The Stories in Your Bones

Paper from the towers

(author’s note: This year, the first class of freshmen who were not alive on September 11th, 2001 will begin high school.)

Remember the morning
paper rained
from our choked September sky
that moment we understood
what was drifting down around us
like the strange slow tears
of a concrete jungle
that never saw it coming

Remember that silence
the ash-covered speechlessness
that followed the screaming
and the wandering
toward familiar spaces
bars and faces
in search of news and comfort
while we waited for the world to end

Remember the walls
of hurried home-printer desperation
a sea of smiling faces
unbearable joy betrayed
by the obituary sadness
of the words “last seen”
never have so many prayers
been uttered by atheists

Telling us to ‘never forget’
is like telling us to breathe
each fragmented moment
wedged into our bones
we used them to rebuild ourselves
when the world we understood
disappeared in smoke and paper
and that smell there are no words for

But remembering is so much more
than a call to weighted silence
remembering won’t save us
if it lives behind our tongues
as generations grow
that will learn that day as history
from borrowed books and broadcasts
without memories in their bones

I know that you remember
I see it in the way your eyes shift focus
when you smell September
how you still look up so suddenly
at the sound of passing planes
collective knowing can’t be shared
in multiple choice questions
it cannot be carried in a backpack

Knowing is the sirens
on the roof of the Millennium
when the buildings were still shifting
and we ran to not be buried
knowing is the letters
from the kids who couldn’t sleep
to the workers who refused to
making even stubborn heroes weep

But I’m not the only one
rebuilt from shrapnel of my memories
not the only one with eyes
so often on the sky
speak what you remember
for those with nothing to forget
because the freshmen need the stories
that we carry in our bones

 

More on September 11th by American Raksha:

Laughing Through September 11th – A Postcard From The Pile (2011)

We Have A Lot Of Work To Do (2014)

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I Heard You

photo by Andrei Niemimäki on FLICKR

I heard you
Above the screech
of talking heads
Above the suffocating silence
from inside the vacuum of political spin
Above the clacking
of millions of fingers on keyboards
Somehow typing and pointing
at the same time

I heard you
as you gasped for the air
that the news had just punched out of your gut
I heard you when you whispered
“Not again”
Some of you
for the millionth time
“why are our bodies your battlefield?”
Some of you
under your breath
with eyes closed
in relentlessly familiar prayer
“please don’t let the shooter be Muslim”
Over and over
Over and over
And the answer came
like a tsunami
that has not quite arrived
but you know
just past the horizon
It is on it’s way
to swallow you whole

I heard you
And I’m whispering back
That I love you
And I know that I cannot unbreak those bodies
But I will learn their names
I cannot yet crack the walls of this misplaced fear
with my love
But I’m trying
And I’m whispering back
That no matter how big the wave
swelling from that narrow fearful place
of weaponized American fear
A fear of you
Will never find its way
into my heart
Because my heart
is already full of you
You are not alone
We are not alone
And love will raise these whispers
into a roar
That fear cannot survive.

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On Being A Not-Racist White American

The most destructive lie that we were taught as liberal white kids in America was not that racism was over, it was that we were not racist. No matter how polite we are, or how many times we sang along to ‘We Are The World,’ what we have not done betrays us. 

 

photo by Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr

I spent the first thirteen years of my life in the American midwest, in neighborhoods that were predominately, but not entirely, white. And because I was a white kid, I didn’t notice. We were taught in school that all people are equal, but were raised outside the classroom on a million micro-messages and subtly reinforced assumptions about what skin color “usually means” – in ways as simple as driving through predominately black neighborhoods and registering how they differed from our own, or as obvious as the Hollywood stereotypes we brought home from the movies. We talked about racism, but never as anything other than past tense or somewhere else. It was a mistake that other people made. I was taught that “all races are beautiful,” but all my friends and all my heroes looked like me. The lessons of equality were abstract, but the lessons implied by the hue of my childhood experience were not. Looking back, or maybe looking inward, the worst part, the most destructive part of a liberal American childhood, is that we were actively taught to believe that we couldn’t be racist.

We were raised to understand how lucky we were, and to believe that we were already on the winning side of history. We were the heroes of the Civil War. Our side won. We were the good guys. And I clearly remember learning about Martin Luther King, Jr and the civil rights movement as something those crazy people in the South were doing. We didn’t have confusing things like segregated schools or parents who used the “n word”. It was totally 100% clear that we were the not-racists, if for no other reason than we had such clear examples of what racism was – and we didn’t do any of that awful stuff. And besides, there were like ten black kids in our school. I imagined their lives in Cosby-show clarity.  So clearly, we were the not-racists. The good guys.

Unfortunately, that’s completely insane. Racism isn’t graded on a bell curve, and we’re not off the hook just because we can point south at confederate flags and white robes and Dylan Roofs.

It’s true that internalized and structural racism can be difficult to identify when you’re on the privileged side of it, and when not seeing it is much, much easier. But we don’t stand a chance at addressing the inequalities of our nation if we can’t even see the bias we carry around in ourselves, or how devastating that willful blindness is to those we claim to see as equals. It is hypocritical to say that we reject acts of violence and race-based terrorism like those that continue to play out across our country when we do nothing beyond sending our prayers and waiving our fingers. It exposes us to everyone, it seems, but ourselves.

It’s ugly. But any progress requires looking that ugly in the eyes. Our eyes. We have to consider that we are not all that we thought we were. We’re not the good guys, and we need to see that our inaction, our non-involvement, and our we-don’t-have-to-get-involved-because-we-haven’t-done-anything-wrong, is racism’s support system. Not as flashy as confederate flags, but every bit as destructive.

In a recent article, Clare Bayard said:

“For those of us white people living in this time and place, who think that in apartheid South Africa we would have actively opposed white supremacist rule, who think that if we’d been alive during the civil rights era we’d have been Freedom Riders or at least supported the sit-ins, if you would have actively condemned the Birmingham church bombing as a terrorist act… don’t sleep on this moment we live in now in which you too are being called to take a stand.” 

So many of us have thought exactly that – have looked backwards in time at the heroes we imagine we would have been. But somehow right now, in this moment in time, are doing nothing. So if you have not yet found a way to engage in this struggle, perhaps the question to ask yourself is “Who am I, truly, if I do nothing?”

The answer, by the way, is racist. Doing nothing is racist. And absolutely no one will look back fondly on all those really clever, not-racist opinions you have.

What we fail to do kills people every day. Kills our fellow Americans. If you really want to fight a war on terror, take a good long look in the mirror.

There is an important distinction to be made between blame and accountability. Blame is pointed outward. It’s what we mark people with before we condemn them. We can blame Dylan Roof. We can blame his parents or his community. We can blame “The South” or the confederate flag. There’s always plenty of it to go around. But accountability is something different. Accountability is an acknowledgement of responsibility. And for these acts of violence where we are so quick to shift the blame away from ourselves, or to force the narrative toward forgiveness, we must first recognize that we are all accountable. We are all accountable for Dylan Roof. For the silence that is our tacit permission for these things to continue. For the apathy that rationalizes that silence. And for the inaction that allows this shit to continue happening.

Not-being-racist is not just being nice to everyone. It’s certainly not a geographical birthright or a lucky coincidence. We were born into a country with a long, inescapable history of white supremacy. We’re not the good guys. The problem is us, and we’re the ones that have to do better. Start right now.

Start here:
http://mic.com/articles/97900/10-simple-rules-for-being-a-non-racist-white-person

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We Have a Lot of Work To Do

A reflection, this year, seems grossly inadequate. Even though every year my view of Ground Zero changes. I know I’m not the only one overwhelmed and exhausted by the world right now. Watching as we insult each other on social media until our fingers bleed about things that cannot be changed in this forum of self-aggrandizing water buckets and public shaming. I am also guilty. Grumbling to myself self-righteously as I watch more and more protesters whose anger – while justified – has not yet evolved into meaningful organization. Watching those who scream and rage about the need for community instead of setting about to build it (both them and me). This year my frustration is leaking through my respectful gratitude. So this year, no waxing nostalgic about the miracles of hell. Our world is broken. And the xenophobic gas released in the wake of 9/11 has only spread and deepened. Stronger than ever. Because we haven’t done enough to stop it. You haven’t done enough. And neither have I.

I don’t want to live in this anger. I don’t want it to cloud my love of this life and the potential for extraordinary action that I know we each possess. So it is the equality of that potential that I will focus on this year. I will double down on my commitment to craft the world I want in spite of the assholes and arsenals that stand in my way.

This is my 9/11.

I promise to stand up.
I promise to laugh.
I promise to build my community.
I promise to work my ass off.
I promise to organize.
I promise to use my fear to drive me forward.

And finally, I promise not to divide. I will not buy in to the manufacturing of enemies. I will not blame “Islam” or “the immigrants” or “the republicans” or “the men” or “the cops” or “the 1%” or any other such horseshit. I will not play that game. I will remain open to any allies willing to work toward the same unity. I will work for unity as opposed to the defeat of enemies. I will remember that it was our work in Ground Zero that united us then – and it is the work we do every day that can unite us now.

We have a lot of work to do.

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The Night Osama Died

photo by herval on FLICKR

photo by herval on FLICKR

I was in bed when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up thinking that good news never comes at night. It took me a moment to recognize the voice. Instead of hello, he said “We got him.”

I already knew. I’d been watching the news anchors speculate as they waited for Obama’s press conference before I’d gone to bed. The voice on the other end of my phone was Chris, a fellow worker from New York’s Ground Zero of so many years before.  Despite the family that such tragedies fuse together, he and I had never been particularly close. But he wanted to make sure I knew. He said that. “We got him. I’m calling everyone. We did it. We finally got him. I just wanted to make sure you knew.” There was triumph in his voice – if not outright joy, then giddy, satisfied resolve. Celebration. The air of long-awaited justice, finally served. Cold but still delicious.

I thanked him for calling. I wasn’t sure what else to say as I pulled myself away from sleep. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. As I hung up, my husband yawned “what was that about?”

“That was Chris,” I replied, “part of my team at Ground Zero. He wanted me to know that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It’s been confirmed.”

“Really? He called just to tell you?”

My husband is from Montreal, and wasn’t a part of those years in my life.  He understood, of course, why people would be relieved that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It was the immediacy and the enthusiasm that surprised him.

It was the completion of a promise. A promise our country had waited a decade to see fulfilled. We’d killed so many to get there. We built an empire of anger and color-coded fear. A web of self-restriction so we could sleep again at night. In those first moments after I hung up the phone, I searched for that happiness I’d heard in Chris’s voice. I closed my eyes and took myself back to those days, as I have done so many times. Into the smoke that smelled of death and burning steel. Into the fear that turns your city to glass, so easily broken. Through the chants of “USA! USA!” that punctuated the president’s visit and every attempt to pull us collectively from our despair and into our rage. I tried to dive back into that pain that threatens to break you from within. The discovery of every body part. The hands holding on to each other but attached to nothing else. The hero’s escort of each recovered firefighter back up the West Side Highway. We stood at attention for every single one. We lost count of the funerals. I searched through those memories for the closure, the relief I knew I should be feeling.

But somehow Osama’s death still offered me nothing.

My mind wandered instead to the years since. The grainy broadcasts of rockets fired off into darkness, searching there for our justice. Each explosion, we were assured, brought us one step closer. It was the war on our terror. But my mind always got stuck in the death. Maybe because I knew what explosions looked like, after. And I never quite figured out how specializing in the export of Ground Zeros would fix the hole in our hearts.

I wandered further, imagining the celebrations that had likely taken place while our own dead still burned. Those strange and terrifying far away monsters that the news had warned us about, who danced at the thought of our dead. They must be monsters, because what creature other than monsters could celebrate the death of those we loved? What creature indeed.

I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling, searching for an answer to the question that was rising from that place in my stomach that knows about terrible things. But I knew the answer before the question had even taken its shape. When does it end? It clearly doesn’t end with the death of Osama. And certainly no one expected that with his death, ten years of xenophobia, military action and the Patriot Act would simply evaporate. That life would reset itself as if some balance had suddenly been restored.

It doesn’t. It doesn’t end. That’s what I realized that night. It doesn’t end because it can’t end. Because every death we celebrate is a martyr for someone else to avenge. In the same way that we’ve sought so much blood for those who died in our towers. If pain and loss give a person the right to kill, there will simply be no one left. And if inflicting pain and death on others is something to be celebrated, as we clearly did through every network broadcast that night, who had we become? As Chris had said that night, “we did it.” But what had we done?

And here we are, years later, and there will still never be enough blood to avenge those already lost, and we will never drop enough bombs to ensure the peace we claim to seek. It cannot be done. The people we are attacking are people. And in my own very limited, personal way, I know what Ground Zeros do to people. They do not bring peace, or encourage submission or silence. When we were attacked, our rage demanded blood. Why would it be any different for anyone else? If there are 20, or even 2000 ‘terrorists’ we are attempting to kill, I assure you that with every drone strike there will be many, many more.

Don’t misunderstand this – I am not a pacifist. My struggle is not with the necessity of violence as means of protection, but rather as a marker of achievement. It’s the end game I don’t see.

Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

For me, the night Osama Bin Laden died was not an ending. It was the first night I truly started to understand what Dr. King meant and with that came the realization of just how radical that statement was. Not just because we’re still willing to believe, however reluctantly, that peace sits waiting for us on the far side of anyone’s patriotic retribution, but because it means that the love he speaks of cannot be passive if it is going to drive anything out of anywhere. And if we are part of that love, then neither can we be passive. 

The love he’s talking about is not timid or frivolous or weak. His life, and every life he touched, demonstrates that the love he spoke of was deeply powerful – and unrelenting and strategic. Always learning, organizing and growing. Always open. Not silent. Larger with every new ally. Always working. Always reevaluating the playing field – the systems of power. Always aware of the connection we have to each other. And the responsibility that connection demands.

That connection does not know skin or border. It is stronger than the divisions we manufacture with our fear. It laughs at every new line we draw in the sand. It runs through all of us. All. of. us. It isn’t ours to award. We only get to choose whether or not we will accept our responsibility to each other. Whether we will stand in that light or that darkness.

It is also a hard road forward. Accepting that responsibility means that regardless of where someone is standing, we recognize the humanity we all share. It means that we can honor loss and grief (ours and theirs) – but we cannot honor the hatred that is a product of that pain. And we cannot use pain to justify death. This path is much harder than simply continuing to believe that our violence is righteous violence. But in so honoring each other, there is both hope and power. There is, at the very least, a space for the possibility of understanding. A crack in the wall.

That is how love drives out hate. By working and organizing and connecting at every moment to be unrelentingly unified. Not in our beliefs. Not in our identities. Only in the recognition of our equal value. There are no roads to resolution that do not start from that place. It is possible.

I just wanted to make sure you knew.

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The Conversations We Keep

The rage.

The heels-dug-into-cement vitriolic polarization. Unrestrained hostility. Endless personal attacks and accusations choking every conversation. It’s what happens when hate marinates over generations. The endless heartbreaking pictures. It’s overwhelming, and we’re making it worse.

When we decide to post and share the articles about the Israeli member of parliament who believes that Israel must murder Palestinian mothers, or the one about the Israeli scholar who sees rape as a reasonable tactic of deterrence, or the video of Palestinian daycare workers abusing their own children, we are making a dangerous choice. Yes, those things exist. Darkness and extremism exist everywhere in the world. And yes, we should be horrified by these things. But what is it that makes us share the worst and most extreme cases of ignorance and depravity instead of focusing on signs of the common ground we so desperately need? Those signs are out there. Is it truly just “human nature”? Why do we allow ourselves to steep in such overwhelming pain when there is clearly so much work to be done? The conversations we have matter more than we think.

When we share stories like the ones above, we are making a choice about the conversations we want to have. We are deciding to spend our time standing in judgement – basking in the comforting glow of moral superiority – instead of spending our energy pursuing avenues of common ground that might actually help put an end to the violence and to the circumstances that create such extremism. I understand the impulse to highlight such clear injustice, but choosing to focus on what dehumanizes us to each other moves us in the wrong direction. Right now, on social media, we are complaining about the impossibility of rational discussion while we participate in making it worse. We cannot shame our way to peace.

It’s easy to rationalize that sharing things we find shocking, that seem to reinforce a belief we already hold, can potentially shock others into sympathizing with our cause. But most of the time  it has the opposite effect. By and large, instead of inciting people to action in support of our cause, these posts betray our own bigotry, our own impulse to dehumanize, and incite uselessly aggressive comment wars that ultimately deepen the divide. We lament the horrors of the conflict while driving people further away from each other. We are doing this to ourselves.

For many who do not hold positions on one extreme or the other, the easiest course in response to this trend has become silence. In the face of such hostility, the space for rational conversation and debate has been completely suffocated. But this is exactly the time that prying open that space is most important – that silence is the most destructive. Families continue to die. And around the world we feel paralyzed to stop it.  We are not paralyzed, and what we talk about (and how we talk about it) effects how we view the possibilities for change. We have a choice.

These conversations matter. Yes, we need action. We need to pressure those in government who claim to represent us when they clearly do not. Yes, we need to organize ourselves and strategize ways to end this violence. But in the midst of these necessary actions, we cannot forget that our conversations, our narratives, and the stories we tell are what create the space for those changes to take place. They serve not only as a space for working toward reconciliation, but also to remind us that the reconciliation we seek is truly possible – even in the midst of what seems like pure madness.

Violence porn doesn’t solve conflicts – the photos of Gaza have proven this to us beyond all shadow of doubt. Neither does holding up the extremist views of others as proof of our own moral high ground. But building community and focusing on what can move us forward does. If we continue to focus on what we despise, we pave the way for the rationalization of further violence. If we are truly seeking resolution, then it’s time to ask ourselves which conversation we want to be having.

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The Peace We Seek

What if we stopped believing that peace and conflict are mutually exclusive?

photo by momo on FLICKR

photo by momo on FLICKR

 

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare understood that we are, all of us, hypocrites – a series of contradictions. My newsfeed confirms that no amount of evidence can stand up against our ability to rationalize. We form most of our beliefs by working backwards – by first holding a belief and then fitting the facts to suit whatever our conviction might be.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance revolves around the idea that humans will seek to eliminate dissonance in their lives. This dissonance would be defined as any set of conflicting beliefs. He hypothesized that this dissonance creates distress that people will seek to reduce. While I believe this to be true, I would argue that we do not typically seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for us. 

Instead, in a modern world driven by polarizations, we more often reduce intellectual contradictions through acrobatic rationalization – by redefining our realities and shaving off the edges of the puzzle pieces to make them fit together. Known by many names, including “confirmation bias” and “selective perception,” this well-documented process of rationalization has been the subject of decades of study in psychology. 

And these days, it’s an epidemic.

A Rationalized World

Take, as an example, the American demonization of Mexican immigrants. Defying all logic, they are stereotyped and dehumanized as both ‘lazy’ (a burden on the American social welfare system) and ‘stealing jobs from Americans’ simultaneously. Even if one is willing to entertain such ridiculous generalizations, one should logically conclude those two traits are mutually exclusive. Clearly both are false, but it doesn’t matter. When it’s ‘us’ vs. ‘them,’ the truth doesn’t matter at all. That’s the point. Logic doesn’t matter. As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is truth – and the same can be said not just in war, but in any construction of the ‘other’.

So let’s push this idea further. It isn’t just indicative of our disastrous ability to rationalize, but also of the way that rationalization effects how we relate to each other on every level. By always needing to frame disagreements and conflict through an us vs. them lens, there is no space for critical thought. Through that familiar frame, the goal in conflict is never to listen or learn – but only to win. And if the goal is only ever to win, then empathy, or worse – changing your mind – becomes the definition of defeat.

Defined this way, conflict was never about reason, never about dialogue, or our right to communicate our ideas – it was about power, about winning (and, of course, about the other guy losing). Because within the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, it is winning that makes you right. So then what need is there to listen or address the concerns of the ‘losers’? There is none, because the battle has been won. Only the “winner” in this could possibly believe that this system isn’t completely discordant to peace. And so here we are.

The Wrong Questions

Our ideas about what conflict is (and what winning means) are woven into everything we do. Through this ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ frame, conflict is bad and inherently threatening. It is something to be ‘won’ as opposed to understood or addressed. But creativity and art are both the product of conflict, as is progress. Resolution exists on the other side of conflict, and our insistence on this destructively oversimplified frame clouds our basic understanding of what conflict really is. And if our understanding of conflict is wrong, what hope is there for resolution?

Many of our attempts at defining peace incorporate an absence of conflict. But what if peace isn’t an absence of conflict? What if peace looks more like meaningful conflict? What if we need to understand conflict before we can understand what this elusive peace would look like? What if all this theorizing is useless when we run from or react violently to any actual conflict presented to us?

Stepping Back to Move Forward

Our current notions of peace are not peace at all – much in the same way that Orwell defined each ministry in 1984 by giving it a name opposite to it’s function. In many ways – from terrorism to COIN (counter-insurgency) – it seems our own governments have followed Orwell’s example. The things we do in the name of ‘peace’, much like ‘democracy’ and ‘liberation’, look remarkably unlike the ideals these words are suggestive of. Whose peace? Whose liberation? Our ability to rationalize appears limitless.

If we are ever going to overcome the hypocrisy built in to the narratives that surround us (and the narratives we tell ourselves), we need to realize that we have everything to learn from each other – that what we see as an ‘other’ is really just a ‘different us.’ We need to look at what conflict consists of, not simply what it’s outcomes are. We need to acknowledge that peace is neither silent nor passive. It’s active and authentic – just as anger and fear and discord are also authentic and part of the same system. Maybe somewhere in this radical reflection we’ll realize that peace and conflict are not separate things at all.

What if we actually did seek to reduce the contradictions in our beliefs by carefully and openly evaluating them to determine what holds the most truth and value for all of us?  It would teach us that peace IS conflict – conflict entered into with coherency and empathy. They are part of the same broken process – and separating them from each other is actually what broke that process in the first place.

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