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For Terence

scared sad face

For Terence

It’s like some evil game
nightmare edition
of Simon says

Why do so many people
who look like me
comb over the footage,
looking for a misstep?

The questions begin,
inevitable
hateful
cloaked in willful blindness
the cloak victim-blaming
always wears:
“Yeah but–was he
fully complying?
Why didn’t he
comply exactly?”

The wrong questions,
again
and again,
world without end

Just ask Charles Kinsey
if hands up & unarmed
& lying on your back
on the road
begging for reason
will keep a black man from being
shot if someone decides
he looks like a threat
because he is breathing

Like someone decided
12-year-old
Tamir was a threat,
sitting alone, dreaming
little-boy dreams
that will never come true.

I dream of a world where
people who look like me
will ask vastly different questions,
harder ones,
braver ones,
again and again
until this world ends

And a new world opens
one where police will be expected
to protect and serve
a father of four
car broken down
who has his hands in the air

Where de-escalation
is the absolute expectation

A world where
Terence Crutcher
would still be here
heart beating,
breathing,
alive.

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On sitting down with fear

door with many locks“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I would like to see you living in better conditions.”
–Hafiz
Fear is ever-present, a room in every house. I think it must be acknowledged to be lived with. Denying fear’s existence, its slithery form under the bed, under the pillow, in your head, in your darkest dreams—is to deny part of what makes us human. Unexamined, it drives us. Unacknowledged, it diminishes us. We want to chase it away, but without it, we are not quite all there. We are fragmented. Brash and bold or handwringing, but not whole.

We are whole when we can look in fear’s hissing-badger face, see it clearly, yet remain calm. It doesn’t mean we are not scared shitless of those needle-sharp badger teeth tearing into us. Tearing into everyone and everything we hold dear. Oh, no. We are terrified of the tearing and even more terrified of the silence that precedes it. Our hearts are beating too fast. We scan the news and cannot breathe, cannot think what to do.

I am saying “we” but when I say that, I am talking of my many selves. Maybe you know what I mean? The selves that scatter as I try to ward off fear.

I’m not afraid of dying, I won’t die tonight—I told myself that, told you that, but lying in the hospital alone, I met fear. It came in the night to shake me awake. It shook every part of me, parts I forgot were there—the frozen teenager, trembling in terror. The happy little girl, lying on her back looking at seagulls and cumulus clouds, breathing sea air, fully in the moment, the one I lost so long ago. It shook the anxious, lost traveler feeling around in the dark for a warm hand, the one learning to hold herself when no one is there.

It awakened the bright-eyed lover who is peaceful as storm clouds threaten, because the sun lives inside her, as it lives inside all of us when we feel whole. It is her I search for now, and I think she’s deep inside, in the fear room, hanging out.

Fear lives in a room deep inside me. A stuffy room I must visit, opening windows, letting in air, relaxing into, though it makes me edgy. It is a room I go to ponder things I cannot understand, go to find the best parts of me. A room where all my many selves find each other, the default meetup place. In the darkest corner is the cradle of courage, dear little courage, weak as an infant, sobbing, wobbly from being so neglected.

I hold this tiny part of me—she is crying for love—and picking her up, I feel again like a strong, sure mother, courageous enough to look at the fear. All the fears. There are so many right now. It seems important to be strong, be together. Strong enough to smile into the invisible beams of hope that shine behind all fears, casting great shadows.

Hold hands, everyone. No matter what, everyone.
Look at fear honestly, and you will find courage.
Yes. There it is, fear. It travels with us, but we don’t need to feed that snarling beast, it always finds something to feed on.
Say, I see you fear. Then turn away. Let it grow dull from inattention.
It’s courage we need to nurture now.

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Bursting

IMG_483409246

Bursting
Clouds rip open like my heart
bursts – whoosh, closed to wide open
Swoosh: a purple umbrella
floats past; droplets slip, wiggle
mercurial jelly-dots.
We swim in the same pool, this
heavenly, dirty fishbowl.

IMG_483409214

 

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After the goldrush

photo

Early November on the roof.

I’ve been drunk-binging on nature lately, pulled from my grind-screen work and what I ‘should’ be doing to spend hours just gazing at the wonders of the fall. I end up working way too late to compensate, but you can only see the foliage in the daylight.

Such transformation is amazing. It gives me hope. As in, “I am living in a miracle world, pure, uncut amazing! Anything might happen!”

Well. It’s not all Indian summer breezes, after all. Nope. It’s a world awash in constant pain. Turn on the news or read the stream or listen to the couple behind you in line for a burrito sniping at each other–pain, pain, pain; see the face of the worn-looking woman waiting for the bus, see how a knotted thread of anxiety is pulling her features toward the center of her face, into a pinch of ache. She’s in pain, emotional, physical, spiritual–it doesn’t matter what kind of pain, does it? She’s a human, and she’s hurting.

This week I read a story in the New York Times about an Italian marathon-runner, and not an experienced or well-trained one, who came to New York to run. He was with a loosely-organized group of Italians. He spoke no English. Somewhere along the route of the marathon, he dropped his small amount of cash, along with his hotel key-card and his subway map.

He went missing for around 48 hours, wandering New York in his running clothes, disheveled, hungry, alone. Unable to communicate. After running a whole marathon, so he must’ve been flat-out depleted.  He made his way, somehow, to the airport, knowing his group would be flying out the next day. Security kicked him out, because they thought he was homeless.

A policeman noticed him on the subway the next day, and realized he was the missing foreigner.

According to Office Yam, “He kept turning and looking to the map. He seemed like he was under duress, like he happened to be lost or not knowing where he was going.” Thanks to the officer’s alertness, the hapless marathoner was saved. Happiness! Truly, it was a joyful ending to what must have been a terrifying experience for him.

Still, no mention in the news article of all the actual homeless people who are disheveled, hungry, alone and unable to communicate, who also do not know where they are going, and who are moved along and cursed at and rarely rescued. They have no group to join, it seems. Imagine the marathoner, wandering weak and scared for two whole days. Now imagine wandering—indefinitely. In the cold, in the rain. In the days that come after this golden time ends.

Sometimes I just want to not want to help, to care, to crave, to feel at all. Because I don’t know how to fix it. I can barely  manage myself.

But then: the trees.

The trees are divine spirits. They won’t let me fade into numb oblivion. They remind me that no matter what else is going on, no matter what hurts or what is messed up—that beauty is there, not caring if I eat it up or ignore it, but there all the same. Doesn’t that mean something? I take a picture. I feel pleased, and then sort of shallow at the rush of pleasure all this beauty brings. My inner scold chides me.  A picture of an amazing blazing autumn afternoon won’t heal the world.

A little voice says it might heal some tiny corner of it.

It might remind someone— someone who gets lost fighting things she cannot change—to remember to appreciate the gift of being in this world, on this day. To breathe this autumn air, and feel gratitude.

And maybe that is a tiny little start?

Maybe.

It’s not nearly enough, but you have to begin where you are, and work up from there.

 


 

“Hope without power is no match for fear with power.” –Caroline Myss

Maybe if we empower our hopes, there will be a little less fear in the world?

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The beautiful rowdy prisoners

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.
—Hafiz

Eastern State Penitentiary photo

A cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.

It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)

Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.

Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.

This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.

Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.

It didn’t work. It did not reform.

But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.

Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.

What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?

As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:

“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”

I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.

This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.

A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.

I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.

Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.

Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.

But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.

The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Links to more information on this topic:

http://www.easternstate.org/

http://ellabakercenter.org/

http://www.amazon.com/Race-Incarcerate-A-Graphic-Retelling/dp/1595585419#reader_1595585419

http://www.wsj.com/articles/large-number-of-inmates-in-solitary-poses-problem-for-justice-system-study-says-1441209772

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/us/23prison.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/business/private-businesses-fight-federal-prisons-for-contracts.html

https://www.hrw.org/news/2006/09/05/us-number-mentally-ill-prisons-quadrupled

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Love is the answer

photo

June 26, 2015

I’m not religious, and I hope I don’t offend anyone by saying what I believe. I believe in a higher power. I believe that higher power is manifested most purely in love. I don’t mean only romantic love, though that is one form.

In our culture, that kind of love is held up as a commodity or a prize. There are even television shows about finding love by a process that looks like an extended series of job interviews, with marriage as a prize for the winner.

No. I mean the kind of love that doesn’t judge or control. It is that feeling that shoots through you when you hold someone you care about, it is that feeling you find when you journey through the dark and discover you never were really alone. It is about faith in the better part of the world, and in yourself, in spite of seeing the worst parts of both. Or maybe because of seeing both sides?

There’s a poem I love by a wonderful poet named Deena Metzger. It rolls around in my head sometimes when I walk, like a prayer of sorts. I think it helps me to be open to seeing signs, like this leaf on the sidewalk on the day the Supreme Court decided they cannot control love. Now I’m sure there will probably be shows about gay people searching for partners and getting married as the prize, but the bigger take away for me is that expressions of committed love are now open to the LGBT community, and freedom to love, in the end, really is everything, and should be open to everyone.

Song
There are those who are trying to set fire to the world,
We are in danger.
There is time only to work slowly,
There is no time not to love.

–Deena Metzger

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To a certain Facebook friend (In memory of Tamir Rice)

“I don’t understand,” you commented, “how is it racist?
If those kids were raised right—they wouldn’t be shot.”

Raised right, commenting friend?
I choke on my anger
but I’ll try not to judge you
I used to believe in TV news and fairy tales, too, but now
I want you to imagine reality.

Imagine it, commenting friend,
you, who probably hunt ducks or deer with
your stocky white son, tramp the countryside
waving shotguns and rifles, never imagining:
your son executed for playing with a pellet gun

Imagine it, commenting friend,
imagine your son, gunned down, then framed for his own murder
imagine your daughter, trying to save her little brother
imagine some asshole, hundreds, thousands of assholes, saying
you raised him wrong

Promise me, commenting friend
you’ll imagine your son, wide-eyed with fear, as he bleeds
turns the snow beneath him pink, then red, while his sister
who ran to save him is tackled and bound
as the officers stand, hands on hips, not even pretending to help

Imagine later, commenting friend
when you, rightfully outraged, sick with grief
wait for justice
surely this time, this time—an indictment? It’s all on video!
He was just twelve, playing alone—surely this time, this time?
Tell me now, commenting friend
Do you still think it’s not a race thing?
I’d rather reach your heart and change your mind
than leave you untouched while children are shot and left to die.
I bleed out, listening to you who was “raised right.”

changingthings

NOTE:
3/2/15: This is a second draft of a poem originally published 12/6/14. It is quite different from draft one, and I think it says what I want to say more accurately.

Tamir Rice was playing with a pellet gun on a Cleveland, Ohio playground when someone called the police. The caller told 911 that the gun was “probably fake.” Surveillance video released by the police shows the officers’ car pulling up right next to the boy, and shows an officer shooting Tamir in the stomach within seconds of pulling up. Tamir was 12.

Officer Loehmann, the shooter, was not indicted.

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