Tuesday, October 03, 2017

There But for the Grace....

Days like this, it is so good to go to the local Amish store and chat with Alfred and his daughters. It's not that the Amish are perfect or exempt from the challenges of living; in fact some things, like health care, impact them directly. They self-insure as a community, and Alfred's one son Michael (out of 8 kids) just broke his foot and had four pins put in... he told me each pin cost $700. (All things considered, I wondered if they did it without anesthesia, because it sounded pretty cheap.) But they are, in spite of their vastly increased contact with the English (only about 10% earn their living by farming now) still detached and serenely unconcerned with the turmoil and distress of modern life. It's their faith, and even if you find it absurd, you must admit that they are joyful, uncomplicated, and successful people.

Today, though, after having made that visit, and feeling I had stepped away from the ranting and speculation and finger-pointing after yet another mass shooting, a torrent of words and phrases I don't even want to get into... because it leads nowhere... and because I dispute the premises upon which it begins... something happened that left me far more disturbed, in some ways.

We live in a very small town (pop. about 200) and on my way home from the Amish store, where I bought fresh bread, nuts, kombucha made locally, chips, soap, and some items for my bnb, I stopped at the Dollar General to get something the Amish did not have. Heading to the register, I became aware of a woman with three small children ahead of me, trying to deter one of them (all girls) from fingering some candy. "Mommy can't buy that today. She doesn't have her food card.." The children were filthy, not a common sight in our rural town. People here are poor -- we have free lunches for all at our school --( and in fact, we are "poor" by common standards), but proud. We get by with loaning and borrowing, canning and freezing, stretching and scrimping. It doesn't look like a place of poverty. Yards and roadsides are clean and tidy. And kids have clean clothes and decent haircuts. So this woman, and her kids, stood out.

I glanced at her. And saw what I didn't want to. Her shoulder length hair was matted, her face as dirty as you'd ever imagine. Her stretch pants hung below her pregnant belly (the oldest of the three girls could not have been more than four) and also revealed a few inches of her buttocks. She had two residual black eyes and her nose was flat. Too flat for a white woman. Her front teeth, when she spoke a moment later, were gone.

Another woman, well dressed, with highlighted hair, swooped in and did what I'd briefly considered: Let me buy some candy for them. My treat, she said. 

It's just the money... the mom said.

Really, it's no problem at all, the lady stooped down and made sure each had two of the same, Mentos, and a round pop, so they wouldn't fight. You go on now. 

And on they went.

I was shaking as I paid my bill. This woman, a tiny saint, who knelt down to those children and said, in gestures, someone is out here who is kind and will care about you, was paying at another register, and I heard her say, That could have been me one day.

It was one of those idioms that I couldn't quite decipher; did she mean in the past, or in the future, if she hadn't escaped some situation?

That's right, I said, meaning me. Meaning, people I know, now and in the past, and people I am related to, meaning, it's not an either/or. It's just a matter of degree. There were four women in the Dollar General then. Two clerks and two customers. But a moment of understanding fell upon us that I think I have never experienced.

I had to stop three times on the four mile drive home. 

Yes, I know that there are men of color and women who are abusive. But the vast number of abusers are white men, from whoever is beating that woman so senseless that she doesn't even care if her butt is showing to the white man who just murdered and injured hundreds in Las Vegas, to our so-called President who spent days insulting and assaulting the Mayor of San Juan as she struggled to get a call for help out of her strangled throat.

God: what will it take for you to hear this prayer?

I tried to raise sons who would never demean or diminish women. I tried to raise a daughter who'd never sit still for one word of gesture that belittled or in any way impugned her.

Yet. Yet. The face and body of this poor, battered woman and her three daughters has nearly broken me, because I feel her within me. I think she lives within all of us, in the shadows, triggered so easily by the words of a domineering, narcissistic, dismissive, male (or female) and hiding there, in the shadows, where she was born. She wasn't born with us. We came into this world whole, proud, lusty, and worthy. And, just because you look "okay" doean't mean you're not on the continuum. With her.

The broken, beaten woman was born as the abused child, by stern fathers, mothers, teachers, abusive step-brothers, ex-husbands who cheated, demeaned, controlled, accused, bosses, and the shame that followed, and mocked by all the other women who I saw needed help and didn't know how to reach.

When I see her, in the flesh, it's like a ghost. I'm haunted. Pray with me.

Monday, September 25, 2017

How are you, Beloved?

Swing built by Big Daddy for Pupcake. I loved sitting in it and thinking about how strong and sturdy he made it, of her day dreams as she watched him at work... and I loved the drink holder her made for their pop! All little girls should have a dad like this. It's at the top of the hill where there's a cool breeze no matter how hot the day.

First, allow me to check in regarding Big Daddy (Benjamin) for those who read my August post. He is still in custody, and has been moved around the country numerous times. From KY to Indiana, to Chicago, to Jena, LA (remember the Jena Six?) to a facility in Texas right on the Mexico border and now back to Chicago.

Protesting Jena Six arrest 2006
With UK students

Imagine that you are his wife, Pansy Valdez, a forty-something Black woman from Springfield, KY who has rarely left the county... and who depends upon "Big Daddy" for her livelihood and that of their foster daughter, Pupcake. You're going to have to roll with me on the nicknames. So far every person I've met has one, including me. I'm "Casey's mama," and almost never Cynthia.

Pansy is beside herself. Benjamin is not a criminal nor a felon and he has been here for eleven years, they are married, and his paperwork for staying is almost complete. But he is being treated like a criminal, or worse, like an animal. Moved from place to place, indiscriminately, denied contact with his family, and proper care and attention. I'm also disturbed by the way Pansy, a Black woman, is treated by the system. In this case, Black Lives and Brown lives do NOT matter.
Legal papers

Since I wrote about their plight, I've become friends (on Facebook) with a young woman at Transylvania University who is a DACA recipient and who was the victim of a racist and hate-filled campaign by another student. He has since withdrawn, but the issue gives off the scent of having been swept under the proverbial carpet.

I heard from a young man I know here in Washington County, a college student who has also been covered by DACA. The latest earthquake in Mexico struck his home city, and he would love to go there to provide aid, but he can't because he realizes he may not be allowed to return to this country.

Knowing individuals affected by these policies is something I highly recommend. It brings a humanity and a reality to the brutal and disruptive lack of sensitivity with which families and communities are being wrenched apart. Immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have been tolerated and even encouraged in this country for decades largely because they worked hard for low wages. Blaming them for coming here to escape dangerous situations and take those jobs is worse than disingenuous. It's dishonorable. In fact, if you think long and hard about it, people from South and Central America who are primarily indigenuous people have a closer link to the people who actually once owned this country than most of us (white Europeans) do.


I detest the rhetoric of exclusion and expulsion. It goes against every instinct that I have.

But, as I started by asking, how are you? Because I think those of us who have a softer heart toward the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the disinherited of the world are also suffering at this time. All around us walls of security and promise are crumbling, and barriers, real and metaphorical, of hate and fear are rising. We are absolutely seeing the worst of our own colleagues, friends, families, and sometimes, ourselves.

Just last week, I brought up an issue at a local meeting of Democratic Women and found myself facing an angry and defensive response. I was talking about how our small county seat had no Black teachers even though there is a significant Black population (22%). They immediately disagreed, and some of the answers were: You are wrong, the Catholic school has a Black teacher; Well, there used to be a Black teacher; and they don't put themselves out for positions.

A few days later when I spoke to my son's 7th grade teacher about the notion of using Teaching Tolerance in the classroom, he proceeded to tell me he had issues with the Democratic party and Southern Poverty Law Center (which produces the Curriculum.)

And these are the liberal and progressive members of the community!

Our friends and acquaintances of color tell us that it's been this way for them all along. "Welcome to the party. We've always known how bad it is. You finally woke up and got a whiff of the Starbucks, soccer lady." Even those of us who've spent decades contemplating and reading, writing and preaching about racism and racial justice feel hopeless and answer-less.

We feel as if we are on a ladder to nowhere or a crazy amusement park ride that the carnival barker won't stop.

I don't like football. I didn't even like it when my son played 20 years ago, but he did, and my current husband watches it, even though the jury is no longer out about CTE. It's a barbaric sport and the mostly Black players, to me. trade their health, sanity, and years of their lives for money. Fans who watch it, well... I just can't understand that. It's like gladiators. But when someone says, regarding the current controversy about athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest killings of Black men, it's a very week argument to say, "they are paid to play.It's their job. Do that on your own time." I cringe. Indeed, they are paid to do a lot more than play.

But IMO, many of the teams came up with a reasonably creative solution on Sunday: locking arms, showing solidarity, kneeling or standing together. It was not enough for some, and too much for others. A point was made.

So, I hope your answer was, Not fine. I am not fine at all. I think it's a most important time to be not fine. I think it's ok to go on Facebook if you live way out in the hinterlands as I do, to touch base, to converse, to connect. I think we have no choice but to stay engaged and figure out, individually and collectively, with as much courage and creativity as we can muster, what is ours to do to stop this menace that grows daily and to win back our country and its place in the world.

I have put a great deal of thought into how we are much like a huge addictive, alcoholic system at this time...which, for some of us, feels almost "normal...," which is why we must keep saying to ourselves and one another, This is not normal.

To be continued...

Friday, August 18, 2017

In Big Daddy's Garden

Walk with me in Big Daddy's garden.

The abandoned shovel, trowel, and rake. Amongst the rows of neatly organized, pruned and tended fruits and vegetables, not a thing out of place, it was clear that someone had hastily departed. Dozens of cantaloupe lay ripe and warm, already detached from their stems. Tomatoes hung heavily from stems that were trained onto carefully constructed supports. Clearly, the gardener was missing.

What are these huge green things?

I was there because I'd offered to help weed the garden and pick the veggies. The garden's owner is a man who has been a part of our community for eleven years, and he's the husband of a good friend, a friend who probably saved my son's life with a phone call. She is very dear to me, and we are currently working together to start a Black History Society in the county we live in. Her husband, Benjamin Valdez, is from Mexico, and despite the fact that his paperwork for a green card is almost complete... he is in custody after being picked up by ICE over a week ago.
I don't know what the sharpened wooden posts are, either!

He's being held in Boone County, several hours away, so Pansy, who doesn't drive out of Springfield, and their foster daughter, who is devoted to Benjamin, and has been through desertion and trauma too many times to count, can't visit him, and he doesn't have his asthma medication.

The tidy and immaculate arrangement of everything was reminiscent of my father.

My initial reaction was envy. How could someone have so few weeds and bugs after a week's absence? Then I realized that no doubt Big Daddy (which is the name everyone uses for Benjamin, and I'll use from now on..) doesn't have an organic garden. I took one of the melons home, and ate it, still warm. It was nirvana. I have to admit that I began to wonder whether organic farming is worth it! I've spent the entire summer battling weeds and pests.

Even the debris is perfectly ordered!

But soon, as I tried to find a weed or two, and then resorted to picking what was ripe, and taking pictures, my mind wandered to Big Daddy. I don't know him well. I don't know a lot about the adult children he has in Mexico. I know he is a devoted church-goer and a hard worker, a foreman in the tobacco fields and an agriculture worker during other seasons. Last time I saw him, we talked about gardens and tomatoes, and he asked about my son... who no longer lives in the county. After I told him how well he is doing, he asked me if he goes to church. His English is heavily accented, and I couldn't understand church until he said iglesia. When my son was struggling with addiction and alcoholism, there were so many people who loved him, cared for him, and prayed for him. I will never forget that. And I am praying for Big Daddy, Pansy, and Pupcake (the daughter's nickname, and I have one, too. So does my son, and everybody in the Black community.)

These are strawberries.

Grapes. I ate one, and it tasted exactly like the grapes on my father's grapevines, of which he too was very proud. I started to think about how much he'd approve of Big Daddy's garden. And yet, and yet: to my father, born in 1909, Mexicans were the people who came around in the summer and worked in the farms. I'm sure he never met one otherwise. African Americans were inferior. While I never heard racist slurs from him, there is no doubt I learned and lived White Privilege.

The garden is terraced, and from the top down we have grapes, strawberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, eggplant, tomatoes, squash & more. As you ascend, a breeze stirs and lifts around you, even on the hottest day. I try to feel what it must be like for Big Daddy, especially compared with grueling, numbing work of tobacco fields in Kentucky heat.

Nonetheless, my father hated Nazis. He lived through two World Wars. He actually instilled a dislike of  Germans as strongly as that of Jews, Catholics and people of color. I had to look at my knee-jerk aversion to Germans! I don't know how he'd react to all of this. But in Big Daddy's garden, I saw the evidence of a man who must have found order, calm, peace and joy in his contact with the earth, his ability to grow something from nothing, his assurance of filling his family with good food. Much like my father.

I think they shared this.

My father, also an inheritor and (I would say) victim of white privilege, worked for the now-closed Frankford Arsenal during the Vietnam War, and until the mid-seventies. I think this troubled him. I think many things did. His garden, I am sure, gave him solace.

At this time during which we are being asked to stand up and take sides, I know that my father's daughters and all of my children are already standing with people of color, with Jewish people, with immigrants, and with the disenfranchised and the disempowered people of this land.

Everything was stacked and tidied to perfection. 

Pansy is optimistic. She feels certain that Big Daddy will not be deported because he has a lawyer and his paperwork is in order. He's one step away from his green card. I share this walk with you because you may not know a person who has been picked up by ICE and is being held prisoner in a country in which they've been a productive and peaceful citizen for more than a decade. A person who is going through all the steps to become a legal immigrant. 

So when you hear Trump or Jeff Sessions or others talk about "illegals" who bring drugs and rape people and who are criminals, think about Big Daddy. A person who plants, strawberries, takes his foster daughter to the pool, worries about my son, is loved by his community, is a man of faith and integrity.

I know Pansy and Big Daddy would welcome prayers and thoughts. Thank you for taking this walk with me. Please share.
Rake, left behind.