Sunday, December 21, 2008
Little did I know when I applied that Rick Warren, evangelical pastor of Saddleback Church, author of The Purpose Driven Life, and vocal supporter of California's Proposition 8, would be chosen to deliver the invocation at the ceremony. Never mind that the preacher giving the benediction, renowned civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery, supports gay marriage, or that Obama himself opposes gay marriage (as presumably do a fair number of the people reading this blog). Warren is not a Dobson or a Fred Phelps--he supports civil domestic partnership rights and he's a Melissa Etheridge fan... Saturday night they both appeared on stage at a Muslim Public Affairs event, and she even agreed to autograph her Christmas album for him. Warren champions an admirable range of global antipoverty initiatives, and the friendship between the two public figures seems genuine. (Back in 2002, Obama asked Warren to review the chapter on faith for his book, The Audacity of Hope.)
But still. Warren did compare gay marriage to polygamy and incest. (Side note: I wish religious leaders would stop making that polygamy argument. It's irrelevant, since the Bible, not to mention Islam, actually sanctions polygamy. Marriage has not always been between one man and one woman, and in many parts of the world, it's still not.)
This isn't just any prayer breakfast or round table discussion. These are the opening moments of a historic presidency. I understand what Obama is trying to do with this big tent strategy. I applaud him for trying to find common ground with groups that did not vote for him, and honestly, are not very likely to vote for him the next time around. I don't think it's about short-term politics. I think it's about trying to get the entire country behind him, FDR-style, in a time of economic crisis.
And yeah, I agree that being "diverse and noisy and opinionated" is what makes this country great. That same impulse to create dialogue between people who normally don't speak to each other was what got me started on Southern Cross.
Except then I think of my younger sister, Anne, and her partner, Julia, and the photo album that they sent me commemorating Election Day 2008. The pictures show them standing in line at the polls and rejoicing that night with their friends at home in Minneapolis.
"We get to vote for this guy!" reads one caption.
They were so excited, so optimistic, so filled with trust in their candidate. Of course, that trust was bound to be let down. This is politics, after all.
But did it have to be on Inauguration Day?
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
So this is what history looks like.
Visit my friend Jackie's blog for an eyewitness account of the mood last night at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor).
As for me, I ended up watching the Election Night coverage at Paradise City Tavern, the local Democratic hangout. The place was packed to its fire code capacity before the first state results were even called. I didn't see anyone I knew there, but it didn't matter--we all had a common bond. I even scored an invitation to visit the United House of Prayer for All People in Springfield! People started counting as we got close to 11 PM. When NBC announced Obama as the projected winner, the entire room started cheering and chanting "Yes we can." This being a hippie town, somebody had brought along a djemba along and started drumming in time to the celebration.
I have seen Barack Obama in person twice--once in the fall of 2007, before a crowd of a few hundred at a South Carolina high school, and then again this spring, at a much larger rally in Charlotte. Both times he struck me as somebody who was for real--not in the political game for ego or power. I think he'll be a good president, quite likely a great one. Most of a U.S. president's job involves just two things--picking talented people and expressing a powerful, overarching vision. Obama's track record from the campaign demonstrates his ability in both of those areas.
Plenty has been said about how Obama ran on a platform of change, which is the obvious thing to run on when the economy and national morale are as low as they are right now. But this particular Democratic victory represents something larger than standard party politics.
It represents about as close to a 180 degree shift from the politics and ideology of George W. Bush as our two-party system, with its checks and balances, will permit. I would hope that people from the rest of the world, scanning the day's headlines, would discover this subtext, among others: "Sorry. We were wrong."
So many things irked me about Bush, but none more than his inability, during a debate with John Kerry, to recall a single mistake he had made during his presidency. If you can't learn from your mistakes, how can you possibly expect to govern?
To be sure, many Americans (including most of my friends and family) opposed George W. Bush from the start. But the size of Obama's victory margin and his success in red states like Indiana and Virginia makes clear that more than a few voters switched sides.
I think it's fair to say that our country has collectively acknowledged an error in judgment. This is only the first step to repairing the damage, at home and abroad, but it's a necessary beginning.
But the shift goes deeper than that.
In 1961, the year that Obama was born, blacks lacked the right to vote throughout much of the South. Not only was the election of a biracial president unthinkable--his parents' marriage was illegal in 17 states.
The nation and the world changed within a single generation.
We have all heard commentators observe that the election fulfills the promise of Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech from 1963. Now here's what I think is interesting. This week presents strong evidence that our constitutional democracy is a self-correcting system--and that language is the medium.
Barack Obama was probably mocked by his opponents for his eloquent speeches more often than he was praised, but I don't think it's accidental that he excelled in this forum.
In a nation with no common ethnic heritage on which to form its identity, rhetoric takes on a special significance. The "I Have a Dream" speech is just one part of a linguistic tradition that stretches back to the founding of this country--including the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. (Obama's campaign was pretty clearly trying to place him within this canon after he gave his famous speech on race in Philadelphia.) Technology has amplified the power of rhetoric and accelerated the pace of change--think about the role of television during the Civil Rights Era or YouTube during the last five years.
It took 232 years to expand the implications of "All men are created equal" to the point where the majority of the nation was willing to hand over the reigns of power to somebody with a different skin color. That's a long time. When you think about how much of this country's history was built on racial violence and oppression--and how firmly that regime was entrenched in the legal system--it's amazing that it happened at all. The only comparable event I can think of in U.S. presidential history is Nixon's resignation after the Watergate scandal--very different circumstances, but both examples of power yielding to the the moral authority of a democratic government based on a written constitution.
So what made us keep the "We the People" concept from the Constitution and throw out the part that counted each non-voting slave as three fifths of a person? Why is Jim Crow no longer on the books? Hint: it wasn't a bunch of political philosophers debating linguistic subtleties.
These words and ideals have meaning because they proved more compelling, more persuasive, than the language of greed and fear and life-as-usual. They embody what our nation aspires to be.
These words and ideals have meaning because men and women put their lives on the line to make them mean something. Many, although not all, took strength and comfort from a faith grounded in principles of liberation and justice. I was lucky enough to interview a few Civil Rights veterans during my book research. The term "hero" is perhaps an understatement.
Power concedes nothing. Every victory must be hard-fought. Every inch of ground gained must be defended. There will always be new battles, and that won't stop on January 20.
Rock beats scissors. Scissors beats paper. Words and ideals beat guns and money. It just takes some time, is all.
In the words of our next president,
"Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope. That's the true genius of America: that America can change."
Sunday, November 2, 2008
This isn't where I expected to be spending my birthday this year, but that's quite all right by me. The extra hour from the end of Daylight Savings Time doesn't hurt either... : )
Monday, October 27, 2008
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I went to my first-ever divorce support group meeting tonight. I was pretty skeptical beforehand. The website for DivorceCare suggests a very traditional view of marriage and gender roles, and the church hosting the group is a conservative one. Still, it's the only group of its kind that I know of within a half-hour driving radius.
For the first 45 minutes of the meeting we watched a video. This was not so great. I wanted to strangle the portly, white-haired video presenter--he looked so smug in his bowtie with his faint British accent, as he cheerfully listed off the symptoms of depression. All the women in the video had big hair and wore too much lipstick and foundation, and their narratives usually went something like this... "I knew I had hit bottom because I was going out in broad daylight without any makeup on! "
But listening to the other people at the meeting actually helped. More than a littlle actually. Divorce is still a taboo topic amongst most of my friends and relatives. I'm used to people looking uncomfortable and then changing the subject. Perhaps they think it is contagious?
I was still the only one at the support group without kids, but I'm used to that with married people too. At least nobody preached at me or tried to convert me. (Maybe that comes later?) One of the leaders did ask if I had found a church yet, and when I told her I was working on starting a house church, everybody seemed to respect this as a valid option.
Northerners, as we all know, are not by and large a friendly bunch. This group of strangers showed more hospitality and genuine warmth than any secular organization I have yet encountered. I guess that's what makes me not give up entirely on Christianity, for all its flaws.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Ha! I'm starting to wonder if that tempted fate. Or perhaps until now I had just been taking for granted all the good luck that accompanied the bad. I won't go into detail, except to say that this fall had some rough spots. Knowing that there are many, many people way worse off than me... well, that wasn't exactly a cheerful thought either.
I found myself second-guessing my own decisions and wondering what lesson I was supposed to be absorbing.
I saw several choices:
1. I could be angry at God for not delivering the usual goods and services.
2. I could wonder what I did wrong and why I was being "punished."
3. I could continue resolutely to have faith that prosperity and love and happiness will soon come my way again, for being such a good and devoted servant.
All of these attitudes strike me as faintly arrogant. I mean, who am I to deserve special treatment? Why should I be assured rewards when so many other soldiers in the war, good people like Esmin Green and Viola Liuzzo, ended their lives without them?
I guess where I am is that I am trying to walk away from the expectations game. We'll call this approach Door Number Four.
I still have faith--that I am loved, that existence has meaning and purpose. But I am trying to leave behind the mentality of carrot and stick. I believe that every experience contains opportunity for learning and growth, even if many of those lessons are not ones I would choose to learn.
Do I think that maybe all this luck (good and bad) was random? That maybe Things Don't Happen for a Reason?
All the time, all the time.
What if I had just had a little more sense and a little less idealism, and chosen to have babies five years ago instead of writing a book? Would I still be living in a fancy Plaza-Midwood custom home, the wife of a corporate lawyer, enjoying all the comforts and perks that upper middle class society can confer?
There's no way to know. But there is no going back to that life. Even if I could, I know I would still be restless, haunted by what might have been.
There may not be any meaning to existence except what I impart to it. I realize that. But I will take insight and hope wherever I can find them, consume every crumb greedily and hungrily, then look around for some more.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Finally, the summer after graduation, I cracked the book open. I don't know what stream of frenzied superlatives could truly do that experience justice. For anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable in their skin, who has wished they could turn off the constant stream of metanarrative generated within their skulls, yearned to reach out and find companionship and kinship, found themselves with too many words and no easy way to express themselves... let's just say it might resonate. The characters are deep and real and likeable--a truly bold and experimental move for postmodern fiction. Not only that, it's fun to read. The language, the humor, the familiar-yet-strange future world in which the novel takes place all kept me eagerly turning pages. I was dismayed when the novel abruptly came to the end--it was sort of like when you get given a giant bag of candy for a holiday, and you munch and you think it will last forever and then there is no more.
I learned of David Foster Wallace's passing on cable television, of all places, through one of the text bumpers on Adult Swim. (This was during the week when I had no Internet.) He seems to have battled depression as well as anybody could--years of medication, ECT treatments, and enlisting the aid of close family members. See Salon's respectful, detailed account of the weeks leading up to his suicide.
Harper's Magazine has posted a free online archive containing many of David Foster Wallace's best essays in memory of his recent passing. If you're not familiar with the author, this is a good place to start.
This is a writer whose words and ideas stay with you. When I visited the Franklin County Fair a few weeks ago, Wallace's essay on the Illinois State Fair kept popping into my mind. A friend and I impulsively discussed taking a cruise for the first time in our lives, and I knew immediately that I would be riffing on "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" throughout the entire excursion. Footnotes are his signature stylistic device, but they are really there just to contain an overflow of tangential brilliance. I have read entire novels with less substance than some of those pagelong footnotes.
Wallace's death is a tragedy, but he leaves one hell of a legacy. Give it a read.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
So, I'm through that week. I got my PC restored to health--thank you Beneficent Providence! : ) and I got a sexy new Macbook Pro to replace my client's loaner laptop. Still, all in all, it was a rather surreal experience. I don't consider myself any great technogeek, and I am far from the most wired person I know, but when I stopped to think about it, this was probably the longest time since my freshman year of college that I was without a regular way to connect to the Net from my own living space. During the times when I have been away from things electronic (on backpacking trips, etc.) I have typically been surrounded by people--this week made me realize how much of my community is virtual, and brought to my attention that I still need to work on forming more flesh-and-blood relationships here in my new hometown.
It also made me realize how much of what we know, and our confidence in the shape that the world takes, comes from our ability to Google, Wiki, or look up the latest story on CNN. I had no idea how bad last week's Wall Street crash was until many days later. I still couldn't tell you who's ahead or behind in the presidential race... a set of stories I had been following closely. It gives me new insight into the lives of folks on the other side of the Digital Divide--and it reminds me how much our experience of reality is shaped by access to a continuous supply of information (much as we access air, light, power, water, and the contents of our bank accounts).
Friday, September 12, 2008
Ok, so one of the things I am most hesitant to do on this forum is to name or categorize my beliefs. Partly that's because they're a bit of a moving target, but the main reason is because the whole point of Southern Cross is to share conversations with people holding radically opposing views.
I'd rather leave readers free to draw their own conclusions. Bias is inevitable, but I try to fight against it.
I will say this. I believe in belief. This year has put me through some incredible ups and downs. And I don't think that's going to stop, as much as I feel at home and at rest here in Greenfield. This past week was a rough one, though I won't go into details here.
I have found that having faith that some protective force is looking out for me is incredibly liberating. I've had some spectacularly bad luck, and some spectacularly good luck. Me finding this house, for instance, was a classic instance of being in the right place at the right time.
Does that prove that a Higher Power was looking out for me? Of course not. But it certainly doesn't disprove it. So, faced with two equal and opposing alternatives, I choose to tip the balance toward optimism and against fear.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
I guess it's not too surprising that she and three other journalists would get arrested and roughed up at the Republican National Convention, but it's still more than a bit chilling. Essentially, they were arrested for covering the protests.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
One of the risks of writing memoir based on the recent past is that your life can change in unexpected ways. I made the decision about two years into this project to make Southern Cross a personal narrative, rather than dry objective journalism. I don't want to go back from that format, but I also don't want to invade anybody's privacy or use words as a weapon for settling scores.
It's not easy, figuring out what to include and what to leave out. During my travels, I had interviewees tell me that I would soon discover that my true calling was to be a wife and mother. I had other people criticize me for putting "career ahead of family."
The marriage did not end of my own choosing, and I tried everything I knew to keep it together. It's only since moving back North that I'm beginning to feel okay again, and even have a little bit of distance to reflect.
Please remember that I really, really want people to read this book who disagree with me. That was kind of the whole point of going out and talking to the Justice Sunday crowd, the ultra-Republicans, the strict Biblical literalists. I tried to examine my own preconceptions and approach those conversations with an open mind.
And I think it worked, sort of. Some of my most enthusiastic readers have been evangelical, ex-evangelical, and post-evangelical Christians. Would I alienate that audience by showing something other than a picture-perfect marriage?
I still don't know how much I am going to share in the book, but I wanted to come clean in this blog, at the very least. The conversations and experiences I had on the road stayed with me long after I returned to Charlotte. Ultimately, they gave me the tools to help get methrough a terrible, terrible year.
Finding myself single again at age 31 has been educational, to say the least. I never realized how much status still accrues from having a husband--until I lost mine. Marriage insulated me from a lot of fairly disturbing societal attitudes about women and sex.
And where does so much of that cultural baggage come from? Could it maybe have something to do with organized religion? Gee, you think?
I don't intend to write a "divorce memoir." Ultimately, how much (if at all) I write about the divorce in Southern Cross will be driven by the needs of the story itself. But these questions are on my mind, and I know I will be writing about them in the future, whether they find their way into this project or the next.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Imagine being asked to preach a sermon on the great question of "Why Human Suffering?" Now imagine having to preach that same sermon in Creole French...
God is Good, God is Great
Sunday, July 6, 2008
What is on my mind the most right now is a news story I ran across while traveling: the shocking death of Esmin Green, age 49, in the county hospital in Brooklyn, NY. She collapsed and died on June 19, 2008, after spending nearly 24 hours in the hospital waiting room. Hospital workers did nothing to help her as she lay on the floor for over an hour. Eventually, a staff worker walked over and poked her prone body with her foot!
The lack of respect and compassion evident in this facility is deplorable but it should not be surprising in a public mental hospital. There is a huge degree of institutionalized racism and discrimination against persons with mental illness throughout the American health system.
What saddened me was the role of Ms. Green's church.
Ms. Green had recently lost her job as a day-care worker and subsequently, her apartment. She was sending money back to her six children in her native country, Jamaica. She was active in her church, singing in the choir and running children's activities.
She had been having problems with anxiety and appears to have suffered some kind of psychotic break. According to CNN, Esmin's pastor made the decision to call 911--"a decision that haunts her." I don't fault her pastor for making that call, but I do wonder why no one stayed with her all that time in the ER. What if someone had been there to get her food or water? To summon help? She might still be alive today.
If the pastor was not available, could not a lay person have been found? If the church truly forms a family, how can it abandon one of its members at the gates of hell and hope that everything will be all right? I am sure that everyone involved meant well, but I think there is a lesson here for church communities. We simply cannot wash our hands and trust that the "proper authorities" will take care of those in the most acute need.
Because, honestly where else do people have to go?
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
“Welcome to the city where people like to eat,” Earl King sings on the local radio, just as I’m about to cross Lake Ponchartrain.