Hope on the Last Day of the Old Year: Everyday Magic, Day 912

I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.

I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.

I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.

I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.

Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.

Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.

It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.

At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.

This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.

What It Takes

It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches

outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings

in church basements or someone’s living room,

sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.

Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out

how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,

then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the

orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.

It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of

the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs

for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up

to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead

and says, don’t push, change takes time

as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades

of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus

and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool

surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.

It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger

that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office

to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time

to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.

It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit

and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks

to break bread with people who don’t look like you,

and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes

between the school bell and the front door,

and fathers whose hearts fall when hear

their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,

when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway

the sidewalk leading up to the school where

a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,

ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have

inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”

Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more

to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask

for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and

all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.

It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,

then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.

Like many people I know, I’m caught in a panoramic response to the presidential election. One moment, I’m crying, another I’m agonizing over an anti-semite named as chief strategist and a racist touted as the incoming attorney general. I turn away from the news to compose myself and listen instead to the wind, consistent in its variety lately, only to return later to the world outside my windows and hear about a potential Muslim registry and how, according to one Trump advisor, the Japanese internment camps were a good model. Sometimes I go numb between the pulses of despair and bad news over how we can stand with those most threatened, and take care of ourselves and this beautiful and endangered world.

Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the making and keeping “the beloved community” as cornerstone of non-violence. This is challenging enough with people we agree with, yet there is plenty of opportunity lately to showing that love. I’ve witnessed and experience immense tenderness in my community and beyond. The day after the election, at our local food co-op The Merc, I walked up to a friend, and we held each other without talking. People I see on the street or at the bookstore check in with each other. We gather in the shadows to find mutual kinship, strength, and courage.

It’s easy enough to soften our hearts and reach out to those who feel the same way we do, but what King meant by the term “the beloved community” is to build community with those who don’t think and vote the same way we do.  As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s buses, “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

This work is so expansive, a climb up Mount Everest to where it’s hard to breathe, yet  polarization is at the heart of the situation America is in right now. Reality itself is so splintered into all-encompassing separate and even opposite realities on so many issues that it’s as if we don’t occupy the same planet, country, even neighborhoods. As I was standing in line to vote 10 days ago (back in the age of innocence), I thought, “Here we are all together, and I truly don’t understand why some of these people won’t vote the way I’m voting.”

How can we find our ways into civil, respectful dialogues in which we’re actually able to drop our shields and swords? I find this very difficult because there’s so much we need those shields and swords for right now, but on a person-to-person basis, I applaud anything we can do to soften the heart-hardened polarization between us. I think of a friend of mine who called a state representative’s office about Steve Bannon. When the aide said the media was exaggerating Bannon’s history of racism and antisemitism, my friend read him Bannon quotes (the aide said, “Oh, I didn’t know that”), and they ended up having a conversation instead of a confrontation. Will one conversation change anything? Probably not, but dozens might, and multiplied across our country, millions will.

By reaching out to those we disagree with, I’m not in any way saying anyone should accept attacks (some already in process) on Muslims, the LBGTQ community, Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, Immigrants, Women, Jews, People with Disabilities as the new normal. Everyday, I read about swastikas spray-painted on synagogues, racist slogans hurled out of speeding cars toward people of color, and even a horrible incident in which a bunch of middle-school kids yelled at a Mexican-American kid, “Build the wall.” We need to stand with those targeted, and stand up for civility and peace.

The fact that these things are happening speak to a terrible truth: there’s so much hatred and fear of each right under the surface, even traces of it in the best of us. We have a great many gated communities in America whether they have literate gates or not; so many places that are racially segregated especially. Although I have friends, family, and colleagues of color, I can look around at a lot of places I go and see mostly white people. There’s a lot to learn about why we’re splintered in so many ways, and what splinters we may have to remove from our own ways of seeing.

I think of small rural towns where I give talks on books with Jewish content, often being the first Jew some people there ever met. With a safe space for people to ask questions, I continually encounter a healthy sense of curiosity. I think of how the gay marriage movement gained great momentum quickly because so many people in all walks of life knew someone who was gay, and how, a friend of mine single-handedly changed many people’s attitudes toward lesbians by chatting up her neighbors in a very conservative Kansas town.

This is a wake-up call for us to reach beyond our echo chambers and begin conversations, person by person, and to not to take “liberty and justice for all” part of our Pledge of Allegiance for granted. There’s a lot to do right now to show that we are not accepting such hatred as innate to our government and country, and many are already taking action: calling and writing legislators, donating to advocacy groups, organizing community meetings and events, facilitating development of meaningful actions, and writing, singing, performing, dancing, and others to put forth the vision and real unity we need.

It’s also a time to balance the sometimes impossible work of how to take good care of ourselves as a vital part of this beloved community but still do good in the world. Self-care as well as caring for each other is essential for the long haul, and we’re likely in the duration. Humor, health, breaking bread (gluten-free or otherwise), long walks, deep sleep, rallying around those in grief or crisis, listening deeply, showing up, and reinhabiting our individual bodies as well as our communities all are part of the mosaic we’re making out of the broken shards around us.

When I walk into the voting booth Tuesday and pencil in the bubble for Clinton/Kaine, I have no doubt I’ll be crying in hope for who I’m voting for and relief in who I’m voting against.

I vote for all the girls and women who have been told we look “wrong”: too fat or thin; our breasts are too big, small, high or low; that we smell bad or need to dress more sexy. I vote against all messages that have sparked long-term shame and internalized streams of self-hatred in us. For me, this stretches from my father telling me to lose weight until marriage (then I could “let myself go”) to my maternal grandmother measuring worth in pounds (when one of her friends was dying from cancer, she said, “At least, she got her figure back”). I stand with all of us wounded from messages so pervasive that we constantly breathe them in from family, community, media, stereotypes, fashion and all invisible and visible forces of culture, all of which have told us we’re not enough or too much or would beautiful if only we’d treat ourselves as objects constantly needing costly renovations. I vote for beauty defined as being alive, even, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, the erotic redefined as the vital life force we embody.

I vote against the sexual shamers — the abusers, assaulters, tormentors — from the guys on the street catcalling my daughter as she walks to work, to the weighty and edgy wounds so many of my friends carry from being raped, beaten, betrayed and silenced. I know few women who don’t have a story or many stories of being “grabbed by the pussy” or threatened in some way for denying consent. From the movie theater manager who, when I was 19, cut my hours when I refused to “hang out” with him at the secret (from his wife) apartment he had, to the dads, grandfathers, brothers, uncles and “family friends” who raped so many of my friends, I vote against those who treat others’ bodies as their own private sex toys, who steal souls and some of our ability to trust our own instincts and responses. I vote for candidates who smash the myths that “she was asking for it,” or “locker room talk” is acceptable. My vote as millions others’ votes adds to the dialogue that misogyny — in this first election I can recall where people actually say “misogyny” aloud and in print so regularly — must transform into real and breathing respect for all of us. I want my vote to wrap around survivors and let them know millions of us hold space for their stories, long-term healing, beauty and strength.

I vote for Hillary Clinton, a  woman who is also vastly qualified, to occupy the highest office in the land. When I was born in 1959, there were only a smattering of women in congress; today, women comprise 19.4% of Congress (House and Senate combined), which is beyond pitiful. I vote with Geraldine (Jerry) Emmett, 102 years old and born before women had the right to vote. I vote for my mother, Barbara Goldberg, who took us to anti-war marches in the late 1960s, and took herself to women’s marches in later years. I vote for my daughter, sons, nieces and nephews —  and their future children —  having ample opportunity to speak up and out, facilitate real and lasting positive change, and be fully themselves. I’m voting for millions of girls and women who were called in very cell of their body to lead their communities or country, but found no door to open or window to crawl through. Let all us cross the thresholds we’re meant to cross.

I also vote for all those beyond or outside of tradition gender designations like being straight or being strictly male or female. I wrap my arms around my lesbian, gay, queer,  trans and other beyond-traditional-grander friends who, although most now have the right to marry, still face legalized discrimination, harassment and violence, suppression and silencing. I vote in the name of Matthew Shepherd, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, the Saints of Stonewall, Harvey Milk, James Baldwin, Chelsea Manning, Billie Holiday, Laverne Cox, the Trans women of color who “put Stonewall on the map,” (and all those unnamed in this very short list), and the many young people I’ve gotten to know and love who transitioning or thinking of it. May they have a clear path with the love around them.

I vote with every woman, man, queer, and/or trans person who, when they fill out their ballot, will need a tissue or won’t be able to suppress an inner hallelujah.

P.S.

Caveat #1: By focusing on girls and women, I don’t mean to imply, in any way, that other issues aren’t  essential too, particularly the future of moving toward a society that welcomes, respects and integrates people of color, people who live with disabilities or physical distinctions, children and elders, environment and climate,

Caveat #2: My friends, I know we’re diverse in our responses to Hillary, some of us voting for her to prevent a Trump presidency; some us, like me and and Louis C.K. all in on the woman. Some of us will be voting for third party candidates, or writing in Bernie Sanders or Che Guevara (but please, only in you live in states that are foregone conclusions for Trump or Clinton). If you’re voting for Trump, I do have a hard time understanding that, and maybe after the election, we can have a civil discussion to seek greater understanding.

indexFriday night, I finally go to see the late Phil Ochs in concert thanks to West Side Folk’s “A Night of Phil Ochs,” in which singer, actor and shining soul Zachary Stevenson completed embodied Ochs in voice, gestures, patter between songs, and stories. There’s been no way for me and many others who love his music to see the actual Phil Ochs live since he killed himself in 1976, about three years before I heard him singing “Changes” on the radio and fell in love. At least, that was

Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs
Zachary Stevenson as Phil Ochs

true until Friday night. Och’s sister Sonny, according to Bob McWilliams who organized the concert and does so much to keep the music alive in our community, once introduced Stevenson by saying, “If you’ve never seen Phil in concert, now you can.” While I can’t compare the real Ochs in concert with Stevenson, friends who saw Stevenson affirmed he was the real deal in gesture and tone.

There are some voices in the world so distinctive and soulful that they feel like the home we didn’t know we lost. The first times I heard James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Kelley Hunt, I felt like they were old friends I’ve known all my life and whose music seemed to know me also. Phil Ochs is part of that small circle of friends for me, but unlike his song of the same title, this circle doesn’t turn away out of self-interest or apathy, but shows up via recorded performances, radio, CDs and records, and even in the songs I play in my mind some days when I swim laps.

Phil Ochs particularly had a depth of passion funneled through clarity, wit, and conviction. There’s no way to listen to any Och’s song without believing him, or at least, that he believes in his bones all he sings. There’s also something about Ochs that transcends the sum of his considerable parts: a great sense of rhythm and verve in his songwriting, his vibrant guitar playing and picking, and most of all, his bell of a voice. I’ve been trying to name that something since the concert as I’ve watched videos of Ochs and listened to Stevenson’s astonishing recording of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”  What was it that made me spend hours decades ago doing the same thing with albums rather than youtube videos when I was 19? I remember long mornings in the KOPN community radio studio in Columbia, Missouri back in 1980 when, on the loose premise that I was looking for music for my democratic socialist radio show, I pored over Ochs’ albums, studying each line and each earnest turn of his voice. He mirrored back to me my yearnings to do something that mattered through writing and activism, but he also spoke and sung right into the center of whoever I was.

Phil Ochs, Berkeley, CA April 1969 sheet 272 frame 11-12

I forgot about this time until the concert when every word came back to me and just about everyone else, even the long chorus of “Draft Dodger Rag.” As I looked around each time Stevenson began a favorite song — “Pleasures of the Harbor,” “Changes, “When I’m Gone” — I saw people so elated they needed to wipe their eyes. I remembered a quote from Ochs that speaks to me more as I age: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Thank you to West Side Folk Folk and Zachary Stevenson for bringing us back this particular beauty that grows in depth and meaning even 40 years after he’s gone.