In 1993, when I was working at a California state agency on a controversial project, every team meeting featured two agency managers suggesting, often, that we should be “getting off the merry-go-round.” It took me awhile to realize the purpose of the merry-go-round metaphor was to sabotage an open discussion of a proposed analytical approach. Whether or not others figured it out, the metaphor had its intended effect. The deciders decided we should be “moving forward.”
Language is powerful and most people naturally deploy short cuts to describe complicated ideas. We process so much information that we often rely on these short cuts to give our brains a break. There are a lot of language short-cuts out there right now and most of them deserve a little scrutiny…
I understand why so many people are angry. I am angry. Over the years, I have had numerous explicitly racist encounters with police from the Bay Area cities of Oakland, Berkeley and Piedmont. I know my black son has had many more, and his are dangerous. I have worried about him every day of his life since he was old enough to walk down the street by himself. It’s all so painful and personal, it’s hard to even think about it.
And yet, I believe police officers should not be the main target of our anger. That’s because they are not the main cause of America’s police brutality problem. If we were to hold every police officer accountable for every act of racism and unjustified violence — and we should — we would still have racist policing and police brutality. That’s because the problem is not “bad apples.” Circumstances and government policy have converged to create a policing culture that promotes racism and violence.
This period of protest and national dialogue should make me feel hopeful but, so far, it makes me more despairing. It reminds me of the racism my son, Gabe, has endured over the years in our “liberal” Bay Area community. It reminds me of the anger I feel for the times I have tried to talk about racial issues and gotten the message that I should move on. It reminds me of the shame I feel for the times I could have done something and didn’t.
I cried yesterday but not for the reason I would have predicted. To put my crying in context, I have been traveling nonstop for four years partly for the kindness and connection I discover in other places. I can find these things here at home. It’s just easier to find them in places that are new and different, where I have to pay more attention. And, honestly, it’s easier where the dominant feeling is a little softer than my American culture these days. (Something like that….I was supposed to be in Saudi Arabia today).
Starry Night Over the Rhone, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888. Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France.
We can always count on music to enrich us and connect us to each other, no matter who we are or where we are from. Some songs are especially good at making us feel better, no matter how we are feeling. Here are a few favorites from my very long list. They bring up different moods and they are all mixed up, so don’t expect any kind of emotional theme or evolution. And please share some of your own!
“There is Always Hope,” a mural by Banksy, London, England
This afternoon, I called a friend from my days as an 18-year old hippie living in the Oregon countryside. Back then, her name was Sue. Now she is Rabbi Me’Irah. Every time I have what seems to be a casual conversation with Me’irah, I come away with more meaning in my life. “Today is a special day,” she announced (I already knew this because every day is special for Me’irah). It is the time between Passover and Shavuout, she said. Passover is a celebration of liberation — the Jews’ exodus from enslavement. And today is a day of constraints to acknowledge the Jews’ harrowing journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where they would receive the Torah. Me’irah says we survive this time of constraint and our isolation by celebrating the bounty and blessings in our lives. And that celebration, I thought, gives us hope.
People congregating! Oakland 2019.
By now, I think we have learned that there are two kinds of people when it comes to staying at home. The first category of people say, “I am doing great, enjoying this time to relax and slow down. I am calling my friends on zoom and doing online yoga!”
The second category of people say “Oh yeah, well, I was kind of down yesterday but I am better today. Lots of people have it much worse than me. We’ll get through this, no problem.” If you are in the first category, please know that the people in the second category are actually thinking “I am going out of my mind.”
Wood block print by Munakata Shiko
Our world is redefining the idea of adventure I think, and small things are getting more interesting by the minute. I had an adventure with a small thing this morning. It began with a search for a coaster for my coffee mug. I was starting to feel that my use of paper towels as coasters was wasteful and not very attractive. And, you know, I was trying to maintain a semblance of civility on Day 3 without a shower. So I routed around in a bag of small odds and ends I had picked up in my travels and I found something that I could use as a coaster. It was a little plastic folder. Here it is: