Say No by Saying Yes

Sunday is a day for reading poetry.  No?  Not in your case?  Ah well, it is in mine.  I read a poem called “Look Out” a couple Sundays ago by Wendell Berry and there’s a line from it that’s still reverberating.   I will spare you the entire poem but this is the last stanza…

Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

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On Sundays we attempt to observe a day of rest.  A chance to regroup and get our bearings.   Jason and I have been doing this for over 13 years now and it’s taken on different configurations throughout our life together.  When we were newlyweds living in our tiny apartment on Cacique Street in Santa Barbara, we would turn our clocks around and light a bunch of candles (easy to accomplish when we lived in a one-room place with two clocks and no kids).  Nowadays it involves the boys, just one candle and we focus on resting as a fam without the distractions of work and screens and school.

It’s hard for all of us.  Every week.  The boys know that Sundays = no screens and they bemoan the loss of Woody the Woodpecker, Oscar’s Oasis and Fruit Ninja.  Jason and I likewise skip screen time which means no work, no Facebook, no I’m-bored-got-5-minutes-to-kill Pinterest perusing.

I wish I could say that it’s easy to rest and stop working and writing and internetting.   I wish that I didn’t have to fight the urge to check my phone all the live long day, eager for the dopamine rush that comes when I see a new message or alert.  But it’s hard to quiet the pull and the allure of social media, the constant connectedness and instant distraction when it’s what I feed myself all week long.  It’s like constantly eating junk food and then quitting cold turkey with a crude crash diet.  But this is where the Wendell Berry poem  and that one pesky line that keeps bubbling to the surface of my mind come into play.

Say no by saying yes

Instead of lamenting all that I imagine I am giving up when I say no to screens and work and the go go go of the rest of the week, I can focus instead on what I gain by saying yes.  It’s easier to say no to Twitter when it means saying yes to a walk along the Sound with my family on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s easier to say no to email and Facebook and that vague sense of connection when it means saying yes to a good conversation with Jason or the genuine connection found in breaking bread with friends.   When I think about what I’m saying yes to, it’s a lot easier to say no without the usual feelings of frustration or the illusion of loss.

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It’s pouring over into other places in my life as well.  What am I saying yes to with my work, my family, my writing, my friends, my kids, my community?  And to what do I need to say no in order that I might say yes?   It goes hand in hand with what I shared a few weeks ago about not wanting to succeed at the things in life that don’t really matter.   I want to embrace the things in life that do matter and release my tightly clenched fist on all the rest.

I want to say YES

I want to say yes to people.  I want to say yes to uninterrupted, all-in time with Isaiah during our lunch hour together.  That means I have to say no to putting my phone out on the counter while we’re eating. I want to say yes to hearing about Gryffin’s day at school so I have to say no to work and the lure of my laptop after 3:45pm.  I want to say yes to phone calls with my sister, Facetime with my folks, leading our community group, connecting with neighbors and having time with Jason in the evenings.  That might mean saying no to Words with Friends or House of Cards or my oft-sought, much-cherished alone time.

I want to say yes to reading.  That means that after the boys are in bed I have to say no to squeezing in one more load of laundry, no to the quick-scan-that-turns-into-40-minutes of Facebook, no to researching various medical maladies on webMD so that I can say yes to poetry, yes to stories and novels and thought-provoking essays, articles and non-fiction.

I want to say yes to beauty and expansiveness and being outdoors, even though that means I must sometimes say no to holing up again at home.  I want to say yes to camping and hiking and swimming and throwing rocks into Lake Washington; yes to “the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”*

I want to say yes to good health even though it sadly means saying no to my beloved, admittedly gargantuan vat bowl of ice cream after dinner.  I want to say no to laziness and fatigue by saying yes to a workout or a walk after dinner.

I want to say no to being cool and aloof and mysterious by saying yes to vulnerability, warmth, and kindness.

I want to say no to fear and smallness and despair by saying yes to courage and openness and hope.

I want to say no by saying yes.

Yes, yes, yes.

 

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*from another Wendell Berry poem

 

 

Theology of Bad Things

A couple days ago Isaiah looked up from his lunch and said,

Mama, sometimes God does bad things to me.”

We hadn’t been talking about God or church or anything of the sort so I was caught off guard.   I stalled for a second, saying, “Ummm, what?

He gazed at me over his grilled cheese and said it again,

Sometimes God does bad things to me.”

Yeah?”  I said.  “Tell me more.

Well,…” he went on.  “Like… sometimes I have bad dreams.  Or he makes me fall down.  Or I’m sad.  Why does he do bad things to me?

I just stared back at him blankly for a beat.  I could feel the wheels in my brain start rolling, spinning fast through years and years of murky theology and unprocessed, unanswered questions.

What about the bad things?

When I was younger I was a card-carrying member of the “everything happens for a reason” club.  I added some Christian nuance, of course.  Everything happens for a reason because God ordains that it should be so.  And the pithy platitude covered pretty much everything.  Never fear!  God has a plan.

Your aunt had an alcohol withdrawal seizure sitting across from you in the kitchen?  It’s ok!  God has a plan.  God must have wanted you to learn something from all that frantic running up and down the street in your vain search for help.

You lost your central vision and spent six weeks of your senior year hoping that your retinas would heal from the bizarre blindness-inducing virus and that you’d be on the right side of the 2/3 chance the doctors gave you?  It’s ok!  God’s totally got this.  Maybe God wants you to learn something really important from one of those books-on-tape that your grandma picked up for you from the library.  You wouldn’t listen to them otherwise so you had to go blind and drop out of school.  It happened for a reason!

Bad things are ok because they are part of God’s grand plan.  You will learn something important or find yourself the recipient of some unexpected blessing.  You will end up on a path that you would have otherwise avoided and it’s there that you will meet your husband or land the job or find the perfect apartment.  It was awful but at least it happened for a reason.

It’s when you can’t see the meaning or glean the lesson or find the hidden blessing that the flaws in the theory first start to make themselves known.  And what then?  If it’s not part of God’s plan or some elaborate scheme for your ultimate betterment, what do you make of it?  Believing that everything happens for a reason because God ordains it is erroneous theology but it’s particularly prickly because without it, all the suffering and the pain and the bad things feel meaningless.   Without it, there is no grand plan and no important lesson and quite possibly no reason or meaning to our suffering at all; which brings us back to the age old question, asked this time by a 4-year-old: Why Do Bad Things Happen?

I don’t know.

We’re in Santa Barbara this week and yesterday I sat on a windy beach watching Jason talk with an old friend of ours.  He was teaching Jason how to kiteboard and as I observed the two of them standing there on the sand, flying the kite, I thought about their stories.  Our friend’s teenaged son died ten years ago on Jason’s birthday.  Jason’s dad died of AIDS when he was only 8.   A grown boy without his dad and a dad without his boy.  When I thought of it, I had to turn away.

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Did those things happen for a reason?  Was there some bigger scheme?  Did Jason grow up without his dad so that God could teach him something important?  Does our friend have to be alive without his son so that God could offer him some particular blessing that could not have otherwise been bestowed?  I don’t think so.  I think both deaths involved a horrifying, searing, pull your hair out screaming sort of pain that will perhaps always be devoid of “meaning.”

Here’s what I do know and this is what I told Isaiah:

God is love

God is love.   Something that is, at its very essence, love, cannot abide death and fear and sadness and pain.  God, who is love, would never give you a nightmare or make you fall down.  It would go against God’s very nature.

God is near

You will fall down and you will have nightmares.  People die and get sick and do horrible things to one another.  This is without a doubt.  I don’t know why these things happen but they do and they will.   Yet even so, God is near.  God is with us always.  God will not be absent in midst of our fear or our pain or our unbearable suffering.

Might good things happen after or even in the midst of our suffering?  Absolutely.  Sitting on the beach yesterday looking out at the endless ocean while those two men worked with the kite was evidence of that.  Might we learn things we would not have learned had the suffering not occurred?  Maybe yes, maybe no.   Either way, God doesn’t cause our suffering or our bad dreams or our fear. But when those things do happen, as they inevitably will, the God who is love does draw near and will one day make all things new.  There might not be a reason or sufficient explanation for our suffering  but there is reason for hope in the face of it and nowadays that’s good enough for me.

Novels & Other Stories

A few years ago Jason and I sat down and attempted to hash out what it means to be a Rust.  What does it mean to be part of our family?   If everything is important, then nothing is important, so we decided to narrow it down to 5 core values for our family of four.  One of them is story-telling and it breaks into 3 parts…

 

Telling the Family Stories

We want to know our family history.  We want Isaiah and Gryffin to have a strong sense of where they come from and who came before them.  This means exploring our own lineage and re-telling the same family stories again and again, year after year.  And not just the good stories with happy outcomes but the more nefarious ones, too.    In an op-ed piece featured in The Christian Science Monitor in June of this year, Jim Sollisch writes about story-telling and kids, saying,

“The more you know about your family’s story, the more you feel a part of something bigger. You see yourself as a character in an ongoing saga, a narrative of successes and failures, of striving – because that’s the story of every family, really…So the next time your children ask for a story, you don’t have to conjure up faraway kingdoms and alien creatures. Tell them about the time you hit the game-winning shot. Tell them about their grandfather, who lived in America for 40 years without ever learning English. Tell them about their grandmother who, when her husband died, talked her way into his job as a traveling auto parts salesman back in 1944. That’s a story my mother told my brother and me, a story that reminded us we come from a family that doesn’t take no for an answer.”

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Learning & Telling the Stories of Others

This means that we need to seek out the stories of other people. We need to read good books and be good listeners, ask good questions and try new foods.  We need to listen to new music and learn how to tell the stories of those who might not be able to tell their own.

Living a Good Story

We want our lives to be stories worth telling.  This one is a bit abstract, I know, and difficult to explain to the boys at this stage but so many things align here.  At this point it’s still pretty basic.  Recently we’ve been talking about dishonesty, for example.   We’ve been explaining to the boys what it means to tell a lie and how it might affect the story of their lives.  Jason told them that telling a lie usually feels yucky, like stinky cheese inside of you.  Nobody likes to smell stinky cheese.

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This week I’ve been focusing on the second component.  I was asked to compile a list of novels for our church’s Faith & Race resource page and I really enjoyed the task.   Books, novels in particular, are such a great way to learn the stories of other people. Keith Oatley, a professor in the department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, says that stories create space for empathy.  When we connect with the characters we begin to identify with their struggle and share their frustrations with the societal problems that plague them.   He believes that fictional stories can more readily tap into our emotions and have a greater impact than nonfiction (though he himself writes novels so he might be biased!).  Anyhow, here are a few that I came up with for the Faith & Race resource page.  I tried to pick stories that explore issues of race and ethnicity that were also particularly well-written and insightful.

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.The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor
Americanah by  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Zeale Hurston
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
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I’ve also been thinking about this with regard to our kids lately.  Gryffin is reading more and more these days and it’s so tempting to just to grab the first 3 books off the shelf at the library and call it a day.  But we want to be intentional about which books he’s reading and which stories he’s absorbing.  As a white male, there will never be a dearth of books to chose from that are telling his story.   We have to make a concerted effort to find books that are telling stories other than his own.  I have a feeling this will be an ongoing effort.
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What books would you add to my list?  Got any recommendations for kids?

Lessons from Glinda the Good Witch

Yesterday I read something on Facebook that was not about me.  Shocker, I know.  How could it be!?   Seriously, though, it had NOTHING to do with me but still it found a fissure in some obscure strata of my heart and wormed its way in.   It found a weak spot; an unexplored space and I felt suddenly bound to it; unable to disentangle myself.

I’m not sure I can adequately explain what caused it but I can explain how it made me feel.   I felt like I was on the outside looking in through the glass at the cool kids.  I felt uninteresting.  Unpopular.  UN.  I felt un-.  As a writer and by extension as a person.

I was sort of surprised by my feelings.  I have insecurities like anybody else but mostly I think they’re in check.  They bubble to the surface from time to time but I usually think of my emotional health and sense of “self-worth” as good to go.  I’ve been through some arduous counseling and spent years working on being “ok being me.”

After wrestling with it for most of the day, I turned to poetry.  Of course.  Doesn’t everybody?   I googled “poems about feeling lame” and other awesomely depressing search terms but didn’t find much so I tried writing my own.

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admiration un-bequeathed
perceived grandeur brought low

again
comparison-wrought
contempt and
illusions of scarcity

unseen
i am
insignificant
small

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After listening to that Seth Godin podcast and reading his book, Jason and I declared 2015 to be the year for risking failure.  We both find ourselves at a crossroads professionally and we want to dare greatly, both personally and professionally.  Doesn’t that sound grand?  It’s all so inspiring and “chase your bliss” and whatever, right?  It is until you actually fail.  Which, as a writer, I’m discovering happens a LOT.

Anne Lamott says that,

.“…if something inside of you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal.  So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work.  Write straight into the emotional center of things.  Write toward vulnerability.  Risk being unliked.  Tell the truth as you understand it.  If you’re a writer you have a moral obligation to do this.  And it is a revolutionary act –truth is always subversive.”

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This has been my mantra for more than a year now as a writer but, interestingly enough, it isn’t actually all that fun!  It turns out being vulnerable and unliked aren’t at the top of my “favorite things” list.  I’ve been trying to figure out if I need a thicker skin or if this feeling of discomfort just goes with the territory.  Either way, I spent some time last night meditating on a word art meditation I made a couple months ago.

When threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch responds by saying, “You have no power here!  Begone!”  One of the speakers mentioned it at the Oprah event last Fall and I worked on a rendering of it afterwards.

 

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Brené Brown carries a piece of paper in her wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of her matter.  I think I might make my own list tonight lest the feelings that surfaced yesterday start to fester; lest I start to mistake the projected opinions of people utterly unconnected to me for the ones that actually matter.  And to scarcity, comparison and insignificance, I say with Glinda, you have no power here.

What the Church Can Learn from the YMCA

Last week I was a little under the weather so when my husband and kids took off after church for a hike, I headed to the Y.  It’s only a two minute drive from our house and we’ve been members for nearly 5 years now.   I initially looked at several gyms in our neighborhood but ultimately settled on the Y for the cost and the included-in-your-membership childcare while you workout.  I used to take the boys every afternoon after their naps so that I could workout SIT IN THE HOT TUB.

 

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My days of desperate-for-a-break-even-if-it-means-working-out are a thing of the past but now that I actually do workout (wonders never cease, people), I’m still at the Y several days a week.   Last week as I sat in the hot tub in introverted bliss, watching folks come and go, I had the sensation of being in a thin space. According to Celtic tradition, a thin place is when Heaven & Earth feel particularly close together.  Or, as Eric Weiner put it in his New York Times travel article a couple years ago, it’s…

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…where the distance between heaven and earth collapses
and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent.

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The YMCA seems a strange place to behold the holiness of God, I know, but this is what I noticed while I was sitting quietly with the water swirling around my feet:  I heard Mandarin, Spanish, Korean and what I think was Amharic.   I heard English, too, of course, and for a brief moment, English with a heavy Nigerian accent.  I saw brown skin and black skin, tan skin, white skin, splotchy skin and smooth skin.

I saw a young girl and her mama soaking together in the hot tub; the mom still fully clothed & her head wrapped.  I saw heavily tatoo-ed 20-somethings heading for the steam room.  I saw three women, probably in their 70s, with drooping skin and sagging suits, laughing uproariously on the benches near the shallow end of the pool.  I saw fat people, skinny people, tall people, short people.  I even saw an old man in his underwear!  Not sure what was going on there!

I saw a middle-aged guy limp in slowly and finally sink down into the hot tub.  I saw two women walking arm in arm, one obviously leading the other who could not see, to the sauna.   I saw two of the lifeguards re-positioning and working with tools on the lift that lowers those who are wheel-chair bound down into pool if they are unable to get in on their own.  There was a man sitting beside me at who talked to himself at length.

I was there for about an hour and as I sensed the nearness of God in that space, it occurred to me what I was seeing:

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I was seeing the Kingdom of God.

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I was seeing a diversity of age and gender, race and ethnicity, ability and culture that I have never seen in any other place at one time.  I was seeing what the Church is supposed to look like.  I was seeing Revelation 7:9 in living color.

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As I eventually made my way back to the locker room, I marveled at it.  It wasn’t a unique day at the Y.  On the contrary, this sort of diversity is always on full display there.  But what makes it possible?  How has the West Seattle YMCA managed to do what the Church often only dreams of doing?  What makes my local Y successful at living into the image of the Kingdom of God when so many churches fail to come even close?

When a person walks into the foyer of a church, what do they do?  They usually try to get a peek inside the sanctuary before they commit to walking all the way in, right?  They want to see who’s in there first!   They want to see what sort of story the church is telling.  Who’s standing up front?  Who’s leading the singing?  What kinds of songs are they singing?  What does the pastor look like?  What sorts of people are sitting in the pews?  In essence, the first question the visitor in the foyer is asking is this:

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“Are you telling my story here?”

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Am I going to belong?  Will I feel out of place?  Will I stick out like a sore thumb?  Will the sermon and the singing resonate with me in some way?  Will I be comfortable showing these people who I am?

When the bleeding woman touched the cloak of Jesus; when the woman at the well heard about the living water; when Zacchaeus looked down in surprise from the sycamore tree, each was struck with the realization that Jesus was telling their story.  Jesus saw them.  Really, truly saw them and insisted on telling their diverse and otherwise untold stories when nobody else would even consider it.

Is it mere chance that the Y in our neighborhood is able to draw in such a vast conglomeration of people?  No, it’s not magic and it’s not coincidence.  It stems directly from the story that the West Seattle YMCA is telling. They have made a concerted and intentional effort to tell diverse and often untold stories.  When I walked in last week, a Black woman greeted me and helped me sign my boys up for Kids In Motion, a transgendered person took my card and exchanged it for a locker key, and the signs that greeted me throughout the facility showed an eclectic mix of families and races and abilities.  Scholarships are readily and openly available and when I left, a woman with a mental handicap swapped my locker key back for my Y card and told me to have a nice day.   At any given time on any given day, I think almost anybody could walk into that Y and see themselves represented in some way.

Churches likewise have to make an effort.  It’s not going to happen just by hoping or even by praying for more diversity.  We have to work at it and not because we want to be hip or edgy.  We don’t seek diversity because it’s a buzz word or because it’s politically correct.  We work hard at diversity because we want to live out the vision of shalom that we’re given in the book of Revelation; the vision of the world as God intended it to be; where every conceivable nation, tribe, person, color, and language are represented.    We do it so that we can be like Jesus. We do it so that people can walk into our foyers, peek inside our sanctuaries, and see that yes!  -like the bleeding woman and Zacchaeus and the woman at the well-  their story is indeed being told.

Funky Town & Seth Godin

I’ve been in a funk lately.  Jason clued me in to a PRI podcast that was featuring the life of writers a couple weeks ago.  He thought it would be encouraging as I continue to plug away here on the blog and on the book.  Such a supportive husband, that one.    So I eagerly tuned in that evening, ready to fill up my cup of inspiration but instead of lifting my spirits it sent me spiraling into all sorts of navel-gazing angst and I haven’t written in a word in two weeks.  Brother.  Here’s the gist of what I heard…

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  1. Getting a book published these days is practically impossible.  If you are going to have a fighting chance, you need to come to the negotiation table (there’s a table?!) with a sizable online community in the form of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, insert other types of social media “connectedness.”
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  2. If you can’t get published, never fear!  There’s another fantastic option these days: self-publishing.  The only thing you need to make that happen is a sizable online community in the form of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, insert other types of social media “connectedness.”

So…it’s not enough just to write?  I can’t just to do my thing and assume the rest will fall into place?  Shooooot.

It made me feel sort of panicky.  I don’t have a “sizable online community!”  What should I do?!  I spent a few days thinking about my blog and my twittering and my Facebook page and wondering how I might improve myself in those areas.  I kept trying to come up with some sort of game plan for improving my online presence, upping the ante here on the blog and working on better hashtags.  Then I read this quote that I had pinned about two years ago and forgotten about (I’ve had time recently to peruse all my Pinterest boards and the entire internet, really, because of the NOT WRITING).  It’s by Francis Chan and when I read it I suddenly felt like everything went still:

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“Our greatest fear should not be of failure,
but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

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I understand that the podcast earlier this month was trying to paint a realistic picture of the world of writers today.  And I definitely understand a few more things about publishing now than I did before.  But I’m not convinced that it ultimately pointed me in the right direction.  I don’t think I’m going to spend a lot of energy on tweets and hashtags.  I’m not going to worry about how many likes I have on my Facebook page.  Well, I’ll try not to.   I would be thrilled if those things took off and brought me more readership but I think I better just keep writing.

I think I’ll re-listen to this podcast instead featuring Seth Godin.  I listened to it about a month ago and it lead me to his book The Icarus Deception.  He is flipping everything around for me with regard to art and creating and writing.  Check it out.  I’d really enjoy hearing what the rest of you think.

 

 

 

 

The Power of Socializing

Friends, do you remember last Summer when we talked about socializing and Darren Wilson and what might have motivated him to shoot an unarmed Black kid?   Here’s the paragraph I wrote in the post last August

 

Was Darren Wilson thinking, “oh, look, a black kid… my white skin is superior to his black skin so I’m going to gun him down?”  I don’t know.  I highly doubt it.  It’s seems more likely that he, like you and like me, like white folks and brown folks and black folks, had been socialized in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways to see black men as criminals.  To see white skin as normal and safe and dark skin as dangerous, unknown and scary.  I know I have been socialized to think that way.   And it takes time and concerted effort to change the way that one has been socialized.

 

I read an article today on the New York Times website about domestic violence and the image they used is a perfect example of this sort of socializing.  Check it out:

 

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The article is about a connection found between mass shootings and domestic violence.   The piece itself is enlightening and perfectly interesting but I was distracted by the image they chose to illustrate it.  Here’s what I see:

  1. A woman in distress.
    She is white. 
  2. A man coercing her.  Strangling her.  Pinning her arm.  Taking her by force.
    He is black.

It could be argued that the woman’s gray arms and the mildly Asian connotations of her facial features could indicate that she is all races at once; that she is every woman. But the overall effect is that her skin is light and it’s hard to argue that the man is anything but black.

Even if we throw the artist a bone and give him the benefit of the doubt (maybe the perpetrator was supposed to symbolize the darkness of domestic violence?) the effect is still the same and this is what it tells us:

 

White = Innocent & Good
Black = Violent, Scary, Bad

 

That is what the image is selling and that is what we are buying.

Come on, it’s just one image, we might argue!  What’s the big deal?   It’s true; this is just one image.  But if we look around, we’ll see many other places where this narrative is playing out.  It’s everywhere.  We have been compounding and retelling this story in every conceivable way for generations and the New York Times image is but a minuscule top-off in an already over-brimming tank.  And that is why “non-racist” White people keep managing to kill Black people.  Why wouldn’t they?  It’s part of the script.

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 Other posts on Race

Feeling Your Skin
Can I Get An Amen… from the Awkward White Lady?
A Song Of Lament
Fury in Ferguson

The (Not So) Subtle Racism of The Gilmore Girls

Ok, don’t freak out.  I like the Gilmore Girls as much as the next 30-something White woman.  Promise.  I like Lorelai and Rory and life in Stars Hollow.  I kinda want to live there myself.  You know, eat at Luke’s diner and attend the loveably wacky town meetings; gossip about the will-they/won’t-they of Luke and Lorelai, shop at Doose’s, maybe even have Paris yell at me.

I started watching the show a couple months ago and I watch it whenever I’m at the Y (you know, ’cause I work out now).  I had never seen it so when the entire series was released on Netflix, I thought it would make the perfect companion for me and the rowing machine.   And I fell hard for those Gilmore Girls right from the start.  Small town life, quirky characters, romance, innocence and entirely surmountable conflict.  It practically made me wish I  had gotten knocked up at 16 if it meant I’d have the life and verbal skills of Lorelai Gilmore.

 

gilmoregirls

 

Admittedly I’m only 2 seasons deep at this point but the portrayals of people of color on the show, scanty though they may be, are getting harder and harder for me to overlook as I get swept away in the small town politics and social life of Stars Hollow.   I wouldn’t have noticed it 15 years ago and I’m guessing a lot of you are scratching your heads and racking your brains, trying to remember if there was some sort of lynching or cross-burning on the WB that you missed.

But that’s not what racism looks like these days.  Well, not often, anyway.  Racism nowadays is different.  It’s more subtle.  In some ways I think racism might be even more insidious now than it was 60 years ago because it’s gone underground.  It’s invisible to the dominant culture, enabling us to sit back with our excellent healthcare, our smart kids, and countless other benefits of Whiteness, all the while patting ourselves on the back for allowing a Black man into the oval office.

I think most of us mean well.  I really do.  We might not see what all the fuss is about but we’re certainly not out to hurt anybody.  So circling back to the Gilmore Girls, I’d like to gently point out some of the things that I find problematic with the show’s cast of characters as I’m guessing that they, too, might be invisible to the casual White observer.

A quick review of the characters in question…

Michel

michelThis is the show’s only Black character, as of Season 2.  He is the concierge at the Inn where Lorelei works and his character is an uptight, high maintenance, rude, feminine but hetero, irritable snob.  He speaks with an exaggerated French accent and his short scenes presumably provide a comic counterpoint to the other characters’ main plot lines.

Mrs. Kim & Lane

mrskimKorean-American mother and daughter.   Lane, 16, is best friend to Rory Gilmore.  She is the stereotypical 2nd generation kid who just wants to “be normal,” like Rory. Her mother, Mrs. Kim, is an uber conservative Christian (Adventist?) who forbids Lane to listen to music, talk to boys, or eat anything but her hyper-healthy offerings.  She is insanely strict.  She speaks with a heavy accent and comes across as harsh and clueless at the same time.

And…

Oh wait, that’s it.  There aren’t any others.  Well, there was the mechanic who checked out the car Dean built for Rory.  She was what you might call racially ambiguous (Latina, maybe?) but she, too, spoke with a heavy accent.  Her english made her sound dumb although she was obviously intelligent enough to be the one checking out a car built from scratch.  But that was a 60-second scene, tops, so we’ll keep our focus on Michel and Mrs. Kim/Lane.

They aren’t characters

The problem with those characters is that they aren’t characters.  They’re caricatures.

A caricature is “an imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”

Mrs. Kim is so over-the-top, so insane, so intense.  Her character is indeed a grotesque exaggeration of a stereotypical Asian immigrant parent.  Michel, likewise, is also entirely outlandish.  He is so petty, so snobbish, so rude.  Both characters are at once unbelievable and entirely one-dimensional.

There are other characters on the show that are largely one-dimensional as well.  Ms. Patty, the flamboyant dance teacher, for example.  Or Babette the cat lady who lives in that weird low-ceiling-ed house with her strange husband. But see, the difference is that those characters are portrayed as charming.  A little out there, maybe, but overall lovable and endearing.  Not so with Michel and Mrs. Kim.  They aren’t remotely like-able, either one.  But we aren’t meant to like them.  We’re meant to loathe them.  They are portrayed as less real and therefore less relatable.  Less human.

Lane is like-able but only because she wants to be like Rory and any other “normal American teenager.”  We root for her and pray she can pull a fast one on her mom because she wants to be like us!   She wants to ditch the Korean doctor set ups and listen to rock & roll and kiss boys.  Her Korean-ness isn’t to be celebrated or even explored.  It’s to be escaped.

The Repetition Principle

In the case of the Gilmore Girls it could be argued that this was all mere coincidence.  And that may well be.   But the reason it’s problematic is because it’s something that has been repeated regularly on TV and in the movies for decades.  Screenwriters and marketers are our modern day story-tellers and the story of Michel & Mrs. Kim is one that is repeated again and again and again.

Repetition Principle tells us that if something happens often enough, we will eventually be persuaded.   If we are shown a particular depiction of something often enough, we will eventually be persuaded to believe what we see.   No one is immune to this.  So if we allow these grotesque exaggerations to go unchecked, if we continue to puff up these portrayals of characters we love to hate, if we continue to tell these un-true stories about certain people, we will eventually be persuaded to believe them — when maybe all we really wanted was something entertaining to distract us on the treadmill.

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Other posts on Race

Feeling Your Skin
Can I Get An Amen… from the Awkward White Lady?
A Song Of Lament
Fury in Ferguson

Wild Geese

I took the boys to Bainbridge Island last week for the Martin Luther King holiday.  I considered going to the MLK march like we’ve done in years past but I felt like the boys needed, or at least I needed, a day away.  A day out of the city, away from school and work and schedules; to wander under a scopious sky, throw rocks and eat ice cream.

We caught the 9:30 ferry and spent about half the day on the island’s eastern side at Fort Ward State Park before hitting the local ice cream shop.  It wasn’t perfect.  There was whining, of course, and more than one, When are we going ho-ooome?  There may or may not have been some conspicuous pee-ing in public but overall, it was just what I had been pining for and it made me wish I had brought along some Wendell Berry or Patrick Kavanaugh to keep me company while the boys wandered the waterfront.

geese

I kept thinking of Berry’s poem, The Wild Geese.  It’s midwinter, not Summer’s end, and certainly we weren’t on horseback… but still it seemed to fit.

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end. In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

The U.S. (In)Justice System

I saw this video a couple days ago and I keep coming back to it for the stats.   Vox manages to show us the racial disparities in our criminal justice system in less than 2 minutes.  I was particularly drawn to the racial gap in incarceration rates in the U.S. and the marijuana use rates (which are nearly identical) and the marijuana arrest rates (which aren’t at all).   Have a look…

 

Other posts on Race

Fury in #Ferguson
Misplaced Imagining
Dear White Church
#BlackLivesMatter
White Privilege Awareness Series