Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude

Today is Thanksgiving. Shortly I'll head over to celebrate with chosen family and dear friends. I haven't blogged in months for various reasons, but as I started to write an epic Facebook status update about #Ferguson, I realized I needed to make it a blog post.

Specifically, I am inspired by dear friend and housemate Abby. She is white and from a small town in Wisconsin, where conservative attitudes swim in a sea of isms. But she got out. She mentioned on Facebook that she is going to have a discussion with her son Asa who is five about Ferguson somehow. A bunch of folks have responded, "Don't make this about race," and "He's too young." etc. It touched my heart because it took a lot of courage to post that, knowing her friends and family back home would have something to say about it. Nonetheless she wants to have this difficult discussion with Asa and to let others know she is willing to step up. I think she is brave because she doesn't have to have this discussion with Asa, and she certainly doesn't have to tell others she is having it. She has choice in having this conversation with Asa because they are white. She could chose to forego any messy discussion about race or police brutality or death. But she is choosing not to be silent because she wants to build a better world together, with me, as a true ally, not just someone who says they believe in equality but won't get uncomfortable to work for it.

Asa is 5 years old. I was 4 years old when I had to learn some startling lessons about the police after my brother Frankie, was arrested at 14 years old. The cops were looking for a 30 year old Black man. They took my brother instead. He was 14. He wasn't a thug, he used to tickle me and play games with me, he wasn't doing anything wrong and they just took him. My Dad sat me down after that and had the first, of many, discussions about how to survive encounters with the police. In these discussions he would reiterate these points:

1. You have to do everything you can to avoid getting stopped. Once they see you're Black, they'll think you're a criminal. So make sure you never have any tail lights out, no headlights out, nothing, no license plates lights out, nothing. Always come to a full stop at the stop sign, always signal all your turns.

2. If you do get stopped you need to treat the police like rabid dogs. Wild, unpredictable, and deadly. Never look them in the eye, always say yes, sir and yes, mamm. Always, always, always do what they say. Even if it hurts, even if you don't understand, even if you have questions, just immediately do what they say BUT don't move too fast. Don't reach into your pocket for anything- EVER! (He always stressed this point heavily, especially with my brothers.)

3. Always have your ID on you (I didn't at the time really even know what that meant), BUT DON'T EVER REACH FOR IT. If you reach, they'll say you have a gun. They'll say they were scared and they will not hesitate to kill you. And they'll get away with it. Never forget that they will kill you. You wait until they ask you to get your ID and as you are getting it move slowly. If it's in a purse you or a pocket, you ask them to shine their flashlight in so you can get it out, you move slow. Move as slow as you can. And the whole time say thank you sir for the light. Just move slow. Don't look them in the eye. It provokes them. Remember, just do everything they say so they don't kill you. I will never forget him saying that over and over, just don't do this or that so they don't kill you.


As a child, I remember being terrified of police after that speech my Dad gave. But really it wasn't his speech that was terrifying, it was after seeing what happened to my brother, knowing that my Dad was actually right. In school they told us police were there to help us. But for my family the police posed the biggest threat to our wellbeing in the white suburban neighborhood we lived in. I knew my Dad was right, the cops would kill me without hesitation. They would shoot first and ask questions later. So at 4 years old, we began having conversations about how to survive police encounters. I believe that my Dad's speech has kept me safe and alive. Over the years, and even until this day, it is his voice  I hear ringing in my ears when I get ready to leave the house: don't leave without your ID, but don't ever reach for it. Not ever. Move slow.


When I was around 21 years old, I was pulled over by a cop for speeding. And yes, I was speeding. I had just gotten a new car, was driving to see my friend at Gustavus and I didn't realize how fast I was going. I was singing along to the music and excited to see my friend. He pulled me over, walked up to the window and immediately began yelling expletives at me, he called me a bitch, threatened to take me in for being a "dumb ass Black bitch," asked me, "What the fuck are you doing way out here?" The whole experience was terrifying. But I heard my Dad's voice in my head and I held onto his voice to keep me calm, I didn't look the officer in the eye. Even while he was calling me a Black bitch, I was calling him sir. Even as he threw the ticket in my face and told me to get the fuck out of here...I said thank you sir. Even as he tailed me for another few miles, I held it together. After a final flash of his lights he veered around me and drove off. I pulled off at a gas station and wept. I called my Dad. He got angry, as was his way in all things, but he also said "You did good. You survived. Did you get his badge number by chance? I am gonna find this mutherfucker." I cried and said no. I was so scared and tried not to look at him so I didn't get his badge number. (We never did find him and honestly I didn't want to.) And then my Dad said, "Now you gotta make it to your friends. Don't do nothing wrong, don't speed, signal all your turns. He may try to pull you over again, he's still out there, don't make it easy for him. If he does this time, ask for his badge number and just be calm. Move slow." I said ok. I was terrified the rest of the way, but I made it to my friends without further incidence. But I'll never forget that cop. I'll never forget his voice or him throwing the ticket in my face. I'll never forget the humiliation of him calling me a dumb ass Black bitch or his general anger towards me, for which there was no cause or reason. I'll always be thankful to my Father for teaching me how to "respect" cops, because if I had you know said something like, "You don't need to call me bitch," which is what I wanted to say, I have a feeling things could have gone down really differently.

So this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for friends like Abby. Even though she is afraid and its uncomfortable, even though she isn't exactly sure what to say, she is building a better world by teaching her white child that there is racial injustice in the world and there is something we can do about it. She isn't turning a blind eye, when it is all to easy to do so. Changing it starts by recognizing it and teaching all children that racial inequalities and injustice exists in the world. I am thankful that Asa doesn't have to learn to be afraid of the police as I had to, because that is hard and terrifying. I am thankful he can learn about it in a safe and developmentally appropriate way because that is how children learn best. I don't know yet what color skin my children will have, but I know this - if they have skin like mine, I'll give them the same speech my Dad gave me in 1987 because Michael Brown was gunned down in 2014. And the fear that my Father instilled in me will give them the best chance of surviving their encounters with the police. Encounters which research indicates they'll experience more of, because they are nearly 20 more times more likely to be stopped and targeted by the police than their white peers.

And as all Black parents know, when I become a parent I know I will tell them all this, all of what my Dad told me to keep me safe and then I will just pray and hope that my children survive their encounters with the police. Because even though I still listen to my Dad's advice about how to survive encounters with the police the reality is, as a Black person - especially for young, Black males - you can do everything right and still be murdered. You can obey the police officers as they command and degrade you, hurt you and humiliate you, you can listen to them and do every single thing right and they will still kill you. 

Where there is no justice, there can be no peace.

Graphics created by artist Shirin Barghi to honor our dead Black men and boys. 
These were their last words. Find her on Twitter @shebe86





Monday, August 18, 2014

Used to it

Today I was surprised. It took so much effort to stay focused on work while I waited for my Mom to wake up from surgery. I have been sitting in hospital waiting rooms since I was 15 years old, I should be used to it by now. But I barely got anything done today. At first I couldn't figure out why. 

We've been through a lot, me and my Mom. It would be disingenuous to paint some sort of perfect mother/daughter relationship. We don't have that. But despite all of that, I love her. She will always be my Mom. Even as I am holding with care my anger, hurt, disappointment, and grief over the mother she never was, I also hold with care the love, compassion, gratefulness, and joy for the mother she was and is to me now. Carrying all of those polemic emotions, it still didn't occur to me until bedtime what the tears were really about. I only understood it, because earlier at dinner with a good friend the topic of the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO came up. Much like I couldn't understand the heaviness of my heart in the hospital, I have been unable to understand the deep sense of heaviness I feel about Ferguson. Tonight, thinking of my Mother (who is recovering well) in the hospital and reading stories of what's happening in Ferguson, it finally hit me. No matter how old I get, I never get accustomed to the threat that she will die. Intellectually, I know it. I know that one day her body will succumb to it's diseases. I know I will get the call and I prepare myself for it - even as I know you are never really prepared. I know it is fact my Mom will die. That doesn't stop my heart from aching, saying no not yet. Please, not yet. Even as I am angry with her for past hurts and wounds, I love her. And something visceral screams, I can't make it without you, please don't leave me alone in this world. Please don’t go. Please don’t leave me alone.

Mom and Me, around the same ages in our lives. 
And here is where I feel it, where I began to understand a little bit. What I understand is this: what makes the pain of Ferguson so real, so burning, so heavy in my heart is that I don't see just Mike Brown – I see my brothers, my nephews, I see people that I love under real and direct threat. It is a threat of death and I will never get used to it. This threat is not about illness or disease, it is a threat that doesn't have to exist. Someone on Facebook said they are just so tired of hearing Black people 'complain' about the police. There are many responses one could have to that, but my response is this: We will never get used to it. We will never get used to the police killing our children when the police could make another choice that would mean life instead of death. Just like the Palestinians will never get used to their children and lives being counted as collateral damage in a hunt for terrorists, we will never get used to the police playing judge, jury, and executioner for our children and us on the streets of America. 


Just like I could sit through another 20, 30, or 100 surgeries and procedures with my Mom, I’ll never get used to the idea of losing her. No matter the reassurances of the doctors and nurses, no matter how old I get, I only have one mother. Imperfect as she is, I will never get used to the threat of her death. My heart will always cry out please, don't leave me I love you. I say, “Hi Mom, I’m here,” and inside my soul says stay with me as long as you can, I'm scared, I'm alone. You’re the only Mom I’ve got. I love you.

So it is with Ferguson, with Mike Brown, with Terrance Franklin, with countless others. I'll never get used to their deaths. Like my Mother, like you, like me, like every human walking this earth, these were not perfect people yet they were someone's family, they deserved to live just as much as you or me. I’ll never get used to the feeling of presumed criminality. I’ll never get used to the feeling of our children being hunted by the police. I’ll never get used to the terror I feel in my heart when the police stop me. It’s not in my head—it’s a real and present danger. We don’t complain about the police, complaining is something you do when you’ve paid for a meal that doesn’t turn out right. We are crying out for our lives and the lives of our children. We are saying, “Don’t Shoot,” and our souls are saying please stop killing us, see that we are human and we deserve to live. We are crying out, as we have for centuries, declaring the most basic human instinct: we want to live, our life is a gift and it is not yours to take away. We did not get used to slavery, we are not used to imprisonment, and we will not get used to being shot at and constantly hounded by the police. It isn't right and it doesn't have to be. Like no one is, we are not a perfect people, but we deserve to live. Our lives are not yours to take, not yours to judge, not yours. Our lives are not yours, our lives belong to us and we are human. At some point like Gordon Parks talked about there is a choice of weapons...and only some will choose words. 

There are no easy solutions to this. If we can believe in and feed the promise of our children, instead of feeding the idea that they are a threat that will help. Help us and let's help each other feed instead the idea of the promise of our children and each other, of their beauty, theirs and our humanity. Ideas are powerful things. Whether you do it with a gun or just an idea that we are dangerous or somehow so different from your own humanness and imperfections Stop. Killing. Us. 


#neverusedtoit

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Farewell

GA was an overwhelming experience in the best way possible. The photo of my clothes askew on the bed represent the way I feel about my heart, my spirit, and my experience at GA. I have been broken up, things are a mess and I am left to put them together again, but I know now that I don't have to do it alone.

Time to pack it up! How could I make
such a mess in only five days? :) Luckily
it all fit back into the same bag.
Everything - my mind, heart, soul, even my body, has been lovingly pushed. My mind is racing with how to put a tangible strategy to the call I feel to go “walk toward trouble in community.” My soul has been made less sad by the reverberations of song still in my ears and echoing in my heart, by the friendly embraces, and by kind words that are still dancing their magic in my head and dissolving insecurities into whimsical birds that I can shoo away. I feel connected and less alone, less afraid. My body feels tired, but I have walked stretched and walked some more. And instead of feeling the shame and frustration over my body’s limitations that I usually feel, I find myself awash in gratitude for the wonder of movement and the grace of rest.
I was rarely without my program book,
chantlers, or name badge.

My heart has indeed been bound up in love. I can still feel the gentle embrace of a now friend from my home congregation, as I was broken open during one of the worship services. She had gently asked, “Is this ok?” while she embraced me and all I could do is nod my head through the sniffles. I have never really allowed myself to be truly held in moments when I have felt most vulnerable. I was literally being held by Kim and her love, and a healing I didn’t even know I needed was happening. With Kim’s gentleness and through song, sadness and loneliness seeped away from me. I found the warmth of love in her tender and compassionate presence.

Up until this point, I had only seen and spoken to Kim at church a few times. I usually sit alone in the back of church, where no one can see me cry - where I don’t have to reveal to people how vulnerable I really am. But after GA, I think I’ll ask Kim if I can sit next to her.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to General Assembly but I have been changed, and made more vulnerable by this faith experience. There was a time when I thought that vulnerability was a liability, something to be ashamed of and something to destroy.  I am learning that that vulnerability is actually how we love, how we connect, how we heal.  I am learning that in community, I am not alone but I have got to allow myself to be hugged, to be helped just as often and as openly as I am willing to offer that help and love to others.


I have spent most of adult life, and much of my conscious childhood, seeking to eradicate my vulnerabilities; I think that pursuit hasn’t served me particularly well. I think it’s time to nurture my vulnerabilities, to love them, to allow them to teach me what they are here to teach me, and to stop being ashamed of them.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Apparently, they're called chantlers

All I can say for today is that General Assembly is amazing and exhausting. It is quite the experience to be around so many people doing so many things in the world, with such a dedication to and passion for their faith.

Favorite quote of the day: 
"Yeah, you want people to talk to you. I see it. I see it in your beautiful face." 

I can't keep track of the number of people I have met. I have had a multitude of conversations about the Church of the Larger Fellowship and I have gotten to connect with UUs from all over the country. I am getting to that point of being overwhelmed and yet, I am somehow inspired to keep going. Probably because I started thinking about the sermons from yesterday and the day before. Thinking about my ancestors, thinking about those in our faith who have gone before us and I find strength in that. Strength to keep walking on a swollen, achy knee and strength to keep sitting and standing with an achy back. In my heart, I think too it may be good for my body all of this moving and standing and walking...and next year, I am going to train for GA. Because I am not used to 14 and 16 hour days. But it is worth it. My heart is full, my mind is reeling in a million different directions and I feel energized even as physically I am tired and ready to sleep in my own bed.
Chalice + Antlers = Chantlers
Now it's off to go attract more attention with my chantlers and hear a lecture from a bad ass nun, Sister Simone Campbell. 


Friday, June 27, 2014

Day 2: The Power of the People?

In my faith there is a constant call to justice that pervades everything – whether it is worship, fundraising, or just talking to people one thing is clear: UUs want to change the world. It is one of the things that draws me to UUism. Yet we haven’t (at least in recent times and to my knowledge, as a denomination) collectively and significantly shifted any structures or institutions. In this place and surrounded by all these UUs, I am sitting with one resounding question on my heart: Why? How can all of this desire to do good in the world, with an incredible amount of financial resources and so many people, be so underwhelming and ineffective? 

A few of the hundreds of flags representing congregations from
all over the country.
I am sure there are many people who speculate about answers to that question. I don't necessarily have any more answers than the next person. But I do believe it has something to do with the fact that I wouldn't have been able to afford to get here on my own. I think it has something to do with our inability as an organization to build power in meaningful, substantial ways. The connection on the personal level is that I wouldn't have been able to make it as a delegate from my own church. The only way I was able to come to GA was as a staff of a congregation with enough resources, willing to invest in my professional and spiritual development.

Coming to GA has already been a powerful experience for me. Surrounded by thousands of UUs, going to workshops, talking to people, looking at flags representing congregations from all of the country, I feel many things: inspired, engaged, energized. And also I can't shake the feeling that something is amiss. With hotels like the Omni, the Biltmore and all events happening at the Rhode Island Convention Center while I am at a homestay in a neighborhood not safe to walk through on my own, I am conflicted.


Perhaps my sentiments are best encapsulated by one of our incarcerated UUs, and member of the CLF. I read these challenging words in a letter he wrote to CLF, while in prison, asking us as a denomination to get serious about prison reform. This is what he asked:
 Can we as UUs, as an organization, still change the world?

Perhaps the beautiful thing about our faith is that it can hold us all. 
I wonder, carrying that faith out into the world, carrying the flame of UUism that has burned for thousands of years, how much further can we go together? 


Thursday, June 26, 2014

My First Unitarian Universalist General Assembly Worship Service

My last name is Gardner, it's an English name from a plantation in Tennessee. At least that is what my Dad told me. But it's not Gardner blood that runs through me, it's the blood of the slaves they owned that is mine. Of one slave, who escaped to a reservation in Oklahoma. At least that is what my Dad told me. I wept today in worship at the UU General Assembly like I have never wept before. I wept for my ancestors who didn't make it, and for the ones who persevered, who escaped, who endured, for the ones whose land was stolen away and who watched -and fought- as genocide and torture was called nation building and progress. I even think I wept for the ones who lived within an economic system whose name I now carry. I had a hard time stopping the flow of tears and emotion that overcame me. Meg Riley and the rest of the worship committee put together an incredible service that intricately, delicately, and powerfully weaved together the complexity of African American identity, the historical legacy of this place we have gathered with its historical legacy of slave trade and racial justice and UU theology. Somehow grounded in the love of UU theology they delivered a message of hope, endurance, perseverance, and wisdom without sugar coating the past. And I had a hard time stopping the weeping, I realized I have  spent so much time so angry and infuriated...I have never truly stopped to feel or even acknowledge the sheer immensity of pure saddness that is there for my ancestors, my blood family, for what they went through, and even the strength it took to overcome that - to keep hoping, keep loving, keep living despite it all. To sing songs like "I know trouble's not gonna last always," to hold on to the promise of life that we are born into. Something broke open in my heart today, it is both terrifying and freeing.

 me (not weeping) but excited and celebrating with my double flame antennae which lots of people are jealous of!

     It is, in some ways, beyond words. But this much I know, I am where I am supposed to be with the people I am supposed to be with. Because despite it all, "we are the people who hope when it doesn't make sense," because we are bringing with us the wounds from the past, our imperfections, our personal shortcomings into the call for justice. We are stumbling together and we are constantly called back into love, and somehow, some way we keep going. Make no mistake about it, I will carry my anger to my grave about the cruelty of the world systems that put people before profits, especially when its my people and people who look like us that are denied the promise of a loving, abundant life. But I know too, now that I am sad. Somehow, someway something has shifted me from within and broken me open to something new. I don't know how it's going to change me, but I know I am glad I came. I am glad I wept. I am thankful for the tears. There is power in vulnerability that I am just coming to understand. Gardner that is my name.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Another Father's Day

I thought these days would get easier. Some Father's Days just go by and I barely notice. Others, like this one, seem to grab a hold of me and not let go.

It is simple in a way - I just miss my Dad. There is no going back. There is nothing like losing someone to death and there is nothing that can heal it truly. There is just a hole. Sometimes I can patch it up or cover it up or just pretend like it isn't there. But then a photo, a memory, or a smell propels me briefly into joy, and then plunges me into overshadowing darkness.

The beauty is that there are happy, warm, and joyous moments to remember. There is love to hold onto. The pain seeps in because he is gone, because there will be no more memories, because there will be no more fishing, no more trips, no more singing, no more road trips, and no more meals. There will be no more singing me awake in the mornings. There are just memories. There is a feeling of lost and alone in the world. It is overwhelming at times.

Dad's wild roses.
Some months before his death my Dad asked me to plant wild roses that he had ordered online. They were bulbs. I planted them. He had hoped to see them before he passed but the first year they came up, they didn't blossom. They didn't the next year either. But in September of 2011, literally as we were moving my Mother out of the family of home of 28 years, I noticed the blossoms. One opened up before we had to be out of the house. I snapped a couple photos before driving away. It was nice to have a little reminder of his spirit there with us in the days we moved all of our stuff out of the house. 

It is nice to look at the photos now and remember his love of nature, the complexity of the man and Father he was, and of his ability to bring you into whatever all-encompassing joy resided in his heart at times. He was a big man, with a big heart, and big emotions. Some days grief brings me anger towards the scars he left in his emotional wake, and then some days there is just the incredible memories of his joy and the bigness of his laughter. 

Today I remember laughing, singing, fishing, and hugs. I remember his hugs. And I miss my Dad.