Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading

“Gone Girl” has me wondering: can’t the good guys win once in a while?

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Two of summer’s greatest pleasures are travel and reading. Immersion into an unfamiliar place or a well-told story offers glimpses of the cultural mood. I just returned from a trip to Oregon, home of the Cascadia Subduction Zone recently featured in a brilliant New Yorker article. I’m incubating a blog post on the power and guises of denial, but it’s not ready yet. On the lighter side, I also read two thrillers: Second Life and Gone Girl. Both are page-turners that linger after dark endings. They also throw some of the more insane aspects of modern life into stark relief. [Spoiler alert: if you plan to read either of these, you might want to stop now.]

Gone Girl, as you likely already know, is a chilling psychological study of a sociopath and the lengths to which our need for love and belonging will drive us. Especially in the first half of the book, the author Gillian Flynn includes well-observed details of the post-recession, post-NAFTA, post-supply-side-economies of Middle America (short version: it’s all in ruins). She also dramatizes the downhill slide of an entire profession—journalism—wasted by computers, the Internet, and the ubiquitous DIY culture. Continue reading

Dragons and princesses: the magic and power of the shadow

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I’m feeling resistance to delving further into this topic of the shadow. It demands honesty and strips off masks. With nothing to hide behind, I tell myself it’s too hard or it’s all been said before. What can I possibly add to the conversation? And yet this resistance itself is a perfect invitation, a dare to keep going. Shadow is not only a repository of shame and evil. It’s a treasure house of insight for those with the courage to look.

As slippery and tricky as the shadow is to pin down, we encounter it daily just by living life. Whatever shows up to block my way, to challenge and frighten me—that’s showing me my shadow. When a person or situation brings up strong emotion—especially aversion, fear, anger, or shame—that’s revealing something deeply buried. Either I know about it and thought it was safely under lock and key, or it’s been so long ignored, denied, or unacknowledged, I’m taken by surprise. Being blindsided happens less often now, but it does happen. Continue reading

Two ways of making space for truth

1987_8.2_Agrigento-Temple-of-Juno_620wI recently had the great privilege of seeing Anna Deavere Smith and Sherilynn Ifill in conversation. Ms. Ifill lives here in Baltimore, though she works nationally as head of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Ms. Smith grew up here, and played one of my very favorite characters on “The West Wing”—the no-nonsense National Security Advisor who had no trouble standing up to the generals of the Joint Chiefs’ office. She’s a talented actor, and she’s also a playwright and teacher.

Ms. Smith is working on the “Pipeline Project,” which investigates “the school-to-prison pipeline—the cycle of suspension from school to incarceration that is prevalent among low-income Black, Brown, Latino, and Native-American youth.” She’s interviewing hundreds of people involved in the pipeline at all levels: students, teachers, parents, police, thought and policy leaders, psychologists, community activists, and others. Using the alchemy of theater, she’s going to perform the stories in several cities, as fodder for town hall meetings and further advocacy. The tie-in to Baltimore’s recent civil unrest (also known as an “uprising”) is clear, although she began this project long before then. Continue reading

Our voices, our power: women’s paradigm-shifting work


“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.” ~ Audre Lorde, 1984

The resonance of our inner callings with needs and trends in the outer world seems to be gathering momentum lately. In this time between stories, I am being urged, by both interior and exterior promptings, to value my unique voice and speak up more. The signs I get range from encouragement like Audre Lorde’s 1984 speech, to learning from Priscilla Ward’s eye-opening essay about her experience as a black woman, to the fierce witnessing of Nell Bernstein in this interview about her book on juvenile incarceration, Burning Down the House.

At the time of Audre Lorde’s speech, I was just graduating from college, looking to work a year in a firm before grad school. Very much playing the game by the rules. Ronald Reagan as President was busy dismantling the social safety net so carefully woven over the last decades. The Soviet Bloc countries boycotted the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Feminism had been around for a couple of decades. Though I did not identify as a feminist, I was entering a traditionally male profession, slipping noiselessly if unconsciously through the access hard-won by my sisters before me. Continue reading

On knowing, despair, unknowing, joy and the wisdom of the body


Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Mysteries, Yes

I am a recovering expert. For many years, I was paid to have answers: to advise clients on the best approach for their project; integrate the work of structural, mechanical and civil engineers; and design details that keep the weather out while looking great, costing little and lasting years with no maintenance. In short, I had to know how to juggle a staggering number of variables, get along with others, and tolerate a high potential for disappointment or even failure. It was stressful.

During his recent online course, “The Space Between Stories,” Charles Eisenstein made the observation that thinking you know anything is a prerequisite for despair. He illustrated with a recognizable litany of things we know: We know the world is doomed because of climate change, species extinction, human trafficking, genocide. We also know how things work and what’s possible, so we know it’s not possible to fix any of this. We’ve tried. Consequently, we know we’re doomed. Continue reading

This threshold of despair, fear, anger, and pain could be an opening to a new conversation


“I believe that all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share.” ~ Dalai Lama

I am breaking tradition and using a photograph to start this post because it is such a beautiful, heartbreaking image of the pain and fear that keep us separated. There are only a few inches between the faces of these two men, yet it is a wholly unbridgeable gulf. This is a scene from the streets of Baltimore yesterday, a place of constant tension, trauma and hatred, from which those of us living our quiet, privileged lives in other neighborhoods are usually insulated.

Truth be told, I am still insulated, tracking these events, unfolding mere miles away, via social and traditional media. It’s been fascinating to see how people react when our old cultural stories are so blatantly exposed and people act out and behave in ways that shock us. Many are expressing righteous outrage, as when our mayor called the instigators “thugs,” and questioned their intelligence with this comment: “It is idiotic to think that by destroying your city you’re going to make life better for anybody.” Continue reading

Who are we at war with? Let’s be honest about opposites.


I usually refrain from engaging in arguments on political or economic theory because I don’t consider myself to be well enough informed to do any particular stance justice with supporting evidence. Today I learned that my reasons go deeper than that. I recently violated my own injunction by posting a quote from Governor Scott Walker on my Facebook page about dependence on the government. He was calling up a trope from the Reagan era, one that ignores that he and all Americans are dependent on the government for roads, help in emergencies, and education, to name only a few.

In the ensuing back and forth argument, my Libertarian cousin chimed in about the role of government, taxation, military spending, energy policy, and the squeeze of the middle class. I responded that it saddens me to see finger pointing at “those people” who are on public assistance. Maybe if their place of work (WalMart, McDonald’s) paid them a living wage, they could afford to put a roof over their head and food on the table without such help. Or if the “education” they received had actually educated them, they could get a higher paying job. It’s so small minded and petty, and reflects poorly on Americans. I still prefer to believe that we are capable of much better. And yet my salvo is a distraction from the deeper lessons of this exchange. Continue reading

On clearing, patience, trust, and magic

2009_8.26_Yosemite2_620w-3I love the image from Martha Postlethwaite’s poem of clearing a space. It’s a beautiful reminder to tend to my inner landscape, before I turn to outward work, no matter how urgent or grandiose the calling feels. The recommended order is: go inside, open your hands and wait for your song to drop into them.

Which implies two important points. One, that we each do have a song. And, two: that all we have to do to receive it is make a small clearing in our dense, wild places and wait patiently. Just ask and it will come. That it will fall into my open cupped hands is a nice image. It implies a readiness just this side of expectation, a proper, welcoming stance. Receptivity sourced from trust. Continue reading

Doubt and faith and nihilism, oh my!


Where there is doubt, faith;

Faith must be the most written-about subject in human experience. Faith asks us to trust in the unseen, and we may see it as a hallmark of holy people, too rarified for most of us. And yet, faith is both cause and effect. It flows from the willingness to be an instrument of the divine, while at the same time, is a way of courting that willingness. It’s easier to be faithful when rewards come and also turn to it in times of great crisis and despair. And what about all the other, more quotidian, times in between?

“Faith is not a cushion for me to fall back on. It is my working energy.” ~ Helen Keller, from Let Us Have Faith

While faith is an active choice, it is also a passive outcome of devotion. In Helen Keller’s words, it is fuel. Energy. All energy on Earth comes from the sun; everything alive draws sustenance from it. Faith, at its most primal level, then, is knowing that the sun will rise each morning. Trusting that this spaceship we’re riding on will once again turn its face to the great star that powers all life. Continue reading