Gratitude Is Broken

I am running around the yard the day after Christmas. I am running around the yard playing Peter Pan with two precious boys that I would die for, if need be. I am running around the yard, and they are wielding toy weapons that a grandparent sent.

This is not my choice. I would rather be inside playing a board game. I would rather they were playing with something besides weapons. I would rather I could breathe easier, instead of gasping after air–the result of my slow recovery from pneumonia a few weeks ago.

I do not think children should have toy guns (to be clear, their weapons are nerf bows and arrows–even so, I am wary of what this is teaching them about how to engage conflict through play). When I was 5, my grandfather and father went in together and bought me a rifle.

I am running around the yard on the day after Christmas and the children that I love are running recklessly, wielding toy weapons. And not for a single moment do I pause in fear that one of them will be gunned down by a grown man with a badge, so socially conditioned to fear and suspect them for the color of their skin that he will shoot them before he has time to say “hello.”

I have the luxury (should I so indulge) of being grateful that these boys will never have to face this kind of danger. Their relative safety comes at the expense of grown men with weapons channeling aggression and prejudice towards their brothers and sisters with darker skin. This is not okay.

It’s not just that this is not okay. This is royally fucked up.

I do not think that children should have toy guns. I do not think that our society should be flooded with guns. I do not think it takes a semi-automatic weapon to hunt a deer or even a bear. I do not think a basement arsenal of heavy weapons could ever protect you from government forces that wield drones and missiles and atomic bombs. That’s a stupid excuse for deep-seated insecurity.

I do not think that grown-ass men with uniforms who are supposed to “protect and serve” should be pulling guns as their first action. I do not think that our nations political system, justice system, law enforcement, economy, or penal system has been designed or implemented to protect or serve anyone outside the white, owning class.

In our country we see white adults walk through stores with fingers on the triggers of actual loaded weapons and law enforcement “protects their rights” to do so. We see hundreds of white teenagers rioting in a shopping mall and dozens of police respond with no arrests and only minor injuries reported. Meanwhile, we see individual black men, women, and children gunned down for standing still or walking away from police officers, for holding toy weapons (sometimes in toy aisles filled with toy weapons), and being brutally beaten to death or dying while in police custody. We see justice systems charged with investigating these deaths and public servants blatantly saying that they will not question the actions of the police.

Our system is (we are) fucked up. There is no pretty way to say it.

It is the day after Christmas and I am running around the yard, playing with two beautiful little boys, wielding toy weapons, and I will never have to think twice about their safety, because the color of their skin is white and the police were made for protecting and serving them.

And two days later, Tamir Rice’s murderers are left to walk free, not because we don’t know exactly what happened. But because he is black, and they are wearing police badges, and he is not who they believe they are supposed to be serving and protecting, and the prosecutors and grand jury cannot bear to look at how fucking broken and racist we are.

Word of this vile decision comes on the day that the church marks the feast of the Holy Innocents. This is the day we remember the children killed because those in political power were afraid that just one of those children might one day try to reach out and take part in some of that political power. The parallels would be striking if they weren’t so nauseating.

I cannot be grateful for something that I have that is of value only because its worth has been paid for in the blood of innocents.

It is Christmas, and I am tired of toy guns, and real guns,and light sabers, and drones, and suicide bombs, and politicians scaremongering for votes, and people clinging to weapons that kill tens of thousands each year for the sake of protecting against overblown threats that kill less than a hundred annually.

It is the day after Christmas, and the children I love are running around in the yard without fearing for their lives. And this is not something anyone should ever have to be grateful for. And tens of millions of children in our country do not have this basic freedom.

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Photo taken at The King Center, Atlanta, GA.

There is no more innocence. I do not know how to be grateful if we don’t have the humanity to do the basic repair needed to lay down our weapons and our fear, and fix our individual and collective self-identity that has been centered around self-protection through annihilation of others.

And I get the feelings of rage. I want to blow up the system. I want to rip the guns out of ignorant racists’ hands. I want to seize the wealth of every last corporate fleabag who fancies himself a philanthropist for tax-sheltering his fortunes in a charitable foundation when every dime he made was through exploitation, slavery, pollution, extortion, and purchasing our legislatures.

I want to play my own grown up fantasy game, wielding a toy sword, and running around the internet liking protest videos, and signing petitions. I want to fight an epic battle and win, defeating evil and setting the world to rights.

And whoever lives by the sword must, in the end, die by the sword.

I do not think that I should have toy guns. Or real guns. Or missiles. Or drones. Or nuclear bombs. Or police who serve and protect me from my darker skinned neighbors who might want economic, political, and social justice, or simply to exist in their own yard, or in a store, or in a park (maybe even playing and holding a toy gun).

I am not grateful for these instruments of violence–these tools meant to protect me from the difficult work of figuring out how to resolve my own conflicts, share resources, and get along with others.

It is the day after Christmas and I am running around the yard, searching for enough imagination to find a different way to play together, that doesn’t involve harming one another. And instead of gratitude for this skill, I am heartbroken, because we have grown so practiced in making war that we have slaughtered imagination and love, and forgotten how to make justice and peace.

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In Stillness and Song

In the past months, I’ve been sailing on Puget Sound, changed jobs, continued work in my doctoral classes, travelled to a conference and presented a paper, celebrated holidays and a birthday, worked on a long-term writing project, spent a few weeks sick, and now—suddenly—we’re at the end of the year.

It’s not that I don’t have lots to say. There are so many things that need saying, and there are also so many people saying so much and so little about all the much-ness that’s happening in our world right now. Truly, I’ve found it hard to keep up with the constant stream of shootings, bombings, and acts of violence in our world. Not a day goes by that if I log into social media I won’t see video of police assaulting or killing an unarmed person of color. Not a week passes that I don’t hear about a suicide, or experience of violence against an LGBTIQA person. Globally, we’ve come to live with war like it’s a given law of the universe; as if we weren’t collectively feeding it with every choice we make, dollar we spend, and vote we cast.

And in all this, I have found myself turning to music and to silence. These two things open up such space for grief and room for imagination towards peace, hope, kindness, gentleness, and humanity. In the past year, I have taken to silence—whether on the water, at home, or sitting for two hours at a time with the good folks at Underhill House (a drop-in center for quiet, meditation, and prayer, open weekly on Thursdays in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle). I find that the stillness and quiet is much needed to listen to what is stirring up in me.

And in these months, I have also taken to music. In the past year, I’ve acquired a baritone ukulele, a banjo, a banjo-lele (that’s right a banjo body with a ukulele neck and tuning), an autoharp, a couple melodicas, harmonicas, a travel guitar, a drum or two, and a bugle. This might be a little excessive.

As a child, I was gifted and cursed with the capacity to become dramatically proficient in a lot of areas. Visual art, logic, spatial reasoning, and math came early. After a few early failures, cooking and writing followed. What this meant, however, was that I expected to be able to be quite good at a thing without having to work for it—exhibit a: standardized testing.

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So, when it became apparent that beyond singing melody, I was going to have to work for music, I quickly gave up. I spent my adolescence quietly simpering along trying to hold the melody while my father and older sister played guitar and piano, singing harmonies around me. It was a world that I loved, but one that I had to work for. I had a passably pleasant voice, but I wanted to be a star—which was not going to happen.

I had an early attempt wherein I assaulted our dog’s sensitive ears with my saxophone squawking. It was the one and only time I ever heard that dog howl, and her tortured bellow mirrored my own disappointment with my failed music making. I wanted my body to usher beauty into the world, and just wasn’t coming easily to me.

Although a baby grand piano sat in the center of our house for a decade, I didn’t dare touch it until my sister had moved out of the house. Only once she’d gone away to college, did I finally ask her, on one of her visits home, to explain to me how to form major and minor chords, and finally, I tentatively began to hammer out chord progressions into some halting resemblances of songs.

My father gave me a guitar one year for Christmas, and I fumbled my way through the chords of D, G, and A for a year before my sister saved me from humiliation by graciously permanently borrowing the instrument from me.

I dedicated two years of church attendance to focusing in and only listening to harmony lines—using my time running sound to isolate the mic’d voices of tenor and alto singers and sing along with them in my headphones. In choir, I’d get stuck on Tenor II because it was most often on melody. To sing anything else, I’d have to sandwich myself between two people with stronger ears.

It wasn’t until college that I’d finally worked enough and internalized my high school choir director’s wisdom to “listen louder than you sing.” Come to think of it—using my body to make music wasn’t all that different than my experience with sports and physical activity.

I always loved and envied the grace filled movements of the athletically inclined. I always grew extremely frustrated when my father or a well-meaning friend attempted to explain the mechanics of a backhand swing, a layup, a backstroke, or a perfectly thrown spiral. I understood the physics, the mechanics, and the math of it all. I could diagram, draw, or explain the motion.

The trouble was getting the strange and squishy of my own muscles and bones to cooperate in a way that would bring beauty, rather than shame or despair, into the world.

From a young age, I’d learned that my body held secrets that it wouldn’t be safe to disclose. My secrets were too big and unwieldy for my home or my world to handle. My church pews and dinner table couldn’t bear the fleshy questions contained inside my skin. So, it was with a necrotizing guardedness that I sought to move and make music in the world.

These things couldn’t come easy, because I knew that I couldn’t do them perfectly—not just in the sense that it took practice to learn and grow in skill, but because my intonation; the swish of my hips or wrist; the quickness of my tears might serve to unleash the secret that my body had to keep contained in order to stay safe.

So, by and large, I learned how to hide and seek in a world of words and ideas—things I could process and control how they came out. It’s much easier to vet emotion in a paragraph than in a sweaty victory dance or a raucous jam session. To allow my emotions to flow within my body might mean being seen and known; to be found out.

Two years ago during Lent, a year post-divorce and coming out to my parents, I invited friends to give me music to which I would dance. Forty days of dancing repentance. It was a continuation of a beginning of telling truth with my body; righting the world—or at least myself in the world—by living into a fragile freedom.

No one was ever born to hide inside their own skin.

Thus, I’ve not written as much here in the last several months. Instead, I’ve taken the grief and hope that wrestles in my body and I’ve sat with it in deep silence, allowing myself to feel rather than articulate what’s going on in me. And then, I’ve clumsily caught up strings and keys and fumbled my way into music that’s less pretty than it is emotionally honest. And this feels like a way forward.

When I am swept up with sorrow and desire for myself, my neighbors, my family, and the world, I have other options than to try to tell with words a way forward through the mess. Other options besides arguing or clamoring for my voice to be heard. Instead, where I feel the weight that’s sunk down like a rock in my gut, I can feel face and limb tremble, and let tears and song swell.

I needn’t fight to be understood or bury my body in a tomb of silence. Instead, out of deep soul-quiet, I can let it out—in all the imperfections—my tender trying.

It’s with our bodies, that we make and heal the world; in our practice of showing up when it doesn’t come easy just showing up in our own skin.