Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Letter to My Boys on the Occasion of Michael Brown's Death

[When Mister read this, he gently and correctly pointed out that this post doesn’t contain any insights he hasn’t read elsewhere. He’s right, and that’s okay with me. I needed to say this… for my boys and for me.]

To my precious boys,

Michael Brown is dead.

By the time you are old enough to truly understand what I’m writing to you today, Michael Brown’s name might be all but forgotten. It might have become buried in the growing list of names of boys and men who have died under similar circumstances. The events of last week may have become hazy because, tragically, his story is not unique. But I will remember Michael Brown’s name for us because it was his story that made me face many uncomfortable truths about my life and about our world.

For the last week, information has swirled about Michael Brown and the circumstances of his death. He was a black teenager, and the police officer who shot and killed him was white. He was unarmed. He was walking down the street with a friend. He would be attending college in the fall. He was shot six times. He allegedly had just robbed a store. He may have rushed the police officer. His body was left in the street for hours. It has been hard to make any sense of so much, often conflicting, information.

Eventually, I stopped trying to process the minutia of the story, stepped back, and took note of the broader story and who was saying what. It was only then, amidst the noise, that I finally, truly heard the voice of people of color crying, “Look!  Please!  It’s happening again! Another one of our children has died! What will it take for you to notice?!” Statistics I already knew suddenly morphed from mere numbers into names and faces and stories:  the startling rate of incarceration for black men, studies that point to a racial bias in law enforcement. A pattern appeared that had gotten lost when focusing narrowly on one story.

But it was one discovery that forever jolted me out of my previous, comfortable existence: Parents must have The Talk with their black sons. Mothers and fathers and grandparents and religious leaders have to tell their black sons how to respond with deference when they are stopped by police officers, how to react when clerks follow them around stores, how critical word choice and tone and demeanor are. They instruct their sons that good intentions aren’t enough, that simply not doing anything wrong is insufficient. Learning these lessons isn’t simply a matter of proper manners or upstanding morals; it is a matter of life and death.

I had been struggling to figure out what my response to Michael Brown’s death should be, and with this revelation, all at once it struck me: As long as mothers of black sons are having The Talk with their sons, I will have a similar Talk with you. Because good intentions and the simple absence of any wrongdoing are insufficient for you, as well. If you are doing nothing to fix the problem of racism, then you are complicit… as I have been. We will do better, together.

I don’t know exactly what doing something will look like for you or for me, but now that I have my head out of the sand, the first step is clear to me: Listen. Our brothers and sisters of color have stories they need us to hear. Ask them to tell you, and listen to their answers. I will start this important work and will do my best to share with you what I learn, until you are ready to join me.

At the same time, I will teach you about the privilege of being a white male in this world. I don’t want to make you feel ashamed of who you are – after all, you had no more control over your gender or the color of your skin than Michael Brown had – but I will try to teach you to use your privilege responsibly. We must stand with our brothers and sisters who have been oppressed. We must not let our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing prevent us from doing something.

And I promise to you that I will continue to work toward figuring out the next right step… because I want you and all our children to live in a just world.

Last year, as I was considering what might come next for me career-wise, I had a vision so clear it could have been mistaken for a memory. I was standing on a residential, urban street, in the doorway of a modest, brick building. I was there to serve the community. A black man about my age approached me, eyeing me suspiciously, and asked, “Why are you here?” I replied simply, “To listen.”

The vision ended there. I don’t know what comes next. But I now know the journey begins today.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Seeing Grace

The day our family arrived in Maine for vacation was excruciatingly long.  We drove the last leg of our three-day trip, stopped at Mister’s family home just long enough to unload the (very full) trunk of Madge-the-hard-working-minivan, then headed to town for a grocery-shopping marathon.  When we returned three hours later, Mister tackled the kitchen, and I began unpacking a month’s worth of our Stuff.  At four o’clock, we both collapsed in deck chairs and declared our jobs Done Enough.  Then we looked at each other and agreed that we were both entirely too spent to cook dinner.  So thirty minutes later, we called the boys in from their adventures in the woods, climbed in Madge, and headed into town to grab a pizza.

Had Mister and I been thinking at all, after ordering the pizza, we would have crossed the street to the playground and let the boys run, but we were in let’s-get-everything-done-today-so-vacation-can-really-begin-tomorrow mode and decided to split up for quick runs to (yet another) grocery store, the hardware store, and the kids’ clothing store (because Bubba had grown out of all of his pajamas overnight).  Mister and I weren’t the only tired ones; the boys were exhausted from three days of being cooped up in a car, crappy food, and inadequate sleep.  Monkey was in particularly bad shape because he hadn’t gotten a proper nap in days, and he protested our plan loudly.

But Mister and I were determined.

I took all three boys into the kids’ store and had just started looking at the pajamas when Monkey decided I needed to fully understand how breathtakingly, irredeemably horrible this plan was.

He bit me.

Now, Monkey is a biter, and we’ve all been victims.  But this time, he took my thumb in his mouth and wouldn’t let go.  I actually had to pry his mouth off of me.  When I finally got my thumb out, I had a blood blister.

Okay, Love, message received. 

We walked back down the street toward the market with a completely inconsolable, irrational Monkey in tow.  He was exhausted and hungry (and three), and there was little I could do but grin and bear it.  When he spotted Daddy in the market, he wanted to go in, and he had calmed down enough (fussy but not loudly so) that I thought it was okay and might actually help to calm him further.  Mister was at one of two cash registers at the counter, and as we approached him, the other cash register freed up.  I asked the boys to gather closer so the next lady in line could get around us more easily.  As she passed, she grumbled,

“You should really take him outside.”

I’ve been a mother for almost ten years.  I’ve been the recipient of eye rolls, stares, raised eyebrows, and unwanted advice, but I have never, NEVER, had anyone talk to me like that about my children.  I bristled.  And, right or wrong, I turned to her and, in the most measured voice I could muster, said, “He has as much right to be here as you, ma’am.  You were three once, too.  You were three once, too.”  She never looked at me.  When she stepped out of the store, I soon followed because, by that point, Monkey was getting loud again.  I saw the lady retrieve her dog from another woman waiting on a nearby bench and continue walking down the sidewalk. 

I was barely holding it together.  Monkey was wailing again.  I was hungry and tired, too.  And, now, I was fuming from being the target of somebody’s judgment.

I kept walking back toward the pizza place, and as I passed the lady who had been tending the dog, she smiled and asked hopefully, “Did it help?”  I looked at her, obviously confused.  “Did it help to take him outside?” she clarified as she looked down at Monkey.  “My friend said she suggested you take him outside because that would help.”

“Um, I wouldn’t call what she said a ‘suggestion,'” I carefully started.  “She wasn’t particularly kind when she spoke to me.”

“Oh,” she said with a look that indicated that she was both startled but not terribly surprised.  “Where are you from?”

“Northern Virginia.  Near Washington, D.C.”

“I’m from New Jersey.  They’re [the locals*] still not nice to me either.”  She paused.  “I hope you have a good day.”

I lightened just a touch, though Monkey still screamed.

I reached the pizza place as a family was exiting.  They looked at Monkey and me and smiled.

Another family passed and did the same.

People murmured kind comments about their children and grandchildren and having been there, and I lightened even more.

A man approached and asked if the boys (Bubba and Froggy had since joined us) would like to pet his dogs.  He turned to me and gently said, “Sometimes they just need a little distraction.”

I teared up as I felt a weight continue to lift.

Mister approached and asked what happened.  He told me the cashiers in the market had said that they’d “defend” me if the grumbly woman had continued to make comments.

The weight all but disappeared.

As I reflected on the events of that afternoon, it struck me that I could react in one of two ways:  I could view the kindness and grace extended to Monkey and me as exceptional.  In a world filled with violence and distrust and selfishness and anger, here was a glimmer of hope for humanity, a step toward restoring my faith in people.  OR I could view the harsh comment as exceptional.  I could choose to believe that we are all – yes, even the grumbly market lady – struggling to do our best, sometimes more gracefully than others.  I could choose the attitude that my faith in humanity doesn’t need to be restored because it was never lost. 

I usually remember to choose the latter path, to keep my eyes open for those extending kindness and grace in both small and grand ways.  It is, of course, easier to do when a dozen strangers remind you of the goodness of people right after one gives you a glimpse into the struggle that resides in us all.  It’s harder to do when a hurt is followed by a slight, which is followed by an injustice.  But the truth of my life is that the moments when people have been kind and gracious and forgiving FAR outnumber the times when I’ve been hurt by them.  It’s not even close.  And I’d venture to guess that I’m not alone.  I suspect that what causes us to remember the instances when people hurt us is not how common they are but, quite the opposite, how relatively rare they are.

Friends have told me that the reason I am the recipient of these moments of grace is karma, because I try to extend the same grace to others.  Rather, I suspect it’s because I try (with varying degrees of success) to keep myself open to seeing kindness, even during my lowest moments.  I believe those grace-filled moments are there for all who are willing to receive them.  I could have kept my eyes on the sidewalk, retreated to Madge in tears, chosen to interpret people’s smiles as pity.  Instead, this time, I remembered to take a deep breath, stay in the moment, and meet the gazes of others.  And in doing so, I found in their eyes…








Abundant grace.

*It is not my intent to disparage the islanders or Mainers in general.  I have long suspected that many struggle with the annual influx of tourists and summer residents, but most have been exceedingly welcoming to us.  I, also, don't pretend to assume the motivation of the lady in the market.