What’s so funny about peace, love, and academic theories?

While I should know better than to be surprised by anything anymore, I admit to being befuddled by the attacks on critical race theory. Wait, before you explain to me about white supremacy or people who stand for nothing making things up to fight over, yes, I get that.

It’s just that from a social science perspective, critical race theory is a complex theoretical viewpoint, a lens with which to analyze a problem. The metaphor of a lens is often used for this kind of research, and it’s an apt one. If I take a photo with a wide view lens and another with a close-up lens, I will get different results even though I am aiming my camera in the same direction at what appears to be the same subject. So if I study a topic using critical race theory, I’m applying this lens because it will bring to light specific issues worthy of investigation. And, um, it doesn’t exactly seem radical to suggest that discrimination and injustice based on race are worthy of investigation.

I am not well-read in the theoretical underpinnings of critical race theory, though I suspect I would benefit greatly from it (my dissertation research question fit best with activity theory, in case you’re wondering, and I feel confident you weren’t). I could say the same about postmodern theory, and there are threads of that theory which I also find inviting, from zombies (neither dead nor alive) to unraveling tapestries (of meaning). What I most recall about these theoretical lenses is that they are complex. Which is why, though I am definitely mad about the white supremacy and power grabs that fuel these attacks, I find myself trying not to laugh when I hear legislatures want to outlaw critical race theory. It makes me think, will they outlaw postmodern theory next? I remember being a middle school teacher and what we would have thought if someone told us we were forbidden to teach postmodern theory. It would just be like, “Um, will I know if I was teaching that?” And there would be eye rolls.

In my experience, theoretical perspectives are full of subtlety and nuance. You rarely claim anything to be absolutely true, so even if you had some enterprising public school teacher determined to inculcate our youth in postmodern theory, well, actually, postmodern theory suggests that sentence could never occur, so let me try again. Theory is subtle, flexible, evolving, with ample room for dissent. To outlaw a theory is to outlaw, well, something as insubstantial as a summer breeze. There’s something there, but what is it? And it will be gone before we can even try to take hold.

I know, I know. It never makes sense. These tinpot dictators in our state legislatures don’t want to make sense, just trouble. And waste time, energy, and resources just when we need them the most.

Here’s a thought—maybe I will call my Senators to urge they pass the For the People Act (S.1) every time I see any misguided references to critical race theory.

Holding space for emergent occasions

I’ve been itching to write posts on light topics, to immerse myself in the inconsequential, but I have a few thoughts gnawing at me, like a splinter that needs to be removed.I just need to take a breath and be present, acknowledging losses as well as the grief and trauma felt by those left behind.

Some of the losses are worldwide—more than 3.3 million people have died, according to the NY Times (and I’ve heard this is an undercount). I sometimes see photos of people in Covid19 memorials on different media outlets (PBS NewHour, for example). It hurts to see their smiling faces, caught in a better moment. It is almost puzzling, this moment where you think, “But they were fine then….”

There are also losses closer to home—one of those human landmine moments occurred here in Boone, when a tortured young man committed homicide and suicide, including two members of law enforcement sent for a welfare check. Many of us know the families affected in one way or another, including neighbors shaken by this event, reminding us that tranquility is sometimes an illusion.

A young man on a motorcycle died in a car crash a few weeks later.

Others leave us with less fanfare, from age, from illness, from some other long-simmering challenge. Or due to ancient malice, the recurring flash points of war or violence exploding around the world.

I know it’s a bit dusty, but what makes the most sense to me comes from John Donne’s devotions, which I transcribe this way: No one is an island, entire of itself; every human is a piece of the continent….Any death diminishes me, because I am involved in humanity. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

That is, whether I know the person who died or not, each death is a loss to us all. We need everyone. I may connect or feel a loss more strongly depending on how I relate to or how well I know the person, but each death matters no matter who dies, or why, or how. It feels sometimes as if people try to build some kind of distance from these deaths, maybe even pick a side, feeling sympathy for one death but not another. I understand the impulse, but I think this too diminishes us. The experience of grief can vary, but it exists nonetheless. We are part of everything that happens, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

I also find comfort in these dusty readings too:

Do not go gently into that good night by Dylan Thomas.
We may know death is inevitable, but we never have to accept it.

And Thomas’ Fern Hill, expressing joy and sorrow at the speed with which our days fly past.

Fast Forward to February

So I haven’t posted on my blog since the start of November, and in my defense, November was a head trip, not to mention December and January.

I had hoped to breathe a sigh of a relief after the election ended, but I was afraid to post even that much because there were so many signs of trouble ahead. It was hard not to worry that the many lies repeated across right wing media and by certain politicians might lead to violence. I knew I would (rightly) sound paranoid if I said as much, but it made it hard to say anything on here.

And so tragic events ensued on January 6. It is hard for me to watch reports and videos of what occurred, though I did yesterday for the impeachment trial. I have to agree with commentators that this is an event that grows more horrifying the more you learn about it. 

Here’s my confession: ethics, morals, and ideals all matter to me. I believe that we should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if I strive to bring empathy and compassion to try to make sense of all the factors at play in any morally troubling situations. So my horror at what culminated on January 6 is matched by my horror that Republican Senators might not convict the worst actions ever taken by an American president against his own country. There is no line in the sand for the majority of them, apparently. They choose power and party over country, again and again and again. For too many, the ends justify the means, no matter how bloody or destructive. They would prefer to see this country burned to the ground than share power. Their actions are an affront to the core values of democracy and justice.

I’ve heard that some people are leaving the GOP to form an alternative center right political party. I can only hope they succeed. Center right would not describe my politics, but I recognize the value of differing opinions and points of view as long as we always condemn and reject lies, hate, prejudice, violent rhetoric, and any kind of take-no-prisoners mentality. It would also be great to see an end to bad faith arguments, though that might require a massive change in our culture to allow more time to think, gather information, and engage with nuance. 

At any rate, I did meet my Nanowrimo self-imposed goal of writing 50,000 words by the end of November. I find the daily writing goal of Nanowrimo so helpful for me, but I am aware that this approach isn’t always a positive thing for other writers. Plus, as I mentioned, November was intense, so I didn’t want anyone to think they should be doing anything but hanging in there. 

Anyway, it’s February now. The new year has brought hope in multiple forms including promising changes in federal leadership, not to mention vaccines on the horizon. It’s also brought more near misses and a few direct hits in terms of Covid19 in my circle of loved ones, so I am keenly aware that some people might lose the race just as our country begins to cross the finish line.

Still, I remain a glass is half full type, so I will focus on what lies around the corner. Where I live, this is the moment when winter drags on and drags us down. But better weather is inching closer. It’s February. Hang on.

Day One: Nanowrimo

It’s November, and some of us know what that means. No, not the election, but if that’s on your mind, this is the video that is giving me a burst of hope and determination despite some desperate acts of repression this weekend. And visit votesaveamerica.com to explore how you might help.

November is *also* National Novel Writing Month, the month where writers around the world choose to set a goal of writing at least 50,000 words on a new project, usually a novel, in 30 days. Or they set whatever goal they want because it’s just a chance to say, let’s write a lot, have fun, and not worry about getting it all right or making it all make sense. That’s my favorite kind of writing–writing for the joy of writing.

As someone who likes to manage time well, at least sometimes, I love that the power strategy to succeed is to write at least 1,667 words a day. Since I wasn’t 100% confident my head was in the right space to write, I decided to aim for just 1,667 words today. And my opening scene actually ended right at 1,668.

Seems like a good sign. Find out more at www.nanowrimo.org

So other than everything, how is it going?

Even before the pandemic, I wouldn’t always treat the question, “How are you?” as an empty exercise in good manners. If the right person asks and there is something to complain about, my answer was almost never “Fine.” Still, I also sometimes answer “Great,” in a hearty voice, mostly to show how happy I am to see the person again (or at least, the box with their face in it on my computer screen). But given the state of things in the U.S. right now, that answer seems off the rails. Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are contracting a disease that carries a risk of permanent disability, even death? And the risk of passing that fate to others, carrying the weight of that knowledge forever? Who can be doing great when record numbers of Americans are unemployed with every option running dry and the U.S. Senate is dominated by a man only interested in legislation that will protect businesses when they carelessly expose their employees to the disease?

Meanwhile, an election year that has been a decade long inches to a close, as voters choose between someone who has the potential to conduct a FDR-like Presidency or someone who will help us find out what would have happened if Gollum didn’t bite the ring off of Frodo’s finger. (Well, maybe we’re already finding out. I read today that the current administration is trying to undermine Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Human Rights Watch. I guess I should know better now, but it still feels so disorienting to imagine the people who orchestrate these policies. What can it be like to be so deeply indifferent to human suffering?)

So much is going wrong that I feel like a character in one of those movies when the asteroid is about to hit Earth or space invaders are filling the sky, shooting laser beams at anyone who is in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Yet unlike those movies, instead of uniting to stave off the asteroid or aliens, we are supposed to find ways to go about business as usual. Ding! My phone reminds me of my next online meeting. Kaboom! Somewhere outside my window, another one bites the dust, stricken by disease or economic despair.

I don’t know what will happen on Election Day. I’m hoping for the FDR-like guy to win, of course, preferably surfing a wave of blue. No matter who wins, a long winter lies ahead. And rebuilding the Shire may take a lifetime.

If I were to write about Black lives…

I would begin by reminding you that there is no such thing as race in terms of biology. Biologically, we are all the same. And one need only engage in a modest amount of logical thinking to know that we all rise or fall together.

I also recognize that culture is more powerful (and violent) than biology, and I value the power of identity embraced by those who identify as Black people. So if I say race does not exist in biology, I also know that identifying as Black (and being identified as Black) is real and, at times, empowering.

On the other hand, I dread the way white privilege flows towards me regardless of my desire to support sweeping reforms or my grief for the losses experienced by what are, biologically-speaking, my siblings. I cannot renounce this privilege nor claim that I am somehow not responsible until I find a way to dismantle it. And by I, I mean we, of course. Anyone who tells you that “I alone can fix it” is trying to sell you something. Don’t buy it.

I have hesitated to post anything lately because the only voices I want to hear right now are those best situated to guide us forward, the we who wish to dismantle the violence of white privilege. It does not feel as if my voice is needed right now.

But, for the record, I am quietly cheering on the steps forward and grieving the steps backward. It is hard to know what to focus on in the chaos of this moment in our history. It is chilling to observe the indifference with which so many people in power embark on what can only be defined as mass homicide and suicide in the name of a boost to the stock market, like giving up our world to build the grandest of sandcastles. Any success is fleeting, but the losses could be lasting.

I will venture back onto this blog gradually. The violence and grief existed before this year; it’s just more visible right now, and it feels more egregious. I must continue to navigate the same challenges, contradictions, and injustices of daily life as always, doing what feels ordinary during a time that calls for something extraordinary. And hoping that we find a better way.

As someone who cares about democracy, justice, and humanity, I will say as often as necessary: Black lives matter.

I also want to amplify three articles that provide an important counter narrative to racist mythologies and manage at times to carve out a space for hope and even moments of joy.

One is the article by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the 1619 series that I blogged about earlier. Title: “Our democracy’s ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true”
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html

Next is the podcast version of Wesley Morris’s contribution to the 1619 series, “Black music, forged in captivity, became the sound of complete artistic freedom. It also became the sound of America.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/podcasts/1619-black-american-music-appropriation.html

Finally, I really loved this article:
Imani Perry “Racism is Terrible. Blackness is Not.”
https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/racism-terrible-blackness-not/613039/

My Goodreads Review of the novel 2020

As a starting point, it was impossible to suspend disbelief when I discovered this book centers on a character two parts buffoon and one part dictator who believes he owns our country thanks to a few backroom deals with various autocrats around the world (plus a special thank you to Deutsche Bank and Facebook). It is disappointing given the array of examples of finely constructed villains throughout literature to be offered one so completely devoid of any redeeming qualities that it beggars all belief.

While it is typical for this kind of thriller to continue to raise the stakes, I question the decision to include both a deadly pandemic and sweeping protests against police brutality that are then met with relentless amounts of police brutality. For that matter, the entire premise of the pandemic doesn’t make any sense. I mean, what country would dismantle all of its governmental functions, place stooges in charge of every government agency (and the Senate) with the explicit goal of making money for themselves and undermining the agency’s ability to protect its people in the case of a crisis? The narrative behind the spread of the pandemic itself is so poorly constructed—the administration didn’t bother to quarantine or restrict the travel of people returning from other countries if those people were easy to recognize as American citizens? As if being white, rich, and an American citizen makes them immune??

And then we are supposed to believe the administration would seriously offer, though it sounds like a parody, solutions to a pandemic along the lines of “cut taxes and regulations, destroy the environment, and block all immigration.” Are there any readers who would believe in characters this incompetent and immoral? I struggled to keep reading when the author thought it would make sense that any American leader would suppress all information about the virus in a transparent effort to boost the stock market, as if time would somehow stop at that moment. The author was so pleased with this scene that it was repeated with little editing in response to a not-especially-meaningful jobs report.

And it wasn’t enough to make visible the ongoing violence of anti-Black racism upon which this country was founded, but then the author decided, hey, let’s randomly impose curfews as a way to increase violent treatment of both peaceful protesters and innocent bystanders, as if the police were otherwise incapable of recognizing who was peacefully protesting and who was breaking windows with their skateboards (because it’s apparently confusing if the former is Black and the latter is white?) The entire novel is so chaotic, depicting what it might be like to live in a country dominated by selfish people with short attention spans and no awareness of history. I rate this book a 0 out of 5, and I beg the author to take a history class.

One month (or so) in

I have wondered how to take stock of one month (or so) of the pandemic and ongoing extreme social distancing measures. There are the good parts—my family and I have fallen into something of a routine, finding ways to get things done, work, chores, hobbies, and various diversions. We’ve found ways to connect with friends and family online and (at a distance) in the neighborhood.

The hard parts, of course, are watching what seems like so much incompetence and avarice by the U.S. executive branch and its enablers in the Senate, versus the valiant efforts by people at all other levels, regardless of political affiliation, to rise to this challenge. As someone who cares deeply about protecting and exercising the right to vote, I am still reeling from what took place in Wisconsin. Truth to tell, the hardest part of this pandemic hasn’t been social distancing, nor even worrying about how everyone will recover from shutting everything down (as frightening as that can be), but the pain of reading so many reports on all that is going wrong, of the pain and suffering caused by the illness and by the economic hardships, and simultaneously the horror of knowing that there are people whose only reaction is to figure out how to grab power and money in the midst of it. There are no monsters in fiction that come close to the cruelty and depravity on display in our country right now (and alas, similar patterns are emerging in countries led by autocrats around the world). I am a bit ashamed to admit that this still surprises me. I like to see the good in people, and I believe in the radical embrace of hope in the face of daunting odds. Yet what I am forced to witness these days beggars my attempts to describe it, let alone absorb it.

I have heard that emailing our representatives in Congress is as effective these days as calling, and as a writer, email has always seemed easier to me than calling. If you care about the vote as I do, and you happen to be a citizen of the U.S., please consider emailing your representatives (or filling out their website forms) urging them to

-Pass a fourth Coronavirus relief package that includes at least $2 billion in “safe election money” and protects the U.S. post office
-Require states to invest in expanded vote by mail and early voting
-Ensure that in-person polling locations have the resources they need to operate safely and efficiently

(talking points provided by Vote Save America)

Enough.

Even before our world turned upside down and/or made all of our fault lines even more distinct, I wanted to reflect on the concept of enough. If I am allowed to be judge-y this morning, and even if it is my blog, I am not sure it’s a good idea, but still, I tend to define as toxic the insatiable desire for more that permeates my culture. Whatever you have, your job, your house, your car… there is this tendency to want more. To feel as if you are missing out or failing if you don’t get more of something, somehow.

One of my superpowers (and alas, it falters at times) is to be content with enough. Or at least, to try to be. And if necessary, redefine or be creative about what I see as enough. What is enough? This moment, this breath, can sometimes be enough. The sunlight casting a pattern across the room. The birds singing as if it is spring. Kind words from a friend or a stranger.

It is daunting, though, to write on this topic now as I worry about people who do not have enough—enough food, enough shelter, enough human contact, enough medicine. It is hard right now to have enough hope, even though that is something we can, sometimes painfully, try to construct on our own.

There is a saying that I’ve seen out in the world, a bumper sticker, I think: Live simply so that others may simply live. Is it possible, and I ask this sincerely, to find ways to be content with enough so that others might, too?

America on Trial

First, I want to share Adam Schiff’s closing words from January 24, 2020:

Sometimes I think about how unforgiving history can be of our conduct. We can do a lifetime’s work, draft the most wonderful legislation, help our constituents, and yet we may be remembered for none of that, but for a single decision we may be remembered, affecting the course of our country. I believe this may be one of those moments, a moment we never thought we would see, a moment when our democracy was gravely threatened and not from without but from within. Russia, too, has a constitution. It’s not a bad constitution. It’s just a meaningless one. In Russia, they have trial by telephone. They have the same ostensible rights we do to a trial. They hear evidence and witnesses. But before the verdict is rendered, the judge picks up the telephone and calls the right person to find out how it’s supposed to turn out. Trial by telephone. Is that what we have here? Trial by telephone? Someone on the other end of the phone dictating what this trial should look like. The founders gave us more than words. They gave us inspiration. They may have receded into mythology, but they inspire us still. And more than us, they inspire the rest of the world. They inspire the rest of the world. From their prison cells in Turkey, journalists look to us. From their internment camps in China, they look to us. From their cells in Egypt, those who gathered in Tahrir Square for a better life look to us. From the Philippines, those that were the victims and their families of mass extrajudicial killing. From Elgin prison, they look to us. From all over the world, they look to us. And increasingly, they don’t recognize what they see. It’s a terrible tragedy for them. It’s a worse tragedy for us because there is nowhere else for them to turn. They’re not going to turn to Russia. They’re not going to turn to China. They’re not going to turn to Europe with all of its problems. They look to us because we are still the indispensable nation. They look to us because we have a rule of law. They look to us because no one is above that law. And one of the things that separates us from those people in Elgin prison is the right to a trial. A right to a trial. Americans get a fair trial. And so I ask you, I implore you, give America a fair trial. Give America a fair trial. She’s worth it.

Schiff’s final words are searing. And troubling. I know too well how consistently we have fallen short of what is invoked when he speaks of a fair trial. Justice for all is too often merely justice for the elite. The vote has been suppressed violently, stealthily, and systematically. The structure of our Senate and the electoral college award power based on geography, not population. The brutality of this administration is staggering, but injustice and brutality are not new to our country. What is also not new is that there have been hard-fought victories that we should celebrate and simultaneously losses that exhaust our ability to grieve.

The challenge to live up to the ideals of democracy is not new to this moment. It will always be an ambitious goal that will break our hearts again and again.

In the past, though, when we failed, we could still agree on what we were trying to achieve: democracy, fairness, justice… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even if we disagreed on how to achieve these goals. We frequently failed to see what was missing or to include everyone. We must push for a government of the people, by the people, and for the people that actually serves and protects all of its people. Democracy and justice are actions, not outcomes, an endless journey to places we cannot yet imagine.

There are some who claim power due to the absence of perfect outcomes. They say that because promises of democracy and justice were made but not yet attained, we will promise you nothing and you must be content. Since perfect isn’t possible, you have to accept despair and cynicism.

So what is at stake in this impeachment trial is not the question “Are we democratic and just?” That will always be a work in progress.

No, it is something more chilling, dark, and desolate. The question is “Do we still aspire to be democratic and just?”

The defenders of this White House say no.