Monday, November 29, 2010

"It is the soul that must be preserved"



When we see pictures like the one above of the Obamas enjoying themselves at a basketball game, some people might think they are trivial (or worse, complain that the President isn't doing his job). But they remind me of An Open Letter to Barack Obama that was written by Alice Walker shortly after he was elected.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however, is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate. One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the reach of almost everyone...

Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the world.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.


Good advice Alice...for the President and all of us.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Some of my favorites

"The purpling beaches of dusk"



Ever so often, I need to remind myself of something Nezua wrote a couple of years ago. Reflecting on Reading Obama yesterday took me back to it once again.

We are always new. Every moment is new. No moment need be like anything that came before, even when the resemblance is striking and our imagination lacking. And yet, of course we must learn from who we once were. But to let a lesson that once helped inform every step forward is to walk an old path, and to preclude the sight of new horizons from our view...

Because life is not like a series of books in a course on …anything. It fluctuates. We fluctuate. We are not a being, but a becoming, as Friedrich once said. And sometimes ideas are hammered out and we draw lines and walls and are told we fall on one side or the other and so do our thoughts and so does all that follows from them…and so it goes. We buy into these illusory borders, too...

I am far more comfortable navigating the in-between than I am in any Place. I like no thing as much as the coming and going from one to another. It is on the purpling beaches of dusk and the roseing gauze of dawn that my true eye shines lidless and I see so much more than in broad daylight. In the falling away of my tired husk I remember my shape can only be held temporarily. And to cling too tightly to it is to rot.

Being sure is but the borderwall we place around a heart to ward off the skinstripping wind of the next living moment.


And here's a little musical interlude to go along with those thoughts.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

What I learned from "Reading Obama"

I Think I'll... by Ed Ruscha. This painting was brought in to the White House by the Obamas.


I read Dreams From My Father not too long after that stirring speech by Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I was pretty intrigued by him as a politician, but my real interest in the book was that it was the story of a young multi-racial man coming to terms with his own identity. While Obama's story is unique to him, my work with young people (predominantly African American boys) has meant that I'm particularly interested in the process of identity formation for youth of color in this country. And Obama's was a very telling story in that regard.

By the time The Audacity of Hope was published, it was clear Obama was running for President. At the time, I was pretty disillusioned about politicians and figured it was just another one of those books that gets published to promote a campaign. So I didn't read it.

During the course of the 2008 Democratic Primary, I started to pay attention to Obama again. I'm not sure what caught my eye, but initially I think it was this diary by Populista. I started reading about community organizing and the power of "Camp Obama," with their focus on "Respect, Empower, Include." Now THAT's the kind of politics I could get excited about! There weren't many people covering this part of the campaign, but one of the best at it was Sean Quinn at 538 with his On the Road series. I read everything I could find like this and that's when I realized that Obama wasn't your typical politician. At that point...I was hooked.

And yet I still didn't read "The Audacity of Hope" until about a year ago. I finally did so on the recommendation of a friend. And it was perfect timing. At that point, many on the left had turned against Obama because they saw him as a compromiser. I was still seeing all of this through the lens of the "community organizer" in him. But this second book helped me realize that there was more to the story.

One of the things Obama had learned from his father - as well as history - is that ideologues who attach to the ongoing and entrenched polarization in our politics don't solve problems. They only deepen the divide. And from his mother, he learned that in order to breach that divide, we have to deal with our empathy deficit.

Unity is the great need of the hour - the great need of this hour. Not because it sounds pleasant or because it makes us feel good, but because it's the only way we can overcome the essential deficit that exists in this country.

I'm not talking about a budget deficit. I'm not talking about a trade deficit. I'm not talking about a deficit of good ideas or new plans.

I'm talking about a moral deficit. I'm talking about an empathy deficit. I'm taking about an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother's keeper; we are our sister's keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.


What has been fascinating to me is to watch, for years now, as progressives continue to suggest that Obama needs to take off the pink tutu and put on the boxing gloves. Every time he takes a swing at his opponents, they think he's seen the error of his "naive" ways and is finally getting it...only to revert to the same calls for toughness when he continues to insist that we not demonize the other side in the process. I often wonder if those folks will ever realize that there's something bigger going on with all of this.

That's why it was so encouraging to hear about James Kloppenberg's book Reading Obama. From his article in Newsweek about it:

...Obama is doing exactly what he said he would do. Perhaps the critics should read—or reread—the president’s own books...

Almost everything you need to know about Obama is there on the printed page. In contrast to the charges coming now from right and left, Obama is neither a rigid ideologue nor a spineless wimp. The Obama who wrote Dreams and Audacity stands in a long tradition of American reform, wary of absolutes and universals, and committed to a Christian tradition that prizes humility and social service over dogmatic statements of unbending principle. A child of the philosophical pragmatists William James and John Dewey, Obama distrusts pat formulas and prefers experimentation.

Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.

Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present...

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty. Neither his personal restraint nor the achievements of his administration should surprise anyone who has read his books...In November 2010, President Obama remains the man who wrote Dreams and Audacity, a resolute champion of moderation, experimentation, and deliberative, nondogmatic democracy. It’s just that the distorting mirrors of political commentary in America’s fun house can make it hard to recognize him.

(Emphasis mine)

Exactly!!!! Anyone who's read/listened to Obama knows that the traditional paradigm of the left/right divide is useless in understanding him. Whether you agree with him or not - it helps to throw away that lens and hear what he's actually saying.

Kloppenberg's summary really nails it - its that "self-righteous certainty" that creates a closed system where a lack of curiosity and the inability to empathize with those we deem opponents comes in - eventually leading to the extremities of polarization. I suspect that kind of certainty is actually rooted in defensiveness (and fear) and that it takes someone with a strong sense of identity (see "Dreams From My Father") to be willing to consider the roots of your opponent's views.

In this context, its no surprise to me that the Republicans are ramping up the polarization to the point of potentially dabbling with sabotage. That's what powerful systems do when they're threatened at their core...dig in and fight it out. But much more than a left/right battle, what Obama is challenging is the very nature of how we relate to one another. Do we dig in with our certainty and continue to feed the divide of polarization? Or are we strong enough to express our curiosity and empathy - even while we disagree? Its no surprise to me that this kind of challenge is going to take a lot more than 2 years to resolve.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A word from the wise

When three wise people say essentially the same thing...perhaps its time to listen.

First of all, from Maya Angelou's book Letter to My Daughter:

For the past four decades, our national spirit and natural joy have ebbed. Our national expectations have diminished. Our hope for the future has waned to such a degree that we risk sneers and snorts of derision when we confess that we are hoping for bright tomorrows.

How have we come so late and lonely to this place? When did we relinquish our desire for a high moral ground to those who clutter our national landscape with vulgar accusations and gross speculations?

Are we not the same people who have fought a war in Europe to eradicate an Aryan threat to murder an entire race? Have we not worked, prayed, planned to create a better world? Are we not the same citizens who struggled, marched, and went to jail to obliterate legalized racism from our country? Didn't we dream of a country where freedom was in the national conscience and dignity was the goal?

We must insist that the men and women who expect to lead us recognize the true desires of those who are being led. We do not choose to be herded into a building burning with hate nor into a system rife in intolerance.

Politicians must set their aims for the high ground and according to our various leanings, Democratic, Republican, Independent, we will follow.

Politicians must be told if they continue to sink into the mud of obscenity, they will proceed alone.

If we tolerate vulgarity, our future will sway and fall under a burden of ignorance. It need not be so. We have the brains and the heart to face our futures bravely. Taking responsibility for the time we take up and the space we occupy. To respect our ancestors and out of concert for our descendants, we must show ourselves as courteous and courageous well-meaning Americans.

Now.


And then there is Jon Stewart:



If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists and racists and Stalinists and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned. You must have the resume. Not being able to distinguish between real racists and tea partiers, or real bigots and Juan Williams and Rich Sanchez is an insult -- not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put forth the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish between terrorists and Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker. And perhaps eczema. Yet, with that being said, I feel good. Strangely, calmly good, because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us through a funhouse mirror, and not the good kind that makes you slim and taller -- but the kind where you have a giant forehead and an ass like a pumpkin and one eyeball.

So, why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle to a pumpkin assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable. Why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution or racists and homophobes who see no one’s humanity but their own? We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is -- on the brink of catastrophe -- torn by polarizing hate and how it’s a shame that we can’t work together to get things done, but the truth is we do. We work together to get things done every damn day. The only place we don't is here or on cable TV. Americans don't live here or on cable TV. Where we live our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats or Republicans or conservatives or liberals. Most Americans live their lives that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often it’s something they do not want to do, but they do it. Impossible things get done every day that are only made possible by the little, reasonable compromises...

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together and the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.


Finally, from President Obama:



This is not the hardest Thanksgiving America has ever faced. But as long as many members of our American family are hurting, we’ve got to look out for one another. As long as many of our sons and daughters and husbands and wives are at war, we’ve got to support their mission and honor their service. And as long as many of our friends and neighbors are looking for work, we’ve got to do everything we can to accelerate this recovery and keep our economy moving forward.

And we will. But we won’t do it as any one political party. We’ve got to do it as one people. And in the coming weeks and months, I hope that we can work together, Democrats and Republicans and Independents alike, to make progress on these and other issues...

For what we are called to do again today isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s not about left or right. It’s about us. It’s about what we know this country is capable of. It’s about what we want America to be in this new century.

A vibrant nation that makes sure its children are the best-educated in the world. A healthy, growing economy that runs on clean energy and creates the jobs of tomorrow. A responsible government that reduces its deficits. An America where every citizen is able to go as far as he or she desires.

We can do all this, because we’ve done it before. We’re made of the same sturdy stuff as the travelers who sat down to the first Thanksgiving, and all who came after – who worked, and sacrificed, and invested, because they believed that their efforts would make the difference for us.

That’s who we are. We shape our own destiny with conviction, compassion, and clear and common purpose. We honor our past and press forward with the knowledge that tomorrow will be better than today. We are Americans. That’s the vision we won’t lose sight of. That’s the legacy that falls to our generation. That’s the challenge that together, we are going to meet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On victory and defeat

I was reminded recently of this quote by Teddy Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.


And that led me to one of my favorite poems by Marge Piercy...

To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


We live in a world of sound bites, instant gratification and momentary celebrity. But if we look around us, we see people who, every day, put their shoulder to the grindstone and move their world inches closer to wholeness and healing. As Roosevelt said, that work is as full of defeat as it is victory. But they keep on pushing. And as Piercy said, the work that is real is often as common as mud.

Certainly we need an uncommon vision and high ideals to strive for. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." Its that relentless slow bending that requires work in the mud - sometimes defeating us and occasionally leading to victory.

I am reminded of a lesson some of my co-workers learned a few years ago when we started a program to work long-term with the families of young children who had demonstrated that they were on the path to delinquency before the age of 10. These children were growing up in poverty with family histories of criminality, abuse, drug addiction, and mental illness. The work was relentlessly discouraging and they needed to find the endurance to stick with it. What they discovered is that its important to celebrate the small victories - all while clinging to their high hopes for these children. As Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves says:

What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and to resurrection.

But, hope must live with suffering. Suffering, without hope, produces resentment and despair. And hope, without suffering, creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness. So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.


Martin Luther King, Jr. never got to the mountain top and Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't live to see women's suffrage. But they continued to pursue their hopes - amidst both the victories and defeats.

The great Maya Angelou shares her story as a way of letting us know that the defeats can be as important as the victories.



And sometimes its the small victories that are the real success.

Success

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.