Tuesday, December 30, 2014

quote of the day

“An economic system centered on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it."


more chrissmiss

Jerry (my step-dad), me, Lopa, Samuel

My mom is teaching two violin students: Lopa & Samuel. They're both PhD students in chemistry at the College of William & Mary, here in Williamsburg. They came over the day after Christmas & we spent the afternoon/evening together. They brought some musical instruments, so we all played a bit. We chatted, ate delicious food, and played a story game they gave me as a gift. T'was a lovely time!

Then, a couple days later, mom and Jerry and I took a drive northeast of here, to some places where Jerry used to live & frequent in years past. We stopped in at this country store.
Then, yesterday, it was my 38th birthday. Mom & I went to a Korean restaurant for lunch. It's cool to discover new places to eat together (since my parents just moved here this year).

Mom made me a delicious gluten-free carrot cake, which you can see. Plus my favorite: spaghetti & meatballs. I feel so Midwestern & American, to have that as my favorite! But, it is what it is. You can also see in this photo that I found a book yesterday that is tweets from historical figures. Like, tweets from Plato, Archimenedes, Nixon, Stalin, Joan of Arc, etc. It is very funny. I read it at dinner and we all laughed a lot. Laughing on one's birthday is good.

I lost my camera a few weeks ago, and through some sneakery my mom, step-dad, brother, and sister-in-law bought me a new one! How cool is that? SO COOL. It was super unexpected!

Here's me with my new camera, feeling very happy!

Friday, December 26, 2014

a real christmas song

I really like this original Christmas song by Tim Minchin. I like it because it is smart. And I like it because it articulates things I have long felt and haven't quite managed to articulate. Like, "I get freaked out by churches. Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords but the lyrics are dodgy. And yes I have all of the usual objections to the miseducation of children who in tax-exempt institutions are taught to externalize blame and to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right or wrong. But I quite like Christmas songs." See? Smart. And not your garden-variety Christmas song. See what you think.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

richmond family

On Sunday my Mom and I drove with her first cousin, Marilyn, to the city of Richmond, Virginia, which is where my Grandma (my mom's mom) was born & raised. We met up with my Great Aunt Rose, who was my grandma's younger brother Edmund's wife. I am sorry to report that Edmund died young and unexpectedly. But the family has always kept in touch with Aunt Rose. This was the first time I'd met her! We also met up with Tom. I'll say more about him in a sec. For now, here we are, L to R:

Me, Mom, Great Aunt Rose, Marilyn, Tom

So, my Grandma's older brother, Thomas Jefferson III, had three children, and Marilyn and Tom are two of those children.

Confused yet?

(Also, it was only that day that I found out that my great-grandfather was named Thomas Jefferson II. !!!!!  And my grandmother name is Virginia. So, it seems that some seriously patriotism is in my family line.

Also, I discovered that our ancestor, Symon Ogburn, came to Virginia from England in the mid 1600s, and that it's only been 10 generations from him to me, because a number of his descendants had children in later life--which stretched out the generations. How crazy is that? Only ten generations from Symon to me. I hope so much that none of my ancestors had slaves. I'm afraid to find out one way or the other, but I suppose I should.

And that is what I have to say about that! (P.S. Marilyn is an engineer at NASA. How cool is that?)
We visited Tom at his home, along with his wife (who's standing in front of him) and their daughter, Becky (center). I enjoyed being with them very much. And Becky even gave me a pair of cool Christmas ears like hers!

Friday, December 19, 2014

mom and me

small update + recommendations of the day

Sorry I haven't been writing much about myself and my life lately. I've been traveling a lot and somewhere along the way I got overwhelmed by the thought of writing up everything that's been happening. This week, for example, I drove from southeastern Virginia, where I'm visiting my mom and step-dad, to western Maryland for parts of three days, to visit a former teacher of mine and her husband. Along the way I also visited the author whose book I'm editing; he lives in Michigan but was in Virginia for a little while and so we had lunch along with his wife and baby. The point being: there is a lot happening in my travels, and it's great, or most of it is great, but it's a wee bit intimidating to think of writing it all out!

Between now and January 11, I'll be here in Michigan with my parents. So maybe I'll have time & energy to backtrack & post photos of where I've been & reflect on what it's like to visit with such a diversity of people in such a diversity of places over a small span of time.

Meanwhile, I've been catching up on Ta-Nehisi Coates' articles over at The Atlantic. He's one of the writers I most trust these days. It's a rather new thing for me to follow individual writers at magazines, rather than just thinking of all the writers at a magazine as the voice of the magazine. (Like, when I read The New Yorker I tend to think of it all as New Yorker writing, rather than distinguishing between writers. But I'm starting to do that more and more--read the writers, rather than the magazines. If that makes sense.)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written maybe the best article on the response to Ferguson that I've read so far, and I recommend it highly: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/11/barack-obama-ferguson-and-the-evidence-of-things-unsaid/383212/

And then he also wrote about how he believes that Bill Cosby is a rapist, and has believed this for quite a long time. It's an amazing article, both because he (Coates) admits his own cowardice in the past, and because he's coming right out and saying point-blank that he believes Cosby is a rapist but that the American society doesn't have the guts/courage to really believe that and see it and remember it. Again, I highly recommend this read: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/11/the-cosby-show/382891/

Saturday, December 13, 2014

recommendations of the day

Here are a couple recommendations for the day:

1. The Problem with #crimingwhilewhite (an article written on Jezebel)

To summarize, the problem with white people telling their stories about being pulled over the the cops, or other stories, is that it is still white people telling their own stories. In the context of injustice perpetrated against black people.

2. How sexism stifles creativity (an article written on The Atlantic)

To summarize, when women in a mixed-gender group feel that they will be treated with respect and listened to, they feel safer, and thus can be much more creative.

Friday, December 12, 2014

recommendation of the day

This is a website devoted entirely to good news. And it's genuine good news too. Good news about stuff that matters. http://www.dailygood.org

quote of the day

We do not see things as they are.
We see them as we are.

-The Talmud

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

quote of the day

“I have often said that one of the principal causes of terrorism is the issue of loss. People resort to violence when they feel something has been taken from them. Giving love to them, instead of returning violence with violence, is returning to them something that has been lost. Giving love can radically change even seemingly hopeless situations. This is why Jeus tells us to love those who do not love us. Much of my work in religious sectarianism is simply about showing love to the unlovely.”

            -Andrew White, the bishop of the Anglican cathedral in Baghdad. He has worked with and befriended many terrorists and perpetrators of great crimes, in Israel/Palestine and in Iraq, and is widely recognized for his work across all boundaries, for peace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

what cleaning out my storage unit meant to me

Today I wrote a letter to a friend and after I'd written a reflection on my recent experience with my storage unit I decided I wanted to share it with y'all. Here it is:

One of the best things that happened in the past couple weeks was that I spent 4 days going through my storage unit in Indiana. It's been in storage since I left Indiana 4.5 years ago. I thought I'd retrieve it years ago, but it just hasn't happened. I threw away or gave away half of what was in the unit--4 SUVs full of stuff! + a truck-full of stuff (someone came & picked up the mattress, armchairs, etc.)--including a number of things associated with previous relationships. I went through every box I had in there, re-packed a bunch of stuff, gave books to the library, remembered a whole lot of things that I'd forgotten I had, and generally reconnected with my own history. 

For the couple months prior, I'd had this sense that I should return to the storage unit, which didn't even make sense because I don't have the money to actually retrieve the stuff from the unit, but I heeded the sense anyway. And somehow, I'm not even entirely sure how, it ended up being a much more profound experience than I'd expected. I came away with this understanding that I so often have settled for a dim vision for what is possible for my life.....I think maybe because there are lots of things in the storage unit that remind me of past romantic relationships, and the ways that I allowed things to happen that I didn't want...it was a kind of resignation, a sense that I couldn't expect anything better from life, so why even try? (I also saw all the pretty clothes that I own--not necessarily fancy, but pretty-- that I'd forgotten I had because they've all been in storage for 5 years....which somehow seems like such a metaphor...) I don't want to do that. I think I've gotten much better about not doing that, and I want to do better still. Not even so much in the romantic arena (although there too!) as in life as a whole. I can, and want to, dream of a good life for myself, one with joy and calm and creativity, and then live into that life.

Monday, December 8, 2014

hungry deer: a parable

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they won't have to worry about an answer.
-Thomas Pynchon

The last few days I've been in Indiana, sorting through my storage unit. While there, I stayed with Pam and Jim, a couple my parents knew way back in the day, when I was a little kid. I haven't had a conversation with them since then, so it was interesting to catch up on the last 30 years.

Yesterday morning I was telling Pam that I'd like to have a garden someday. She said she'd had a garden, off and on, over the years, but that in recent years the deer had been especially bad, eating everything in the garden, plus all the flowers, plus bark off the trees. To which I replied, what the heck? That's weird behavior. Why would they be eating the bark? Pam said she had no idea. I pondered. Then I said: sounds like starving deer to me. She agreed that it did sound like the kind of thing that only starving deer would do. I pondered more. Why would the deer be starving? Well, the answer wasn't that hard to arrive at. The forests have been almost entirely cut down in that area. Housing developments have taken over like smallpox taking over a tribe. Predators of deer, besides humans, have been eliminated completely. And so, there you have it: too many deer and not enough food or shelter for the deer.

It struck me, how often the human question seems to be, "what's wrong with the deer?" Rather than, "what's wrong with the system as a whole, that the deer are driven to this behavior?"

Saturday, December 6, 2014

ziah the buddha + the nature of desire + AJ the prophet

A few weeks back I was visiting my pal Lori, as y'all know, which meant that I was also visiting her kiddos, one of whom is Ziah, who is 4-years-old. One day I was hanging out with Ziah and he reeeeeeeeeaaaaaaallllllllyyyyyyy wanted something. It was, like, a cup of yogurt. Or one of his superhero action figures. Or a racing car. Something like that. And the thing wasn't available to him at the time for some reason. His sister was playing with it. Or it was in the wash. Or there weren't any left. And he was reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy upset about this. He wanted the thing so much! He was crying and saying how much he wanted it and begging for it.

I was watching him, really feeling the dilemma he was in, wishing he could have the thing and also seeing how it just wasn't in the cards right then. Time passed. Circumstances changed. The thing became available and he was given the thing and he was happy!

Time passed again. And when I say "time passed" I mean that four minutes went by. He became interested in some other thing and played with it. After a minute, thinking maybe it hadn't sunk in that it was actually available now, I offered him the thing again that he'd originally wanted. And he was like, "meh." No light shone in his eyes for that thing. It was over. It was so five minutes ago. And that was that.

And that, friends, is what the Buddha was talking about. Figuring out how to live with equanimity when you are a being that has multiple, often contradictory, ever changing desires.


Right now I'm in Indiana, visiting my storage unit where most of my possessions have been stored lo these many years. I'm staying with friends of my parents from way back in the day. Like, I used to play in this home 30 years ago. Their son was my buddy and their daughter was older than me and I thought she was so pretty. I haven't been in this home since or had a conversation with these people since. But they took me in, wayfaring stranger that I am in this town.

Tonight was their son's 39th birthday, the one I used to play with when we were first graders. He came over with his wife and two kids and we all had dinner together. At dinner, his 4-year-old son said the prayer, and the prayer was this: "Dear God. Um....I love you. And help us to like this food. And if we hate this food, help us to have a napkin so we can put the food in it. That would be good. And, amen."

The theology I take from that is: Dear Benevolent Force: Lead us in paths that will bring us good things. But if the paths bring us shitty things, help us to find an escape hatch.

Which, yep, amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

recommended video of the day

I've been thinking and writing a lot about race issues lately. I've been feeling angry about race issues lately, as I know a lot of you have as well. Today I want to share a short video by Chris Rock called "How White Supremacy Works" that doesn't have an angry tone. It's actually not even funny, which as we know is unusual for Chris Rock. It's just straightforward, non-preachy, and....well, I found it moving.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

my cousins & i had a reunion

My cousins & I had a cousin reunion over Thanksgiving. It was great! Here we are, doing a Band Shot (you know, where you pose like bands do on album covers) at Joshua Tree National Park.

recommended read of the day

Frank Rich interviews Chris Rock in the New York Magazine. Chris Rock talks about his new movie, Obama, Bill Cosby, racism, and humor. It's a great read. Here's the link.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

thought provoking quote i resonate with

We always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery.
-Chris Rock

something to read

I'm in Chicago now. It's nice here. Especially when you're staying in the lovely home of Web and Jonnie. I'm blessed.

Today I read something that was helpful to me. It's titled "How to Tell a White Person They Are Being Racist." I had googled "what to say when someone says something racist" because it's an experience I'm having a lot lately, since the verdict involving Michael Brown's shooter. I think some of you may be having similar conversations. A particularly frustrating experience is when white people get angry at the mere suggestion that you might be saying something they did or said was racist. They aren't upset at racism, they aren't upset that black men are shot at an astronomical rate, they aren't grieved that Michael Brown died. Nope. They are upset that someone could be suggesting that something they did or said might come across as racist. This article deals with that issue.

It also says straight-up that the burden of pointing out racism shouldn't be on people of color. The burden should be on white people to take it upon themselves to try to root out their own racism. And it says: the burden shouldn't be on women to point out when men are being sexist. The burden should be on men to do their homework, examine their hearts, and fucking change. It's the very definition of privilege for men or white people to march around assuming everything is groovy, until someone points out otherwise. (And then, of course, get upset that someone has accused them of not being 100% Awesome.) I cannot even begin to tell you how absolutely sick I am of men who act like that, and I can only assume that people of color feel the same way about people of my skin color.

So here is the link to the article:


Monday, December 1, 2014

transparent about my own whiteness

A few days ago I read a (white) friend's blog post about racism in America, particularly about everything happening in Ferguson, and in that blog post he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was a great quote, very apropos, so I re-posted it here on my blog. After all, the quote was about rioting--about a time when black people were rioting and white people were condemning them for it--and since that's happening now too, it seemed unusually appropriate for contemporary America. The quote also gave context to why black people might be rioting, and since so many white people I talk to seem to have practically zero understanding of the context for why hundreds of thousands, and millions, of black Americans might be outraged enough to protest, scream, even start fires...well, it just seemed that it might be good to try, as a white American, to speak to my white comrades about the history of racism in America.... I don't want to be silent. I don't want to just let what's happening happen. I don't want to be complacent. That's why I posted that quote.

Then last night I went on Twitter, which I've started doing a little bit more, and I read the Twitter feed of a friend of mine who is from Trinidad (I'm actually unclear about whether he identifies as African American; he's lived in America his whole adult life but grew up elsewhere...in any event, he's certainly black and is outspoken about race in America). On his Twitter feed, he'd re-posted this:

"Dear fellow white people: STOP INVOKING MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. STOP IT. You are exactly the white moderate he disdained."

I followed another link Roger posted, that took me to Gradiant Lair, a website devoted to "Black women + art, media, social media, socio-politics & culture." Trudy (@thetrudz) writes extensively on Gradiant Lair about white people quoting MLK to respond to Michael Brown's death, Darren Wilson's freedom, and the protests and riots. One of the many things she says is:

"Don't even try to critique how Black ppl respond to CENTURIES of State violence, by using MLK who was killed for same reason. Go away."

She also writes:

"Notice Whites won't say 'Shirley Chisholm said' or 'Bayard Rustin said' or 'Miss Major said.' MLK chosen = meme + cishet patriarchy."

I didn't know what "cishet" meant so I looked it up on urban dictionary. This was the entry: "An abbreviation of cisgendered or cissexual heterosexual: a person that identifies as the sex they were born as, and are attracted to people of the sex opposite of theirs, who are usually also cisgendered or cissexual. Mostly used in social justice circles to describe people commenting on LGBT+ matters when they probably shouldn't be."

I also don't know who Shirley Chisholm or Bayard Rustin or Miss Major are. And I can see how my not-knowing those people is part of the problem. I'm quoting someone who wrote decades ago, someone white people like to quote because he was peaceful, or at least his ideology and legacy has been whitewashed to be now considered peaceful--aka, not ultimately a threat to the entrenchment of white power. I'm quoting him because actually I'm profoundly uninformed about contemporary black authors or thinkers or people but I want to do something about Ferguson. So I turn to MLK because I have some vague idea of who he was. And because it's easy to turn to him.

Here's my point. I posted that quote by MLK in good faith. I did it because I am trying to be a good person. And then I read the writings of some contemporary black people and I discovered that at least these particular black people consider it ignorant (at best) to do that. To be a white person invoking MLK, in response to Ferguson. When I read that, I had a choice. I could become defensive and say, "Hey, I did this in good faith. I'm one of the good ones! It's not fair to come down hard on me. I didn't know." Or I could admit that I'm so far out of my depth, so far out of my league, that I actually have no idea what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to race in America.

But here's the thing! I so often get the impression that I know what I'm talking about because I'm so much more informed than almost every white person I know. Just understanding that racism exists in America makes me more informed than dozens of family members and friends. Just seeking out the occasional newspaper article about violence against black people, or listening to the occasional Dead Prez song (is it called a song?), makes me exponentially more informed than almost every white person I know. Just having studied a little Foucault and Derrida in college, and a little feminism (almost definitely all white feminists), and a little epistemology, makes me think I know something about power and privilege. So that then can give me the impression that I actually am very informed and insightful. Which I am not.

I'm a privileged white person. I'm a white person which automatically makes me privileged, and on top of that I grew up economically advantaged, educationally advantaged, etc. I never have to think about race if I don't want to. America is made for me. I talk and smile and move in exactly the way that makes store owners and gas station attendants and waiters and pilots and stewardesses and salesmen open their doors and ask me how they can help. I never, ever get pulled over when I'm driving because of anything about my personhood. The only reason I get pulled over is because I'm speeding, and since I don't speed, I don't get pulled over. If I went to court, I have no doubt I'd be given the benefit of the doubt. If I sit down in a bar, I can pretty much be guaranteed someone will want to buy me a drink. I'm never viewed with suspicion, ever, anywhere I go in America. Maybe I'd be viewed with suspicion in certain places, but it is extremely easy for me to never go to those places or even think about those places. 

As soon as I read that it's not cool to go quoting MLK in response to Ferguson, I wanted to take down my post quoting him. But, a dear friend of mine has recently strongly encouraged me to be more transparent about my own journey, when it comes to race/gender/class. To write specifically about where I'm getting my info, what my stream of thought is, why I think what I think. Rather than just go around criticizing white people for being ignorant (even more ignorant than I am, and I am pretty fucking ignorant).

The other thing that is true is that I do understand something about being on the receiving end of power and privilege because I am a woman who has suffered a lot from patriarchy. This doesn't mean that I therefore automatically understand what it's like to be black in America. One form of oppression isn't the same as another. But it does mean that because my life would have been so very much better if the men around me had taken personally the suffering of myself and other women and had actively resisted it (taking it upon themselves to educate themselves and fight for change, rather than passively allowing sexism to persist and maybe--at the very best--becoming a little bit feminist if sexism was brought to their attention), I therefore want to take personally the suffering of others who have been disempowered, violated, systemically abused and imprisoned and murdered. And I want to work to actively resist those things, to fight for change. But I've got a long, long ways to go. And I need to get up to speed now. (Just like men need to get up to speed now. We women don't have time to wait around and get raped and harassed and beat up and killed while men take their sweet time reading feminist lit.)

I suppose it might be easy to be self-congratulatory for even writing this post. I'm coming to think that self-congratulatoryness is a form of defensiveness. I do feel defensive because I'm white and incredibly privileged and although I've lived in America for a long time I've done almost nothing to fight racism. I'm scared of what that might mean about me. I know there's something suspicious going on with the self-congratulatory urge because I don't feel that urge when it comes to sexism/feminism. I just feel fucking angry. And desperately grieved. Which is the appropriate response to mass harm and injustice.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

recommended read of the day + a constructive To Do List

This is an essay, in The Washington Post, called "What White People Need to Know and Do After Ferguson." In the spirit of people who have asked me to write more about my sources on race, gender, class, politics, etc., I'm posting the essay here for you to read.

But this article doesn't really give the kind of step-by-step instructions that lots of folks seem to be wanting right now. White folks, that is. They say, "Okay, let's just say hypothetically-speaking that you're right about racism still existing in America. How do you want me to fix it? Tell me what to do." To such folks, I offer you a very practical guide on how to Fix Racism (assuming, hypothetically, that it actually exists). (This Practical Guide only relates to ending racism against black people. Because what goes down with that version of racism is a different thing than what goes down with racism against Latino folks, or people of Asian descent, etc.)

Practical Guide for White People on How to End Racism Against Black People (Assuming it Exists)

1. Go to the library and take out a couple books about racism or white privilege or the U.S. prison system. Read them.

2. Go back to the library. Check out books on hip hop, jazz, gospel, rap, the Confederate flag, the history of slavery, generational trauma, police violence, black art in America, and the commodification of black culture. Read those books.

3. Pretend that you have a black friend. Pretend that this black friend goes with you everywhere. Except for, like, the bathroom and the shower. Because that would just be weird. As you go around your ordinary life pretending that this black friend is with you, take notes on whether having someone black with you affects the way you talk.

4. Actually make friends with black people! The U.S. is 13.2% black. Therefore, make sure 13% of your friends are black. Let's say you have 20 real-life, actual, close friends with whom you spend a good deal of your time. 2.6 of them should be black. Let's round up to three. Maybe you think this is unfair, because hey, you're white, and don't most people stick to their own racial category when it comes to friends? Maybe so and maybe no but this isn't the Guide to Being Comfortable. This is the Practical Guide for White People on How to End Racism Against Black People (Assuming it Exists).

5. Maybe you don't like point #4 because you don't know how to make friends with black people. Or because it feels racist and weird to go make friends with people just because they're black. Fair enough, I guess. So why and how do you make friends? Walk around for a week asking yourself that question.

6. Google the term "school to prison pipeline." Read what comes up.

7. Research whether there is a Ferguson protest in your area. If there is, join the protest.

8. Every time someone says something racist to or near you, respond.

9. Every time you go to the grocery store, post office, Target, or gas station, ask yourself how your experience would be different if you were black. Not if but how.

10. Read sociology. Read poetry. Read a lot of poetry. All of it written by black people. Go to poetry readings. Go to spoken word gatherings. Admit your own prejudice. Admit your confusion. Admit being overwhelmed. Take naps. Take walks. Read psychology. Read only books written by non-white people. Google things. Walk around your own neighborhood. Walk around other neighborhoods. Walk around predominantly black neighborhoods. Pay attention to your own body language. Think about the intersection of race and class and gender. Think about the differences between race and class and gender. Ask yourself how your life would be different if you were the same gender but also black. Ask yourself how your life would be different if you were the opposite gender and also black. Ask yourself if you feel safe in the neighborhood you live in. Ask yourself if a black person would feel safe in the neighborhood you live in. Ask yourself what it means to feel safe. Ask yourself what it means to be safe. Ask yourself why safety matters. Ask yourself how it feels to live in a country where racism is systemic and where racism has been so deeply internalized by white people that they--we--cannot recognize it as racism. Write letters to the editor. Tweet. Write poetry. Know you will fail at recognizing your own prejudice and your own privilege. Do not give up trying to recognize it. Do not ever give up trying to change your ways. Go on picnics. Go to lectures. Educate yourself. Educate yourself more. Do not allow yourself to be complacent. Be relentless. Be outspoken. Except when ou are listening. Listen more than you speak. Make art. Learn about politics. Protest. Protest more. Go on walks with your friends. Cry. Get enough sleep. Figure out who is hungry in your town and feed them. Figure out why they are hungry and figure out what you can do to overturn those causes. Risk failure. Assume you will fail. Remind yourself every day that it is better to fail at this than not to try.

funny thing of the day

The entire Bible explained in one Facebook post.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

quote of the day

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

in memory of bud osborn

listening to Bud that night, nobody could have left without having their entire being shaken to the core.
-Am Johal

Bud Osborn was and is one of the greatest influences on me, in terms of my understanding of social justice, poetry, capitalism, drug policy, dignity for all people, and hope. I found out recently that he died in Vancouver this past May, at the age of 66, from complications related to pneumonia. I would like to write a little bit about what Bud meant to me.

I was a philosophy major in college and my favorite professor, Bob Doede, was good friends with a man named Bud Osborn, who was a poet on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Bob invited Bud to come to one of my classes, and Bob invited another one of my classes to go to a poetry/music reading that Bud did. The poetry that I heard Bud read was about heroin addiction (Bud was a heroin addict and alcoholic for many years, before he entered detox) and poverty and I hadn't heard anything like it before. It was so much more raw and so much less polished than anything I had encountered before by the name of poetry. It was explicit and overt and it wasn't tidy at all. It was uncomplicated in the sense that Ginsburg's "Howl" is uncomplicated; it was straightforward and unignorable and rather tough to take. He read a poem about his mother being raped in front of him when he was a young child--how he tried to fight off her rapist and was thrown across the room. He wrote about his father's suicide, and his own suicide attemps. He wrote about dozens of friends who had died of overdose and suicide and disease.

His presence was humble, gentle, very kind. I had not encountered poetry like his before and I hadn't met someone like him. I bought several of his books and read them over and over. I went to a fundraiser for the Downtown Eastside folks. I met a mutual friend of Bob and Bud's, named Dave Diewert, who had quit his job teaching at a graduate school in order to live and work among the downtrodden. I was only 20 and 21 and 22 and 23 and 24 in those days--my mind and heart were roving and opening and so many things were new to me. I started learning formally about privilege (I'd understood it informally for a long time, from the gender side of things) and about how systems of power crush "the least of these," to put it in Christian terms. How victims are addiction are considered worthless trash--but they aren't worthless trash--they're valuable as anyone else.

Those three men influenced me mightily. A friend of mine asked me recently to start writing about who has influenced me in my life. Well, Bob and Dave and Bud influenced me hugely. They introduced me to Christian thinkers and activists who interpret Jesus as a friend of the oppressed, and who consider following Jesus to be about be friends with and advocates for the lonely, the homeless, the distasteful. They also taught me that that isn't easy at all. All three men struggled themselves with sorrow (as anyone will who opens their heart to the suffering of others), loneliness, and despair (as anyone will who challenges systems of violence and oppression). I'm so thankful to have had those incredibly human men as models, men who modeled fidelity to love, men who modeled humility and imperfection and compassion and radical open-heartedness. (Men who didn't model flashiness or winning or worshiping the narrative of the American Dream.)

After I graduated from college, I mostly lost touch with all three men. But I thought of them often, and I tried to embody what I had learned from them. Of course I did it incredibly imperfectly, but their influence was a huge part of why I started Integration in Flagstaff (a 5-year conversation group that I hosted in my home), and why I interpreted the poverty I saw in South Africa and Zambia in the way I did. Bud, specifically, was an influence on my writing. Reading his writing challenged me to be as fiercely authentic as I could possibly be. Bud was an embodiment of Rumi's challenge to "Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment." Bud was bewildered at all the suffering within his community and he wasn't trying to be clever at all. But he was trying to be smart, and to change policy and to change the hearts of people in power.

In 2009, when I started teaching creative writing in the Kosciusko County Jail, I brought in a whole bunch of poetry to read to my classes. A lot of it didn't resonate with my students; I was just experimenting (not having taught before, and not having interacted with prisoners before) and bringing it what had resonated with me. Then one day I brought in Bud's poetry and everything changed. My students loved Bud's poetry. They cried when I read. They rocked in their seats, and as soon as I would finish a poem a student would tell me that he'd had a similar experience to Bud's. Students started sharing about their own experiences of rape, incest, suicide attempts, drug addiction, the death of so many friends, poverty, loneliness, child abuse, abandonment, betrayal, hopelessness.

It was overwhelming and I wish I had talked to Bud about that more. I would come home from teaching and weep. Once, one of my students, Tiffany, died of a drug overdose; her body was found out in the country, in a ditch along the side of a road. I came home from class and lay on my kitchen floor and screamed. I remember in those days that I was sometimes vicious towards Jon (my partner, and sometimes my teaching partner), I think because I was so angry about what I was witnessing in the jail--that human beings were caged, and that their caging was only the most recent event in a long history of violence towards them. I didn't know how to be present to people suffering that intensely without feeling wrecked myself. I wrote Bud about some of that, and he wrote me back, but I wish I had written him more. I think if I had opened up to him about everything I was experiencing, he would have said that he understood. He would have said that rage and bottomless grief are very sane responses to witnessing violence and addiction and death.

Bud donated books of his poetry to my students; the students shared the books and passed them around until the pages were ragged. Those books may still be there in the jail. I hope so.

After that, I'm very sorry to say that I lost touch with Bud. I didn't have a specific reason to be in touch with him, and I guess I never considered until now that I could have perhaps sent him encouragement from afar. That I didn't actually have to have a specific reason. That caring about him would have been reason enough. Bud changed my mind and heart so much more than he ever knew.

It's such a big deal to write nakedly about hurt. In writing what he did, he allowed dozens of people in jail in Indiana, and hundreds of people around North America, to know that they aren't alone. Knowing that you aren't alone, that somebody understands, that is such a big deal. It is life. Bud Osborn's life and his poetry and his presence was life to many people. I'm more blessed than I can say to be one of those people.

I end with links to two beautiful meditations on the life of Bud Osborn: http://www.empireremixed.com/2014/05/07/bud-osborn-priest-prophet-poet-presente/


Friday, November 28, 2014

an open letter to white poets by danez smith

My beloved cousin, Naphtali, read this letter to me last night. I'd like to share it with all of you and urge you to read it. Here is a photo of Danez:

At the end of the letter, I will post his poem, "alternate names for black boys."

We Must Be the New Guards: Open Letter to White Poets

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security,--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world."

            - The Declaration of Independence

To my kin and colleagues in letters and art, I come to you out of ink, of breath, of patience, & almost emptied of any belief that there is anything this country that doesn’t seek to end me, keep me and my black & brown loved ones from living lives that are not designed around your comfort and benefit. I’m not mad at you. I, in my best mind, believe in a borderless world of unified citizenship, not a utopia, but a place where justice is birthright and peace is promised, protected. But we live in a history well versed in repetition, where the people who built this country on burdened, wound-red backs are the same people today waiting for some declaration of independence, equality, or ceasefire.

The skin tone of the oppressed along color lines in this country’s history reads like bad alliteration, our skin a hard sound echoing endlessly in a unjustified fear we have renamed “self defense” or “probable cause.” I’m not saying that self-defense doesn’t exist, but I question what men like Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman were defending themselves against except a fear they nursed since elementary school, a fear that screams “SHOOT” somewhere deep in their minds, their hands.

I did not come here to talk about these men. I came to talk to you, my partners in verse who build a life’s work documenting their brief time on this earth. I come you to asking to question the landscape of our pastoral muse. I ask you to question to what makes you safe? What frees you to write odes of the low country of America, to mention the trees and not their wicked history, to write the praise song of night, but not sing of what dark bodies hide cold in daylight? My family, and I pray we can call each other family, I am asking you to do what you do best: Write.

We must be members of the New Guards for those whose futures have been deemed questionable and expendable. I am asking you to explode the canon with what we must make sure is remembered in this nation. We cannot leave the duty of elegy for black bodies and calls for our fellow citizens to rise, even if wounded or enraged or scared, to the catalogues of solely black artists. We must write the American Lyric like Claudia Rankine so fearlessly writes, no matter now brutal or reflective it might be for you. There are people I cannot reach because what I make is degraded (& why not glorified?) for its label of black art. I implore, I need you to make art, black, dark art that shines an honest light on the histories of your paler kin. I ask you to join those fighting, under the cry of “Black Lives Matter”, in whatever way you can. Research ways you can be involved in your local community, think critically about how you can use your privilege and influence, effect change; I challenge you to make art that demands the safety of me, of many of your writing siblings, of so many people walking the streets in fear of those who are charged to protect us, even of people who we hesitate at times to call our fellow Americans.

And this is not the only fight we must rage, there are many suffering the awful weight of a society and judicial system that has edited “for all” from “with liberty & justice”. We must create work that refuses to leave this world the same as when we entered. We do not have the luxury of only writing the selfish confession, we must testify in our court of craft that these poems we write are bold, unflinching, and unwilling to stale idle in a geography of madness. We must demand of ourselves to write the uncomfortable, dangerous, shift-making poems. How much longer will we write casually in the face of a beast? Submit your facts to the candid world! I ask you to join me and others in utilizing verse to not rewrite our shared, grizzly history. I end this letter by not begging you “please”, but by telling you “you must.”


I urge all of us to listen to Danez' letter, and ACT.

Now, here is one of his poems.

alternate names for black boys

1.   smoke above the burning bush
2.   archnemesis of summer night
3.   first son of soil
4.   coal awaiting spark & wind
5.   guilty until proven dead
6.   oil heavy starlight
7.   monster until proven ghost
8.   gone
9.   phoenix who forgets to un-ash
10. going, going, gone
11. gods of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow hued coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
       but who am I to name us nothing?)
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

another day in san diego

I don't know if you can see the banner but it says "10% off active military." This is a residential hotel. It is a place where nearly-homeless folks live. Something is wrong.
The first Declaration of Human Rights was written by Cyrus the Great--in Iran. I don't know if you can read it, but it's beautiful. Cyrus abolished slavery, declared that there would be respect for the traditions, customs, and religions of everyone in his empire, and declared that no one could oppress anyone else.
At the United Nations Village, in Balboa Park.
This is one of the earliest photos of the San Francisco Bay. I'm pretty sure this is a shot of where the Embarcadero is now.
I took this photo because, what the fuck? (I did not go view the instruments of torture put on by The Museum of Man). !!
This photo is WTF in a whole different way.

Today my brother and I drive to Palm Desert.

response to ferguson 2

Until the killing of black men--
black mothers' sons--
is as important as the killing of white men--
white mothers' sons
we who believe in freedom cannot rest

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes

-from "Ella's Song" by Sweet Honey in the Rock

Here they are, singing that beautiful song:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

response to the verdict in ferguson

In response to the verdict in Ferguson, I'm not going to write my own post right now. I will write one in time. Right now, I want to direct you to a post written by Jenny Lawson (the Bloggess) called "Compassion is painful. That's how you know it's working." Sometimes it feels impossible to believe that any good change can happen. But for the sake of those who are most harmed by the way things are now, we must continue to work for change. Let us not give up.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Tonight, here in San Diego, I watched the play "Honky" at the San Diego Repertory Theater. It's a play about race, and specifically about co-opting "ghetto" culture to market to white people. (Like, if it's been legitimated by black people, then it must be cool.)

It was nicely done and funny. But it didn't feel nearly as edgy as I was expecting. The artistic director came out and said a few words beforehand--she said to prepare to be challenged--but I have to confess I didn't feel all that challenged. I didn't feel uncomfortable as I watched.

Which makes me wonder what would feel like an edgy play about race. I'm not sure yet.

warmth feels so good after cold

I'm in San Diego now. Here's photos taken from the roof of where my brother & I are staying (an Airbnb place).

My brother being his silly deadpan self. Look at the incredible sky behind him. And the sweet roof that we have access to!

This is across the street from us. I really love funky architecture.
That building with the dome is the public library, just a block from where we are staying! So cool.

I'm here because my brother & dad are here at a conference, so I thought I'd just come hang out with them since I so rarely get to see them. We're here for six days...

I'm also going to do some work here....I got a new job! More about that in the next post. :)