Thursday, September 6, 2018

Wrestling with Privilege Because Change Can't Wait

So already, "Change can't wait." Those were the first words I heard from my car radio around ten o'clock on Monday night. They were spoken so gravely I didn't know if I was hearing a victory speech or a concession speech.

And then the crowd cheered, and cheered again, and I knew it was a victory speech*: Ayanna Pressley had just scored an upset victory over Michael Capuano. She'd just earned the right to run to represent Massachusetts' 7th district in November.

Suddenly I felt really emotional. Change wasn't waiting, and that was because so many people who felt it mustn't and couldn't had headed to the polls. I had thought Capuano would win because I'm so accustomed to Massachusetts incumbents winning, especially if they've done really good jobs over the years. But history didn't repeat itself this time.

I actually don't live and vote in the 7th district, but I live so close to it that the Pressley-Capuano contest had been much on my mind. Multiple times I'd debated with myself about what mattered more at this point, Capuano's Washington experience or Pressley's lived experience as a minority woman public servant in Massachusetts' only majority minority district. "Too bad they both can't win," I'd said to myself. But it always comes down to making choices.

Over dinner one night late last spring, I had confessed to a 7th-district friend that I was really bothered by my personal voting pattern. Generally, I tended to stick with "proven" progressive candidates. And I had been realizing that my strategy was preserving the status quo rather than making the changes I thought--and these candidates professed--were essential to the health of our society. I understood that this would predispose me to vote for Capuano rather than "risk" voting for Pressley, even though I viewed her as the change candidate, as someone who had ample if not national-level experience representing people, and as the person who most understood the 7th District constituency. In other words, I knew I should vote for her, but I knew I might not. That was pretty screwed up.

Again, I said it: "Too bad they both can't win." But isn't that the essence of privilege--wanting it both ways and being able to have it that way? Not needing to choose, or to give up anything? I began to get it that, once again, my problem was my privilege--specifically my white (and therefore) economic privilege. I'm used to things working the way they do. I'm used to them working "well enough" if not as well as they could. I'm used to not being unduly burdened when they don't work well enough. 

And there was another possibility. Maybe, as a person with privilege, I was not admitting to being worried that "too much" change would mean that I'd feel "too" uncomfortable, that I'd need to adjust, that I'd have to give up something.***

Privilege is one tough opponent in the battle for transformation, personal and societal. Frankly, it makes me think of Jacob wrestling with the Angel**** (or the man, or G-d, depending on how you translate it). The battle lasts all night, and Jacob survives it and is blessed and given a new name at the end of it. But he goes forth from it with a limp.

So how did I finally cross over to Pressley? I give a lot of the credit to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her spot-on comments on Meet the Press***** after her own upset victory--that the Democrats are and should be a "big tent" party with plenty of room beneath it for different Democrats who are particularly suited to win in and represent different districts--really resonated with me. The residents of different regions of the country, and different districts within those regions, need different types of Democratic representatives in order to feel and be genuinely understood by those responsible for thinking and acting on their behalf both locally and nationally . There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all Democrat in this vast and varied country; the diversity of Democratic leadership could be the party's strength, with the right leadership. In my book that's a hope-inspiring idea, and the only idea that makes sense.******

Last Monday night's sultriness reminded me of the weather in Kampala, Uganda on what was Election Day 2008 in the United States. On that Tuesday evening as we exited from the Kampala hotel where we'd just made an education presentation, a colleague and I saw Kampalans clustered around parked cars everywhere. They were listening intently to election coverage on the car radios even though, because of the time zone difference, it would be many hours before we would learn that Barack Obama had been elected. Still, people's attention throughout the city was already trained on the election.

The next morning, my colleague and I arrived at the school******* where we were consulting and learned that Obama had been elected. There was jubilation in the school's main office: tears, hugging, every form of euphoria. Explained the soft-spoken, dark-skinned school secretary who was busily keeping things running amidst the celebration, "Now we have a president, too."

There was so much hope that day, and I felt that same kind of hope the other night when Pressley won the primary--not because Michael Capuano hadn't been a good representative--but because change can't wait, and it wasn't going to. I'm going to try to make sure that privilege, my own and other people's, doesn't get in its way.

* Screen shot of photo included in the following online magazine article:
Buell, S. (2018, September 4). Ayanna Pressley Will Become the First Black Woman to Represent Massachusetts in Congress. Boston Magazine. Retrieved September 6, 2018, from

** Screen shot of photo of the Center Street Cafe on Pinterest: 
*** All of that said, I'm writing this as I watch Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing, which means I'm listening to a group of mostly white men, many of whose priorities don't align with mine. While I have white privilege, there are other kinds of privilege I don't have. At this moment, they're talking about Roe V. Wade.
**** Genesis 22-31. 
***** Screen shot of video on this link:
* (6) By the way, there was another thing I loved about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez--she actually responded to Chuck Todd's questions, as opposed to parried with him to avoid answering his questions.
* (7) Screen shot from a video still on the International School of Uganda Web Site on the "Our School" page: 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Strange New Light on the Road to Return

So already, it's the time of year when Jews are bidden to take stock of their spiritual and daily lives and to reconnect (or connect) with G-d. The King is in the Field, we're told, particularly predisposed to hear us throughout the month of Elul. There He'll be until the Days of Awe, the ten-day period book-ended by Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during which we pray that we'll be inscribed in the Book of Life for the next year.

But preparing for the Jewish High Holy Days has been even more difficult than usual for me this year. 

In other years, I've used Simon Jacobson's 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays* to guide me. But this year when I sat down with that book that's been like a friend to me, I felt like that field was nowhere in sight--even though I was sitting at the upper edge of the field right in front our cabin. Each day I felt worse--like I was feigning repentance, going through the motions of teshuvah.** I love the spirit of Jacobson's book, but I was heading away rather than returning. I understood that the goal of this was not to feel failed, hopeless, unworthy, and therefore deeply sad. So I stepped back and hoped another path might reveal itself. 

While I hoped and waited--some might call that prayer, but I didn't--I finished reading Jeannette Walls' memoir, The Glass Castle, and Lauren Groff's recent short story collection, Florida. As I finished Groff's riveting book, I realized I'd spent the last four days reading stories in which "home" offered little to no protection: some characters were living in states of physical and emotional neglect in places that were literally crumbling around them, some had been exiled by nature's destruction, some had drifted into homelessness voluntarily or involuntarily, some felt sad or angry within the walls of what others viewed as "happy homes," and some experimented with leaving homes that didn't feel like home in pursuit of something that was eluding them. Love and danger couldn't have been more intertwined, their combination most poignant and disconcerting in the stories with children.

The Jewish significance of all of this is that the fragility and impermanence of dwelling places, thus homes, is a major theme of the High Holy Day season. It's why my Jewish birthday,15 Tishrei, the first day of the holiday of Sukkot, begins a week of living, figuratively if not literally, in huts--an individual one is called a sukkah--deliberately constructed not to shield us from the elements. As Jacobson explains in 60 Days, 

"During this time, we dwell in little huts (or booths) with a roof of palm fronds, branches, reeds or bamboo, in which we eat all our meals and conduct all the activities of the day which we would regularly do at home.
"These huts remind us of our total dependency on G-d--that our seemingly sturdy man-made shelters are nothing in the absence of His care. (118)
But to embrace a week of starlit, outdoor suppers in a symbolic structure is hardly to endure the separation from home, and the accompanying loss and the pain, that result from exile, expulsion, wandering, and dispossession, all of which abound in biblical and post-biblical Jewish history. In fact, the whole Days of Awe pre-season kicks off with the mid-summer holiday of Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Second Temple--a whole nation's loss of the physical center of its collective spiritual life.****

Those of you who read my blog from time to time may already know that I've thought more about the significance of Tisha B'Av this year than ever before, hence my July post entitled "American July and the Three Weeks." Last week, I downloaded a book mentioned in a High Holy Days-related message from the American Jewish World Service because its in-your-face title--This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation*****--seemed to speak directly to my newly Tisha B'Av-aware self. Tisha B'Av, as the book's author, Rabbi Alan Lew, explains, marks the calendar moment when we turn, keenly aware of what we've lost, toward the Days of Awe, toward the deliberate encounter with ourselves in preparation for them, toward G-d.

I began reading Lew's book right away. Immediately, there were connections between Lew's words and the complex separation from home that had dominated my fiction reading experiences of the week before. The power of Groff's stories in particular seems to reside beyond her language but because of her language: the crisp vibrance of her words and images evokes a substantive, wordless world that evades full exposure. The sensed reality beneath the surfaces her stories clamors for our brave attention and feeling, our persistence in the face our own uneasiness. Even when the world we're encountering is fictional, we often keep uneasiness at arm's length!

Lew begins his book with an italicized dream sequence: "Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness" (12). Later in the same chapter, when his writing becomes more expository, Lew explains that "the houses we live in never afford us real security. Their walls and roofs are never complete--they never really keep us from the world or from harm, and it is only when we realize this that we are truly home." A little later, he explains how the very things we have put into place in our lives--"constructs" and constructions--"have been keeping us from the reality of our lives--how we have been using them to give us distance from the gnawing suspicion that we have no house . . . " (22).

Frankly, I wasn't sitting there nodding as I read this. But it did seem to suggest why I sometimes felt strangely alienated in some circumstances that many people deliberately cultivate and often prize, and strangely safe, comfortable, and "alive" in some "less desirable" places and situations. 

What made me know I would keep reading was Lew's summarizing statement at the end of the first chapter that likens the "concatenation of ritual" that carries us from Tisha B'Av to Sukkot to a "dance" that "begins with the mournful collapse of a house******* and ends with the joyful collapse of a house" and then explains that it "stands for the journey the soul is always on" (23). That "joyful collapse" gave me hope--it was just oxymoronic enough to feel like it might be a good fit for me.

I've kept reading--I'm now around page 60--sometimes understanding a great deal, sometimes wondering, sometimes feeling very confused. But generally feeling that I'm drawing nearer. Whereas in other years, I've envisioned the King in the field, this year, I'm thinking more about the collapsed house right beyond the field.

But gravitating toward a metaphor can't be confused with completing the process that it suggests and that I've just begun. There's so much in the first 60 pages I need to contemplate, and then there are all of those chapters I haven't even read yet. So in case you too are on a similar or related journey, I will leave you with several quotations that have made major impressions on me, and a few comments about each:

"Forgiveness, it has to be said, means giving up our hopes for a better past" (46). This makes perfect sense, but I've never quite heard it phrased this way. Its value is that it focuses us on what's present and future, not what's past and immutable. Forgiveness is a matter of letting go--not so much in order to be generous and admirable as to move forward and beyond. And that doesn't just apply to those things we believe other people have done "to us"; it also applies to those things we ourselves have done that we can't undo and that we can't forget doing, even if we've already atoned for them.

"This  . . . series of fasts, tells our bodies and our souls the story of the encroachment of emptiness: the story of impermanence. There was a Great Temple, a great nation with is capital in Jerusalem, . . .. Yet even while it stood, the Great Temple was structure that was centered around emptiness. The Holy of Holies, the Sacred Center upon which all the elaborate structural elegance of the Temple served to focus, was primarily a vacated space. . . .Yom Kippur is, among other things, the day we enter the vacated space, even if only by proxy, . . ." (50). A couple of weeks back when I was feeling like any kind of authentic teshuvah was beyond me this year, I kept thinking about "the still, small voice" in the story of Elijah. I can't say that I think of "empty" space Lew describes as "vacated," something I might do easily if I were a Jewish Buddhist. I'm struggling with the whole idea of the Sacred Center and the Great Temple needing each other.

"Tisha B'Av has a hot tip for us: Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it. Let the walls come down" (55). I had an intense positive experience the other night. Unable to fall asleep, which is unusual for me, I decided to act on Tisha B'Av's hot tip. I began listing in my mind all the things that made me sad. I cried quietly for a short time. And then I began breathing more deeply than I had in a long, long time--and not because I was trying to. I kept breathing that way for a while, then stopped, again not as a result of a decision I made. I felt different and better, though "nothing" had changed. Then I went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, I still felt better. I felt as if I'd been cared for.

"Our home is a river, a fluid place, a place where there is no stopping point--a place where we can stop clinging, and stop being driven out of life. A place of Teshuvah, a place that will return us to ourselves, where we can feel our lives flowing, healing, toward home" (35) Rabbi Lew's Buddhist practice and beliefs strongly come to the fore in this quotation, I think. I want to agree with him, but I haven't lived my life with such a construct to guide me. And on the other hand, the few times I've drawn anything in my adult life, there's always been some kind of a house, some kind of a river, and some sense of all emanating from one source.

I hope to blog more about this book and my latest teshuvah efforts this holiday season--but I may not: I have a lot to read and do before the holidays begin a week from tonight. And so just in case I don't blog on this topic again, I leave you with a final quotation, especially important for anyone just beginning to think of any of this: "And when it is invested with our awareness, Yom Kippur, the day itself, has the power to heal, to atone" (31). I like the idea that the day itself is on our side! Whenever we begin to turn, it's not too late. May we all be inscribed for a sweet new year!

* Jacobson, Simon. 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays. 2nd Revised ed. New York: Kiyum, 2008. Print.  
** As 60 Days explains, "The Hebrew word for 'repentance' -- teshuvah -- actually implies the opposite.  When you repent, the implication is that you're leaving the wrong path, regretting that you ever took that turn in your life. But teshuvah literally means 'return,' which implies that you are not leaving something, you are coming back to something" (48). 
*** Screen shot of photo found as part of this blog post: Oringel, A. (2015, September/October). What is the meaning of Sukkot? [Web log post]. Retrieved September 02, 2018, from
**** The book I talk about in the next few paragraphs interprets this event as an important catalyst in the adaptation and "improvement" of Judaism--it's on page 53.
***** Lew, A. (2018). This is real and you are completely unprepared: The Days of Awe as a journey of transformation. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company. (e-book downloaded onto my Nook)
* (6) Screen shot of photo included in the following blog post: Akwisombe, S. (2014, October 12). What to do when it feels like your house is falling apart [Web log post]. Retrieved September 02, 2018, from 
* (7) Weiss, A. (2016). The Second Temple Jerusalem [Painting found in Pixels]. Retrieved September 2, 2018, from