In fact, the hunger strike has served quite a few notable difference-makers as a graphic, self-sacrificial means of calling out injustice. Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind, and such suffragists as Marion Wallace Dunlop and Alice Paul.

Water is another matter. In a scant few days without water, a human life is extinguished.

Humans have good reason to be protective of their water. Humans have good reason to expect their fellow humans to respect and protect others’ water just as they would protect their own. Humans have good reason to be outraged when their water is threatened.

Consider the tragedy of the many children in Flint, MI, my mother’s birthplace.

Consider the plight of those exploited by Coyotes at our southern border.

Consider the altered  fishing/hunting grounds of more than a few Native Americans.

Consider Standing Rock.

As I did with Keystone XL (and will as long and often as needed) I have participated in public action at the State Capitol on behalf of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. I have sent them a heavy duty battery to help generate needed power there through the winter. And I will continue to write with regularity about the validity and the critical importance of their position to my state and federal representatives, as I did when I joined 29,000 Nebraskans who called for the withdrawal of our State Patrol officers from Standing Rock.

I imagine it is unbelievable to most of the immigrants who look on (and the generations they have borne), that these souls would establish and maintain an encampment for months, through every imaginable weather against an opponent like big oil and spend their time praying. For a river. We are not used to seeing this sort of spiritual courage and resolve in our culture. The Water Protectors gather to pray, because they belong to the land, because seven generations are at stake, because water is life. They gather under harsh circumstances because they are not the largely white residents of Bismarck, North Dakota who deflected the pipeline with ease when it endangered their water supply.

Not until hundreds of veterans traveled to Standing Rock did the Army Corps of Engineers announce that they would explore alternate sites for the pipeline. Knowing how revered the warrior is in Native American culture — as a protector, not a destroyer, I was moved by the promise of these veterans from all over the country. Knowing how often our military might was used to subdue Native Americans, I was moved by the sublime irony of their traveling to Standing Rock to protect them from harm. Of course many of them have served in our armed forces side by side with Native Americans. It seemed like a kind of healing, both for veterans and for the Water Protectors who were being brutalized in ways I hadn’t seen except in disturbing videos of the Civil Rights Movement.

It was not lost on me that members of each of these groups of people are more than seven generations removed from the destructive collision of their forebears. It is sobering to consider what our forebears’ choices have wrought.

As of this post, over 10,000 people in under three weeks have donated more than $340,000 to Standing Rock to help them purchase a flatbed truck and other means to enable their safe wintering over. They were hoping for $200,ooo and though the running total is displayed continuously, givers keep coming, a list of donors packed with European surnames almost half of which I can associate with people I’ve known (or known of).

They come from good Irish stock with names like McCracken, McCrory, McIntosh and McCall; they have German roots too like Steinhauer, Schwarz, Kooser and Krueger; the Italians are antee-ing up from the houses of Marcellini, Copolla, Carlucci and Cipriani; the British are present and counted led by  Bennett, Fuller, Spaulding and Hill. There are Poles and Slavs and Vietnamese to name but a few more. The list of donors reads like a global roll call. I stopped recording them in a spreadsheet after 285 international surnames — each unique, all of whom call the U.S. home.

It feels to me a little like those veterans showing up. Another wave.

Do you hear the ambassadors of the seven generations? Notice. Care. Act.

Hope is the Thing

Domenic Stansberry (an author of noir fiction) once told a group of us gathered at Vermont College of Fine Arts that he found constraint an engine for creativity. Accustomed as we were to provocative lectures, we wondered if Stansberry had finally jumped the tracks. Every screwy writing prompt we’d ever failed to find traction with sprang to mind.

We are used to thinking of limits as…well…limiting.

Yet, over and over, I have found his supposition to be true. I suppose it is a variation on “necessity is the master of invention”. When we are forced (constrained), we focus in a particular direction, in a specific way; we think of things we wouldn’t normally think of. There is an unexpected clarity that arises under limits. In some sense, we can’t afford not to come up with something that works. Sometimes, when we apply it with intention, not just expediency, all that pressure results in — diamonds.

Meanwhile, one of my young students asked me an interesting question: Is it horrible to consider writing a poem that is made up of only one-syllable words? Never one to turn from a challenge, I offered to produce a serviceable poem that fit that description. I considered it a worthwhile (and possibly instructive) endeavor thanks to Stansberry.

As I wrestled with it, I made discoveries and shared my findings with all my students in the form of a quiz on poetics. Now, I hadn’t really thought of preparing a quiz on poetics and if I had, I’m certain it would have taken considerable time, and been a tried and true and hardly stimulating effort for them. Instead, sparks flew from my students as they attacked serial versions of my evolving poem comprised of one-syllable words. Their task was to write a poetic (literally!) justification for the changes I made in each version.

I began with the phrasing (and spirit) of a famous poem by Emily Dickinson. My title hints that this is something of an antidote to my feelings about the recent election.

This Too is a Kind of Vote / Christine Starr Davis

                    after Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with wings
                that soars and will not rest
                just as gusts of wind do in spring, just as rain slakes the fields
                              (at least rain used to hail spring)
Hope clings to the limb of loss, and will not let loose
               the trunk of grief, until each branch holds out its hand, palm up
              with a gift: ripe plum, green leaf, the hum of those gusts in the crown
The bird that is hope builds a nest all sticks and mud
             that will last, and lines it soft, with lint and down.

I have been thinking about pressure and constraint continuously since November 8. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and oppositional, a state of mind that consumes fuel like the wildfires that have raged in western North Carolina and Tennessee of late. I have several pieces in the works that explore why I am starting to think that all this pressure looming, if we embrace it, can forge something beautiful, even something restorative as hope.

Stay tuned.