Monday, November 16, 2015

Of Names and Neighbors

I am deeply saddened by the lives lost to recent terrorist attacks in Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris. There are truly no words to encompass the horror of the tragedies that continue to unfold - with or without media attention - in the wake of terrorist organizations like Daesh. My deepest condolences go out to the families and loved ones whose lives are forever bereft of that smile, that laugh, that hug that no one else can give.

This was originally intended to be a post on my Facebook wall. However, I had to pause after writing the first paragraph, because in the age of social media it is far too easy to skate over grief and suffering in the rush to make a statement. After taking 48 hours to sit with the suffering of fellow human beings, I find myself writing a very different post than I originally intended. It turns out that grief is not meant to be a doormat on which I step perfunctorily before launching through the doorway of impassioned political diatribe. Rather, grief is the home into which I am invited to enter as a guest, to break bread at the table of suffering. 

During the Passover Seder, the youngest person at the table asks, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The beauty of the ritual that follows is the way in which it narrates the transition from a story of suffering to a story of hope. The shadow side of that story, however, is that most other nights at the table of suffering are no different at all. The bitter herbs we eat are not a symbol of hardships past, but rather the seasoning baked into humanity's daily bread of difficulty and loss.

Having taken a little time to enter that home and share that meal, here are some thoughts:

1. The greatest tool of exploitation is division. Organizations that hold power undermine resistance by keeping potential allies at odds with one another through fear, isolation, and misinformation. This is true of oppressive regimes that use propaganda and systematic violence to consolidate power against the nefarious Other. This is also true, though less obvious, of seemingly democratic institutions that trumpet liberty and justice for all. And more to the point regarding the recent terrorist attacks, this is true of media conglomerates who profit off of fear-mongering and sensational misinformation.

When we are tempted to criticize others on Facebook for failing to post about the bombing in Beirut or the series of bombings in Maiduguri, let us remember toward whom our critique should be leveled.  The fact is that those events got little play in any of the major news outlets in the United States, and that is a systemic bias that must be challenged. Such systems are not challenged by haranguing users of social media who are showing compassion for others, but instead by directing our money and media usage in ways that subvert the monopoly held by media corporations that employ the same tactics as oppressive regimes.

2. Symbols are powerful. The symbols woven throughout the Passover Seder have connected Jewish celebrants across millennia. The French flag superimposed on Facebook profile pictures is meant to elicit compassion and solidarity, while the black flag used by Daesh is meant to inspire both allegiance and fear. These types of symbols appear in every culture and every society. 

The most widely used symbol, however, might be language. Words embedded in languages are symbols that carry culturally and societally specific meanings. Naturally, there are different words in different languages that are meant to denote the same object or concept. However, the same word in the same language can have different meanings based on different contexts. Language is often at the heart of contested power gradients between the powers that be and resistance movements. 

That is why I used the name Daesh above to refer to the group that occupies territory in parts of Iraq and Syria, and is suspected behind several of the terrorist attacks listed at the beginning of this post. I learned the term from a friend who had recently returned from several months in Lebanon and Jordan, where it was used with a derogatory connotation by all of her Arab friends. There is an interesting explanation of the Arabic meaning of Daesh as both acronym and subversive pun here (along with a somewhat rambling critique of Orientalism in the anglophone media), that I do not have the linguistic aptitude to confirm or deny. However, I find the blogger's most compelling argument for the use of the term Daesh in her quotation of Syrian activist Khaled al-Haj Saleh: "The people who suffer most at the hands of Daesh should decide what they are called." 

In our counseling classes, we talk frequently about the need to respect how people want to be identified. This is necessary because self-identification of people in marginalized communities is often articulated in resistance to dominant narratives that are used to oppress and subjugate. Will me using Daesh instead of other acronyms bring a stop to the atrocities being carried out by that organization and their allies throughout the Middle East? Of course not. But, changing the words I use to describe them does in fact invoke a transfer of agency - no matter how small - from the oppressors to the oppressed who are resisting them. There is power in even such small acts of solidarity.

3. Asking how to put a stop to groups like Daesh also requires us to ask what are the conditions by which people who identify with Daesh have been shaped to become capable of such atrocities. It is far too easy to brand people as monsters and dismiss their actions as inhuman. The reality is that such people are undeniably human, and that should scare us. Why is it so much easier to discuss how the influence of white supremacy shaped Dylann Roof into a mass murderer than it is to understand how jihadist indoctrination causes children to hate their own family? How can we link the influence of patriarchal notions of masculinity to Elliot Rodger's killing spree, but ignore how the legacy of colonialism that contributed to riots in the suburbs of Paris in 2005 might position Paris high on the list of targets for jihadist terrorists?

To be clear, I am not blaming the victims of the Paris attacks by pointing to colonialism. Nor am I saying that the oppressive influences of toxic ideologies excuse acts of murder and terrorism, which are ultimately the result of choices made by perpetrators of violence. However, I am saying that no solutions will be found if we do not examine these events at their roots. 

We must come to understand how our very own institutions and social constructs are feeding global cycles of violence by continually assaulting the psyches of marginalized people. We must acknowledge that the Islamophobic atmosphere in the United States after 9/11 has not only fostered conditions under which a cynical, xenophobic billionaire can be a leading presidential candidate, but also cultivated an environment where Ahmed Mohamed's father hopes that moving to Qatar for his son's studies will mean Ahmed can be "accepted by that country". 

As a future mental health professional, I am asking why young men from Minneapolis and young women from London and Colorado left to join Daesh. How are their actions connected to the fact that they are all people of color? How are teenagers in particular vulnerable to Daesh's recruiting techniques? If we are not asking these questions, then we are turning a blind eye toward the pain and alienation that helped shape neighbors and classmates, cousins and sisters, into jihadists and mass murderers.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


There are a lot of things close to home lately that have been difficult to work through, but I also find myself acutely aware of several places in the world, the thought of which leave me restlessly chasing sleep. I wish I could write about these places with elegance and expertise, but the geography is too vast and the struggles too complex for one person to hold them all together. Nonetheless, they have a hold on me.

I long for justice to roll down like a river in these places, for righteousness and peace to meet with a kiss. Until then, all I have to offer are my lamentations, small and insignificant though they be. I grieve for my neighbors in:

Manama, Bahrain
The Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, Sudan
Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Gaza, Palestine
Aleppo, Syria
D.R. Congo
Jos, Nigeria
Northern Mali
Qinghai, Ngaba, and Lhasa
The Arakan region of western Myanmar
Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
The Saharwi refugee camps

 Oh, that you would recognize on this day the things that make for peace!


Friday, July 27, 2012

For Syria

Common Ground

The weapons of warfare are suicidal.
Bent toward destruction
of other
they cripple self,
maiming soul and spirit
until we are left
bereft of humanity.
We are at war with God,
striking at his image in our neighbor,
in ourselves.

What is the knowledge
of good and evil
but awareness
of unsightly otherness?
To be naked and ashamed
is nothing less
than forgetting the way
we laid side by side
in unformed clay,

Speak to us friends.
Remind us with bleeding voices--
there are no borders
beyond the curtain,
where enemy and ally
rest in the common ground
that eluded them
in the broken brotherhood
of flesh.

-- E. Ramón Chaparro, 2008

Monday, July 23, 2012

The most serious thing you ever felt

Snow Geese

Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!
What a task
to ask
of anything, or anyone,
yet it is ours,
and not by the century or the year, but by the hours.
One fall day I heard
above me, and above the sting of the wind, a sound
I did not know, and my look shot upward; it was
a flock of snow geese, winging it
faster than the ones we usually see,
and, being the color of snow, catching the sun
so they were, in part at least, golden. I
held my breath
as we do
to stop time
when something wonderful
has touched us
as with a match,
which is lit, and bright,
but does not hurt
in the common way,
but delightfully,
as if delight
were the most serious thing
you ever felt.
The geese
flew on,
I have never seen them again.
Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won't.
It doesn't matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly.

-- Mary Oliver

(Thank you to Kenneth Pruitt for sharing a blog post on the contemplative stance that contained this poem).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Final Revisions

"The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it." 

--Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting


                Charley Bob Brewer was 30 years old when they found him in his house on the night of October 14th, a fatal gunshot wound peeking out from his chest. It's hard to believe I had just seen him, and even harder to admit what I was thinking about him the day he died. I feel bad because I was thinking that though he appeared to be a nice guy, I couldn't find it in myself to like him very much.

                See, Charley was hired to fix my mother's ailing computer, and it became clear early on that he didn't really know what he was doing and my mother's bill was growing in direct proportion to his ignorance. He came to my mother's house three times and each time he suggested she replace another component. After the first time, I told her that I didn't think he knew what he was doing. She seemed to agree, but she felt it would be counterproductive to go to someone else after he had already done so much work on the computer. So the process dragged on unnecessarily for weeks. Classic inertia.

                As much as I'm inclined to dislike people who try to take advantage of my mother, I think what troubled me the most was the two times he brought his family along when he came to do repairs. The first time, I was at the house alone and he was supposed to install a piece of hardware and be on his way. Several hiccups and nearly an hour later things were not working, and he decided to take the computer home to work on it. It wasn't until I walked him to the door that I saw his wife and kids sitting in the car, parked in the driveway beneath the baking sun. I asked him why he didn't tell me they were there, as they were more than welcome to come inside. He just laughed, said they didn't mind, got in the car and drove off.

                It took an inordinately long time, but he finally returned my mother's computer. This time both of my parents were home, so I let them field his never-ending flow of affable chatter. On an impulse I looked out the window to see if the car was occupied, but I didn't have a clear view. Twenty minutes later, I heard a car door open and I looked out again. There were his wife and two kids, opening the car doors to get some fresh air. He might have been unclear on the etiquette of bringing his family on house calls the first time, but after an explicit invitation the second time seemed intentional. Charley was still happily chatting away and didn't look to be in any rush, so I discreetly motioned my father over and explained the situation. He and my mother gently sidestepped Charley's objections and invited them inside to relax on the couch and enjoy some refreshments.

                It was an odd experience. I mostly stayed in my room, but there was definitely some unease in the air. The kids were young, 3 and 6, and they quickly warmed up to the new environment and the strangers who inhabited it. Indeed, the 6 year old appeared to have inherited his daddy's gift of gab. Charley's wife, Cheryl, began to smile shyly as she saw her kids having fun, but there was an electric thread of tension between her and Charley. He was still laughing and smiling, but it felt a bit forced, and she wouldn't meet his eyes. Chalking it up to some people just being awkward around strangers, I mostly stayed to myself until Charley finished working on the computer and we all said goodbye. That was October 13th.


                The police are reporting that Cheryl called 911 to say she had shot her husband. Further details have not been made public as of yet, but it is my understanding that no charges have been filed. At the very least I can say that as of October 27th she was not incarcerated. That was the day she came to my parents' house for the last time.

                At the time it only seemed moderately strange. My mother answered the doorbell and found Cheryl on the stoop with a package for her. My mother did not recognize her until Cheryl said that the package contained my mother's old internet adapter. I thought it was strange that she brought the adapter alone, but I didn't give it much thought since every interaction with them had been strange.

                But tonight we found out that Charley was shot, and my mother reflected that she'd also found the interaction to be strange. Not because Cheryl was alone, but because she had gently held onto my mother's hand for a moment when she handed her the package. My mother told her to tell the boys hello, but Cheryl didn't respond. It's eerie to learn now that she brought the forgotten internet adapter without her husband because he was already dead, perhaps by her hand. When Cheryl left that last time, we had assumed that we would never hear about Charley and Cheryl Brewer again. 


                It's amazing how the mind molds our memories. I read somewhere that the memories we hold onto most, the ones we most often rehearse, are just that – rehearsed. They shift subtly with each retelling, fitting more closely to the larger framework we are using to make sense of the world and our lives. We add embellishments and change time frames, all toward the end of shaping a memory that does not hinder the flow of how we narrate ourselves. It took me years to realize that my memory of seeing the Space Shuttle Challenger explode at liftoff in 1986 was erroneously staged in the house which we didn’t move into until 1988. A counselor friend of mine told me this might be a subconscious way of staging a traumatic event in a safer environment, which makes me wonder how many other memories have received such treatment. It seems that the things I can consistently remember are often shockingly inconsistent with reality.

                Who can say if my mother really noticed those details when Cheryl came to our door? But after her recollection a pensive silence fell around the dinner table. I was thinking about my various interactions with them, wondering if there was some way I could have known, could have prevented what would happen. Would one extra smile at Cheryl and the kids have made the difference? Was the electric thread of tension between them exacerbated by my interfering with their house call arrangement? Did it pull and pull and pull until everything unraveled in a flash of gunpowder and blood? 

                Speculation abounds, not just in my head but on the streets. Small communities are genetically predisposed to parse through the gossip and take sides, and right now there are several factions. One says that Charley was a saint, but Cheryl struggled to kick a drug habit. She is therefore obviously guilty of murder and ought to be locked up. Another muses that Charley was abusive behind closed doors and Cheryl shot him in self-defense. Why else wouldn't she be in custody? Yet another posits that it might have been an accident, being hunting season and all. Finally, some folks whisper that Charley had recently experienced some significant educational and occupational setbacks, and the pressure might have been too much for him to handle. All of these sides only show that speculation often conforms itself to our preferred narratives, according it a tenuous tie to reality similar in nature to that of memory.

                However much we scour our memories for hints, however many theories run through the gossip mill, the reality is that Charley is dead. His grandparents have outlived him. His young sons are partial orphans, his wife a widow. Reality as they knew it has changed irreversibly, and it is heartbreaking. Denied the power to change reality, we can only speculate and tinker with our memories until we tell a story that lulls us to sleep, dreaming that we've made sense of things at last.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Born Into Becoming

The seeds of this post were planted more than 15 years ago, when I prayed and admitted to God, "I have no idea what I'm getting myself into, but I will follow Jesus for the rest of my life." It has been a long journey from seeds to roots, and these hidden roots are difficult to articulate, though they are slowly digging deeper and spreading farther than ever before. For years the first shoots have struggled to break the surface and emerge into the light. In the open air, these initial offerings have been somewhat fragile and uncertain, unsure of what maturity looks like as they endured the hard work of being born into becoming fruitful.

Now is the time for pruning, for intentional moves toward that fruitfulness. That is where you come in, fellow thinkers and readers. I need your minds, your hearts, and your convictions to help me shape this life that is emerging into the light. Pruning shears are sharp by nature, so please do not dull the sharpness of your disagreement or critique in the name of friendship. Also, do not hold back because you feel like you have nothing to say. The act of speaking to a plant gives it nourishment to continue the difficult journey of upward growth, and every voice is beautifully life-giving and necessary.

So, this is my invitation, no matter your religious, political, or cultural affiliation -- please join me in breathing life into this blog, guiding it toward maturity and action.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Moment in the Corner

Three months ago I attended a workshop on writing and performing our stories. Thank you to Paula Morell and April Gentry-Sutterfield for sharing their gifts to stir new levels of creativity in our writing. The Jorge Luis Borges quote below was the prompt for our writing exercise.  

"Any life, no matter how long or complicated it may be, is made up of one moment - the moment a man finds out once and for all who he is."

   There are many moments that try to form alliances and narrate the story of one's life. They push and jostle like children at the ice cream truck, screaming to be heard. Then there are other moments that stand quietly in the back of the room, watching with a gravity that reveals their movement beyond such childish reckonings. Their very presence shifts the taste in the air, laces it with a tang of permanence and regret.

   These memories will not go back inside when the carnival music disappears over the hill. They stay seated on the front porch, watching, knowing. These moments see the story we cannot, reveal themselves because of their "oughtness", their truth. In the times when I can step back from the throng and look over my shoulder, they gaze back at me knowingly. They do not beckon or call to me. They simply know me. It is always a trial for me to acknowledge them.

   The moment who sits in the seat of honor has been around for nearly 15 years. He is partially covered in shadow but his darkness illuminates my blackness. In the winter of my senior year of high school I ask a girl to a dance. I am not romantically interested, but we've been friends for a long time. All goes according to plan - I ask her, she agrees, we both look forward to it. But there is one small problem in her parents' eyes - she is white and I am black.

   The moment is baffling in its truth. The girl is sitting in front of me, crying slow motion tears, and the words coming out of her mouth are all wrong. "Because you're black", "It's against God's will", "I can't believe my parents are so ignorant", "I'm so sorry, so embarrassed". None of it makes sense. Who thinks these things at the end of the 20th century? Sure, I attend a private school that is nearly alabaster in its whiteness, but I've adapted, right? I've shed the rough Jersey attitude and Yankee vowels and even joined the youth group next door. I am well liked, some might even say popular. Other than the odd redneck bigot, nobody is so blatantly racist as these things her parents said about a boy who goes to their church would suggest.

   Even as I recognize what they were saying is false, I also realize the truth of the matter. The moment sits down next to me in the principal's sterile office, watching impassively while the girl sobs her disbelief. I can feel him turn toward me, waiting for my acknowledgment. He follows me around for three days before I can look at him, and when I do he just stares back. No words, no tears, no reassuring smile. Just truth, silent and cold and persistent.

   I knew then what I'd been trying to hide from. I am an AfroNuyorican man, and I don't fit anywhere. Not with bilingual boricuas in New York, not with black folks in Little Rock whose speech cadences eluded me for years, and certainly not in a nearly all-white private school where I adapted so effectively that months would go by without anyone mentioning our difference. Our ethnicity. Our race. Our respective statuses in society.

   My blackness, my boricua-ness is omnipresent. I'm not ashamed of it and never have been. I have tried to hide it at times, or at least forget, but that was mostly to survive. It is always with me, like the moment when the girl's weeping opened my eyes to my true self -- my otherness. Always. Everywhere. Sometimes it's too much to take in, so I keep pushing my way up to the ice cream truck, keep drowning my senses in the clamor of the raucous crowd. But still he waits on the porch, watching and knowing.