Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Luke is a dementor today, the creature Harry Potter fears the most. Dropping him off at school with all the other ghouls and monsters, I was struck once again by how fascinated children are with Haunted Houses, scary movies, and anything that is terrifying. Then I went to the supermarket and realized it isn’t just children.

I was approaching the spinach along with two other women. All three of us stopped and speculated on whether it was really safe to eat spinach now, more than a month after spinach contaminated with e-coli dominated the news. One of the women had just heard a news report that said there’s a possible safety scare with tomatoes now. She was steering clear of spinach, lettuce, and tomatoes and sticking with vegetable that hadn’t been implicated, yet. I was coming at it from the other angle, figuring that companies were so spooked by the recent spinach contamination that spinach is probably the safest food now. The e-coli are probably hiding in something we haven’t even worried about yet—Fig Newtons or pumpkins.

Midway through the conversation, the spooked women acknowledged that there were actually only a few deaths from contaminated food. I suddenly remembered a statistic I heard on NPR this morning: Four people a day die in the United States from domestic violence. Four a day, mostly women. That’s more Americans than are dying in Iraq most days. That’s a lot more than are killed by spinach, but the spinach is bigger news. Is it just that domestic violence seems like something that can’t happen to us--I would never let a man beat me, we think—whereas we can’t really blame a victim who just ate spinach? Is it the unpredictability of a food outbreak, the novelty, or the fact that it could just as easily hit our children as ourselves?

Whatever our fascination with unlikely scary threats, the Republicans are now pulling out all the stops to scare Americans into thinking that if we don’t win in Iraq the terrorists will bring the fight here. Well-meaning fearful voters parrot this myth that makes no sense whatsoever. The recent intelligence report said that the Iraq war was making terrorism in the US more likely, not less, yet I’m afraid too many Americans may vote their fears on election day. And if terrorism won’t do it, there’s always the fear that gay people will start getting married in New Jersey soon, and God knows where that will lead…

On the way home from the supermarket, I played my Rent CD. My favorite song, which I play nearly every morning says, “Begin to love, or live in fear. No other road, no other way, no day but today.” It’s hard to avoid living in fear, but I decided to buy my kids spinach to balance out all the sugar they’ll be collecting tonight in their scary costumes. Rejecting fear feels like a radical act, spiritually and politically.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


I’ve noticed that lately my blog posts have been less about parenting and spirituality and more about political and community issues. Not that there’s anything wrong with those questions, it’s just that it’s a little bit of a red flag to me when I don’t mention God for a while.

Several years ago, before I had children, I was in a period of asking what God wanted me to do next. I took long walks in the woods, wrote in my journal and prayed every day. Now I’m at another turning point, I think, but my prayers for guidance are squeezed between our other bedtime prayers: thanks that our nephew is back safely from Iraq, petitions for Luke’s tooth to come out soon and for Megan’s sniffles, and by the way God, could I have some guidance about my work. Knowing that nature has often brought me closer to the divine, I tried to take a long walk in the woods with the dog, but he dove into the poison ivy after a squirrel, and I spent the whole time trying to lure him out. Finally I started the car which brought him charging out of the woods and into the back seat, so I closed the car door and drove home without any great insights, except the obvious one, that my dog is still not to be trusted off a leash.

When I was new to Quakerism, I spoke in meeting for worship more often and had clearer leadings. I had started to notice that this was happening less frequently when I went to a workshop on prayer over a year ago. The teacher said that sometimes God answers us less frequently when we’re further on the path (giving us fewer messages in meeting for worship, for example) because we need it less. This was a comforting explanation. Then Tom made another point last weekend: he said that a former spiritual director of his said that God doesn’t always tell us to do one specific thing. Often God gives us choices, and what we’re asked to do is to be faithful to the choices we’ve made.

This makes sense because I keep coming back to the call to be faithful to parenting as my number one job. After that, I still feel that writing, teaching, and volunteering in my community are the things I’m meant to do. So I have a lot of clarity, really. The only question has been about what writing I should be focused on.

This week I felt pulled again into the Wisdom to Know the Difference writing, which has drawn me for a long time. I think one of the things that has held me back from throwing myself into that project has been my obsession with racial issues last spring. I have about forty pages of notes for a book that never made itself clear, and I’ve felt a little silly just changing course. But I had a conversation at the coffee shop the other day with a fellow writer, who mentions God’s role in her life in a refreshingly open way. She was speculating on the blessings that might come out of her I-Pod being stolen and her hard drive crashing right in a row, and the things that God might be trying to teach her. I starting thinking about all the positive things that came out of my race research last spring and realized that many wonderful blessings sprung from that, even if a book didn’t. First, I grew myself and hopefully have become a more aware citizen and parent. Second, I developed a course proposal for UArts that I think will meet a need. Third, I made a wonderful new friend and deepened some existing friendships through the interviews I did. Fourth, I helped to revive the diversity committee at our school, which I think could play a positive role. And fifth, I wrote an essay that brought me some healing with my mother, which was how the whole thing started. Recognizing these blessings confirms my sense that I wasn’t wasting my time, even if that work didn’t result (yet, at least) in a book.

I think part of what I tend to do is what Quakers call “outrunning your guide.” In other words, maybe God asked me to write an essay, and I jumped to the conclusion that a book would be even better. I think that’s the other reason I’ve been cautious this time jumping into another project. I don’t want to outrun my guide. So I’m taking it a day at a time, trying to ask for guidance in the morning, not just a bed time. That seems to be working.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Policing Pirates

I always seem to get comments when I rant about marketers targeting our children (see Pirates). Now, here's something we can do about it! Center for a New American Dream has a quick, easy letter writing campaign to tell marketers not to exploit schools. Click here to learn more or take action.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


There’s been a lot of political talk around our house lately, with the mid-term elections coming up and all. Even seven-year-old Luke has caught the vibe. After we recently heard Michael Jackson on the car radio singing “Billy Jean,” Luke started crooning his own version: “Dick Cheney is not my love…” He says he just couldn’t understand Jackson’s lyrics, but I think it’s evidence that our political indoctrination is working.

Our main focus has been the US Senate race between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey. Tom and I have been canvassing for Democrat Bob Casey, reconnecting with the volunteers from the 2004 election. It feels good to be building a little progressive community in East Falls, which is not the most progressive neighborhood in Philadelphia. I also like the idea that we’re building a culture of voter turn-out, apart from any one election. Teaching the class on South African history makes me aware how we take for granted the right to vote, a right that so many people around the world have given their lives for.

The most inspirational thing I’ve heard lately was a talk at our Quaker meeting by two members of Combatants for Peace. The speakers were a Palestinian and an Israeli who have both laid down their weapons to pursue dialog. They each told their stories—the Palestinian had been a political prisoner, the Israeli an Air Force pilot—how they had come to work together, and why they believed in their work. During the question/answer period, they took turns addressing our concerns, often deferring to each other with obvious respect. The audience was rapt and sometimes teary eyed.

One of the most memorable parts for me was the way the young Israeli began his part of the talk. “Everything that I say and do, I do out of love of my country,” he said with gentle sincerity. He talked about why he always began this way, to make it clear that his criticisms of Israeli policy came out of love for Israel, not hate. He was calling Israel to its best ideals, the ones he had learned as a child, before he realized that Israeli democracy was not enjoyed by the people in the territories. He also argued that the violence against the Palestinians was not only bad for the Palestinians, it was bad for Israelis in the long term, ensuring they would never have lasting peace. He struck just the right tone, clear: honest, loving, and challenging. It struck me as a model of how to talk to Americans about the consequences of the United States’ aggressive foreign policy.

The problem here is that most people in the US are so far removed from the consequences of US policy they can’t imagine their long term effects. They certainly don’t know much history, if my college students are any indication. And most probably don’t want to know, if truth be told. This morning on CNN I think Barbara Streisand’s use of the F-word during a concert got more coverage than a new study putting the Iraqi death toll at 655,000. It’s hard not to feel despair or shame sometimes, although those feelings don’t do anyone any good.

I’m frankly not sure Bob Casey is the guy who’s going to lead us out of Iraq, but I’m hoping the Democrats will if they regain the majority. Certainly “stay the course” isn’t working for anyone, except perhaps Halliburton and the other profiteers. (Can you sing “Dick Cheney is not my love?”)

In the end, the Palestinian and the Israeli—as well as the South Africans I teach about and the Freedom Riders I saw on “Eyes on the Prize” the other night—are all reminders that ordinary people can make a difference when they work together. It’s just a little nudge to keep organizing my corner of East Falls.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Yesterday in my South African history class we discussed how the Cold War affected US policy toward the decolonizing world after WWII. In short, I said that our concern to win allies and open markets often prompted our government to support oppressive regimes, as long as they were anti-communist. Take the South African government, which the US lent money and protected in various ways for much longer than we now like to admit. Several of my white students looked pretty dejected at hearing this information. Near the end of class one said, “It just seems that white people have done so many bad things in the world.” I didn’t have a good response, and I’m wondering this morning what my response should be.

I recall the book I read earlier this year, Learning to Be White, which talks about the problem of “white shame.” According to the author, white shame only perpetuates racism, so I don’t want to make my students feel ashamed of being white. Shame doesn’t do anybody any good anyway. On the other hand, I do want them to know the truth of our history (as well as the fact that racism isn’t just history). In terms of global politics, for example, I believe it’s important for Americans to understand why so many people around the world resent US power. A little understanding of Cold War history could probably do more to disarm terrorism than an armored division. (Don’t get me started on the history of US involvement in Iran.)

But while I tend to emphasize the big forces of history, I also want my students to appreciate the difference that has often been made by ordinary people working together. Whether it was the slaves who ran away, making slavery less profitable, or the conductors on the underground railroad who helped them, the marchers in Montgomery or the freedom riders from the north who joined them, or the South Africans who sang in the streets, inspiring US students to pressure their universities to divest, good people—white and black—have often stood in solidarity, sometimes at great risk to themselves. And their actions have often changed the course of history, though not always as quickly as they had hoped.

The importance of grassroots activism is part of what I think I failed to convey yesterday. When I explained that the desire to win allies in Africa was part of what motivated civil rights reform in the US federal government, the same student said, “Doesn’t that take a lot away from the civil rights movement?” I thought it was a perceptive comment, and a concern I worried about last year when my class discussed this. But in the end I have to say no. The civil rights movement was well organized and well timed and without their loud calls for justice, the federal government would not have been worried about its international image. As Frederick Douglass famously wrote, “Power concedes nothing without struggle. It never has, and it never will.”

The struggle I feel as a teacher, and as a parent, is to talk about the uglier aspects of history without depressing people into disempowerment. After all, whatever our race or nationality, we’re only responsible for what we can do—which is probably more than we think.

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