Real Talk Isn't Easy
There is so much we don’t share, or write or even talk about. None of it is simple.
Navigating the territory between personal and political is a mighty task. In fact, it’s not a task at all but a life — with aspects that are and deserve to remain private, while also bearing responsibility for standing up and speaking out. The word “discernment” comes to mind.
Synagogue, Friday night services, welcoming Shabbat in community. Someone dear to me whispers in my ear something about Hondurans trying to cross the border, being treated like criminals. It’s safe to say most of the congregants in this sanctuary believe Trump is a nightmare. Many are actively working in the local sanctuary and anti-racism movements. There are a handful of Jews of color, as well.
“I feel like they’ve stolen our country,” she says.
Outwardly, I nod. Internally, my mind immediately races, in a way I’ve become accustomed to. Statements like this send me in so many directions at once, and I’ve been working to recognize the shortcoming of my heightened reactivity. Among the thoughts that fire like so many overheated neurons:
1. Agreement. Yes. This is not the America we (want to) believe in.
2. Disagreement. No, that America has never been.
3. Agreement. The way this administration is treating refugees and immigrants is unconscionable.
4. Pushback: This country’s relationship to refugees and immigrants has always been ambivalent — at best. Relevant, since we’re sitting in prayer: We turned Jews away from Europe during WWII.
5. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This one gets me every time. I’m working with and on it.
6. They stole the country from us? No, Europeans stole the country in the first place. It has never belonged to “us.”
7. Who is “us” and what is “our”? As Jennifer Harvey writes: “there is no non-racialized woman.” It’s imperative to keep this front and center — no matter your gender.
8. My own privilege — an upbringing in an upwardly mobile, financially secure, white, Jewish family, with strong emphasis on the arts, on education, and on inclusion. I was not raised to be “colorblind” but I also faced very few obstacles and none related to my skin color, religion, or class.
9. My father’s historical memory of anti-semitism. My mother’s historical memory of integration.
10. The limits and dangers of choosing to see mostly or only what we want to see: i.e. progress.
11. The way “progress” is a myth that makes liberal white Americans feel less helpless about racism, and how this keeps the focus on white comfort and not on reality.
Oof. See what I mean? And this is just a tiny sampler of the way my mind gallops. Not particularly productive.
* * *
Another moment: My son got tearful one day, when he was working on a school assignment and eliciting my help. Some of the suggestions I made pointed back to how race might factor into one’s choice of where to live.
“You always do this,” he said. “Everything is always about race or politics.”
The kid had a point. There is a thing called balance… maybe. And yet how do I prioritize balance when the world is so imbalanced? This feels to me like one of the biggest practical and spiritual challenges of our lifetimes.
I won’t apologize for my voice — nor do I want to be reactive. No one, of any age, can drink from a firehouse.
And yet my own words come back to me, words Omkari Williams echoed back to me during our conversation on her podcast recently: Don’t look away.
How do I live, write, parent, and love without looking away, while also not becoming a person who cannot take a breath, who cannot slow her racing mind, who cannot see anything without the glaring filters of injustice?
If we are closed to connection with the very person sitting next to us in the pew, how can we truly care about the stranger?
It would be so nice to say, “Love is the answer.” But what does that even mean? Platitudes will not suffice.
Our rabbi and congregation have been focusing on the mandate not to oppress the stranger. And so to not become strangers to those in our immediate circles and spheres of influence becomes intensely important and sometimes, for me, the most difficult thing of all.
One thing I know is that this is not about me being “good” at something. It’s about keeping the focus where it belongs, which is not a single point. The focus belongs on so many places at once: The big picture, the systemic oppression that has never not been present in our country, the feelings and needs and thoughts of those under my own roof, and the ability to take care of my mind rather than allowing the ugliness of what we know to be true to splinter me into a thousand broken pieces.
Healing cannot happen without justice. Justice will not happen without real talk, and real talk is, frankly, not easy. We all have relationships to navigate, those who may not see as we see.
The less insistent I am about being right and the more intent on moral courage and righteousness — individually and collectively — the clearer the task becomes: To keep doing the work that none of us alone can or will complete. To keep widening the circles while tending to the ones closest to us. To keep asking hard questions and not looking away, not backing away from the moments that make us most confused or agitated or fired up.
To step into that fire and learn.
What needs to burn? What good are these ashes? How are we each other’s keepers? What is it to really listen?
So many questions.
* * *
Desiree Lynn Adaway frequently quotes these lines from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:
It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
In “The Hate U Give,” which I saw with Aviva last night, Starr, the main character, also quotes these words, over a loudspeaker in a profound moment of claiming her voice. We both sat there in the dark theater, crying.
I will not let those tears be in vain.
I will not let those tears be white tears, crocodile tears, or fragile tears. I will not abdicate my responsibility to fight for freedom — yours, mine, my children’s, your children’s — even if it makes you uncomfortable.
And I will also continue to practice quieting my mind and seeing myself in as honest a light as I can — which is to say, learning when to be quiet, when to be curious, and especially to remember to listen to people of color, to those whose lived experience of oppression is daily, cellular, and immediate. To put to use my ancestral and generational memory, while also knowing my place as someone with so much privilege.
That’s what I’ve got this morning. Thank you for reading, for wrestling with me, for staying in this for as long as it takes.
As long as it takes.