Living in this World

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

#70 Drilling for Truth

There are at least three quite different ways of seeing the issue of race and racism—-all of them true. There is the lens of our personal experience: the messages we got as children, the people we have known, the experiences we’ve had, the things that have stretched and moved us, the things that have been hard.

Then there is the lens of history and society: the impact on African Americans of slavery followed by over a century of government-sanctioned discrimination, the current reality of segregation and inequality, the growing barriers to immigration, and attitudes about race that range from passively unaware to actively hostile in much of the population.

Then there is the third lens of the Spirit: the understanding that ultimately we are all children of God, that in the most profound sense race is an artificial construct that serves to divide people who belong together.

If we think of these as three layers, one on top of the other, most of us tend to relate to one of them more than the others. With the top layer, we see race personally, our own experience is our primary reality, everything else seems too far away, too abstract. With the middle layer, we are acutely conscious of the enormous damage of institutional racism and feel that the main job has to be exposing that reality. With the bottom layer, we cling to, and hope to rest in, the knowledge that we are all one, and can’t imagine anything more fundamental.

I think much of our difficulty in addressing issues of race and racism comes from trying to communicate with the folks who relate to a different layer than the one that so clearly reflects reality to us. We get so frustrated. Those other folks seem so insular and blindered, or so grim and guilt mongering, or so simplistic and other-worldly. I think there’s a solution though: it lies in moving from the horizontal to the vertical, inviting everybody to get together on top of the whole thing and start drilling.

Drill into that layer of personal experience. Remember what we were told when we were little, who we had access to and who we didn’t, who we loved, what was hard. Tell our stories to each other. Drill a little deeper in that first layer. Reflect on how our experience has shaped our attitudes toward race. Dare to celebrate our loves and our deep connections. Dare to imagine how naïve unawareness can be experienced as hurtful and seen as racist. Nobody is bad here—-it’s just a rich opportunity to uncover more and more truth. It’s an important layer where we could spend a lot of time, but there’s more below.

Drill into that hard layer of institutional racism. Learn about slavery, about the tragic long-term impact of a corrupted and aborted Reconstruction, about how discriminatory lending policies made it almost impossible for Black Americans to build wealth through home equity till well after World War II, about how structural racism continues to segregate and bar equal access to education, jobs and health care. Share what we learn. Be willing to grieve. There’s way more here than any of us want to know. But until we get through this layer, until we interact with this truth, we don’t have full access to what’s below. We can imagine the good clean water down there. We can talk about it. But we can’t drink it.

Only when we’ve done the hard work of drilling, through the cloudy water of personal experience, through the bitter water of institutional racism, only then will we be able to drink the life-giving water of oneness in the Spirit, the deepest truth of all.


There is something about margins.
Weeding the garden
I like to start at the edges
claiming everything they enclose.

Most of the show is at the center
rich and beautiful--
It calls out to be tended.
But if you tolerate weeds at the margin
they grow in.

Starting at the margin
is a decision
to have everything.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

Members of a historic peace church in Kenya who have found renewed life in taking leadership in the resettlement of refugees after the ethnically-charged violence of the winter.

A modest little man who created a wetland out of waterlogged and abandoned cornfields in western Pennsylvania, offering a home to hundreds of species of birds, insects, amphibians and fish.

A group of ten-year-olds who were thrilled to spend a week without electronic entertainment, using their own imagination, simple found and recycled materials and hand tools to create--and create, and create.

In the absence of leadership on the federal level, the governors of US states who are taking the lead in thinking about the well-being of their constituents and developing innovative social welfare and environmental policy.



When we first moved onto our block in the late 70’s, there were no street
trees and all the little front yards were paved with concrete. That first
spring I took a sledgehammer to our front and pulled out the concrete,
leaving an ugly hole and barren subsoil. The next time I visited my mother,
I filled the trunk of the car with as much compost from her big bin as would
fit and used it to create my front garden.

I remember coming home from vacation later that summer and being shocked
with delight at all the flowers that had burst into bloom—-marigolds,
geraniums, Black-eyed Susans. It was a vision of loveliness. Much has
changed over the years. More and more neighbors broke up their concrete to
create little front gardens. We started planting trees. Our children grew
and climbed in the trees, and our front got more and more shady. Now it
reminds me of a woodland floor—-equally lovely in its own way.

With the loss of our neighbor’s big old trees in the back, that’s now our
sunny spot and I’ve scrambled to fill a space where nothing but ivy would
grow into a bright spot of color. Through all those years, my little
compost pile in the side yard has steadily absorbed the kitchen waste and
weeds and provided all the fertilizer I needed and the dirt for all the
potted plants.

The boys are now grown and have moved to a little row house five blocks
away. It came with a tiny front yard, not concrete, but poor barren soil
overgrown with weeds, just like that of the abandoned house next door. The
other day they came to me for help, just as I had gone to my mother so many
years ago. I gave them plants that had spread and multiplied beyond the
capacity of my little space, a bag of leaves I’d scrounged in the fall, and
a great container of compost from my pile. In the cool of the evening, I
biked over to their house to see what they had done. They were as proud as
new parents, and the two little front yards looked hopeful and full of
promise. What we couldn’t see, but all were thinking of, was the
compost—-two generous scoops dug into the holes where each plant was taking

Fair trade

She sits on a bench
pigeons gathered round
and throws breadcrumbs
while she talks--
family troubles, maybe
or things on her mind.

The pigeons stay close,
a willing audience--
it seems a fair exchange.


Some things that have made me hopeful:
All the countries in Africa that turned back the Chinese ship carrying arms
to Zimbabwe in the spring.
Apologies from Australia and Canada for the mistreatment of native people,
and the truth and reconciliation processes that will allow for continued
conversation over the coming years.

#68 Three Gifts

There have been some unyielding challenges in my volunteer/work life
recently that have left me feeling more discouraged than usual, trying my
hardest but battered by circumstances beyond my control. So I’ve been
hungry for more hopeful and sustaining perspectives. One, I note with some
surprise, comes from a column I wrote many years ago. My point of view is a
little different now, but it’s been on my mind enough that I want to share
parts of it again. And I’ve received three wonderful and totally unexpected
gifts in the past week that remind me of what is tangibly and immediately
hopeful about this world.


Her world is in tatters. Her loved ones are threatened. By some
miracle she finds herself relatively whole. So she has this day to work and
love and knit together the fabric of her world as best she can.

I had in my heart a particular grandmother who lived not far from me and
had been in the news. Some of her children had been lost to drugs. One had
been killed, another accused in a killing. In a neighborhood ravaged by
crime, she was now raising a granddaughter, trying against all odds to keep
her safe. She seemed the only whole person in the picture. How could she
keep going amidst such violence and despair? And how could she and I ever
have anything in common?

I’ve had difficulty knowing how to deal with the ease of my life. How
can it be that I’ve been spared so many difficulties that others face day in
and day out? I did not choose that ease. I would not choose war, poverty
or injustice either, but I grieve for those who carry such a heavy burden,
and know how untested my strength and courage have been.

It came to me in sudden clarity that, despite all this, we were just the
same. That grandmother’s world was in tatters. My world was in tatters.
Not my immediate life, my family and neighborhood, but my larger life. My
city was poor, my schools struggling. My country that I loved promoted
grave injustice. Brothers and sisters in other countries lived in terrible
need. Some of them did unspeakable things to each other. Our common
environment unraveled.

By some miracle, amidst the wreckage of her world this grandmother is
still standing, still able to think and work and love. It is the same with
me. I have done nothing to deserve it, yet I too find myself standing,
relatively whole.

In the details, my daily tasks and challenges might be very different
from those of that grandmother, or of any other survivor. Nor can I pretend
that a history of racial and economic injustice doesn’t weigh heavily on us
all and hinder our ability to find our way to each other. But in the larger
sense, we are just the same. Our world is in tatters. Our loved ones are
threatened. By some miracle we find ourselves standing. So we have this day
to work and love and knit together the fabric of our world as best we can.


1. I was walking to my vegetable plot in the community garden a few blocks
away, intent on a quick errand, when I paused at a little barbeque grill set
out on someone’s front step (surprising, since people usually barbeque in
back). The woman tending it asked if I wanted a hot dog. Hungry, I
stopped, reaching into my pocket to see if there was any money. “No”, she
said. “They’re free.” Really?! She insisted that they were a gift, and
delighted, I chose to accept. Who would turn down an angel, or cheapen her
offering with money? I told her that the big flower bed in front of the
community garden was my gift to the neighbors, and went on my way, eating
the hot dog. When I finished my errand, I took a few minutes to pick some
flowers from the garden—-a lovely little spiky collection of pink, purple
and blue. I was excited to offer her something in return, and she showed the
same shock of surprise and delight that I had felt receiving her gift. I
went home warmed from the inside out, reminded of what a blessing it is to
give and to receive.

2. I’d been up early, worrying when I should have been sleeping, and was
hurrying to fit in this one last errand to the post office after a long day
at work. There was a package to collect. As I gave the little slip to the
woman at the counter and reached for my drivers license to show her my ID,
she said, “You don’t need to do that. I know your face.” Really?! I’ve
been to this post office many times over the years, and have often been
treated well, but the lines are usually long and it’s not my favorite place,
and I have to say (with considerable embarrassment at this point) that I
don’t know the people who work there. But this woman knows me. I’m part of
her community even though I have been inattentive. It’s another unexpected
gift. I feel seen, and deeply reassured.

3. I download my e-mail—-always with mixed feelings because of the deluge
of messages that will be released—-and start the work of dealing with it.
Then a name jumps out. Castine. One of the young men in northern
Uganda—-the one with the sweetest face and the hardest questions. It has
been two months since I’d written him, throwing a line of love across the
ocean. And things have not been going well there. I open it up, eager but
braced for disappointment. There is none. He had been in the countryside
with his grandmother, light years from a computer. He is glad to be in
touch, thankful for the skills we offered that he is now using to help
others, struggling economically as always, but looking toward the future
with hope. I smile, resting in his goodness and in this simple human
connection—-the heart of what makes life worth living.