We Can Do Better.

Let’s take this as a given, that the color of someone’s skin does not determine the content of their character. In other words, that the premise of racism is inherently false, and people cannot be accurately judged by their race.

Now consider the following facts:

These facts point to systemic racism in American institutions. If you deny that racism is still a problem in America, I challenge you to offer another explanation for these statistics.

In the aftermath of the recent Michael Brown shooting, I want to share the following thoughts. First, the protests happening now are not only about the death of Michael Brown. They’re about the statistics listed above, that people are tired of losing family members to violence simply because they happen to have the wrong skin color. Second, the comment that “Well, at least things are better now than they used to be.” White Americans, surely we can do better than slavery, segregation, Jim Crow? Surely we can do better than that!

So let’s do better. Let’s call out racism when we see it, in our personal interactions with people and in institutions. Let’s stop standing by and watching when African Americans get shafted. Let’s LISTEN when black people try to talk to us about their experiences with race in America and not express disbelief that maybe they don’t really know what their own experiences are.

Let’s educate ourselves. Let’s live with our eyes open, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Because our discomfort is not comparable to the suffering our willful ignorance allows to occur.

So… let’s talk. Let’s listen to each other. Let’s be brave in our interactions, but not cruel. Most of all, let’s be willing to learn.

Let’s do better. Let’s be better.

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Love’s Fullest Potential

As you may have guessed from my lack of updates, this year has been very challenging. It has felt like a whirlwind. I’m still not sure I’ve had time yet to properly absorb Min’s loss, and the year has just marched right on. I don’t know where the time has gone.

In February, I had my right CMC thumb joint replaced, in a procedure called CMC arthoplasty. As joint surgeries go, this one was relatively simple and the recovery period was relatively painless and easy.

Emily (grey) cuddling with Snowcrash

Emily (grey) cuddling with Snowcrash

In March, I adopted Emily from Chesapeake Cats and Dogs, who had been there for nearly 5 years… with reason. That reason: she was (and still is) very, very shy and scared of most people. I chose to work with her 3 years ago and gained her trust, but even after living with us for 8 months, she’s still wary of my husband. And she came with unexpected health issues: she ended up needing most of her teeth pulled due to severe gum inflammation that was autoimmune in origin and was just diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease last week. By the summer, another joint of mine was dying; my right ankle was no longer functional, and I became unable to drive and was only able to walk by seriously limping and leaning on walls/furniture whenever possible.
Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Kosette, two days before being put down due to brain cancer

Also in the summer, Kosette, our 17 year old cat with multiple health issues, suddenly changed. Come August, she no longer was acting like “our” Kosette. Uneven pupils prompted a vet appointment where the worst was confirmed: a brain tumor. On August 6th, we put her down, to prevent her from suffering from the increasing anxiety and confusion that were surely to come. My ankle replacement and bonus toe/metatarsal surgery scheduled for August 27th, we decided to adopt Ethel (again from Chesapeake Cats and Dogs) earlier than we would have otherwise.
Ethel enjoying a sunbeam, home at last.

Ethel enjoying a sunbeam, home at last.

Only 10 days or so after losing Kosette, we brought Ethel home. And just over a week later, I had ankle replacement (and bonus toe/metatarsal) surgery… which was by far the hardest joint surgery I’ve had, in terms of pain after and the recovery period. One month non-weight-bearing on my right foot when my left hip was due to be replaced in 2011 and is not capable of bearing any extra weight and my left wrist had been replaced in 2008 and couldn’t bear more than 10 pounds. I’m still not sure how I got through that month, but I did. And now the end is in sight with this surgery. I’m doing Physical Therapy; I can walk almost normally; I can drive. I’ve yet to start seriously belly dancing again, but I’m hoping to get back to that sometime this week. In addition, I’m a member of the board of directors at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs, and we’ve had a lot of struggles this year.

And that’s the summary of my life since losing Min this January.

Is it any wonder I feel adrift sometimes? That sometimes I still see Min or Kosette out of the corner of my eye? That I still feel like my mornings and days are too empty because I’m not spending ten minutes or more of every waking hour at home feeding (or attempting to feed) Kosette? That I wonder if I even had time to process losing my right ankle, to properly grieve the loss of a joint the way I’ve needed to in the past prior to joint surgeries?

To wonder where this year has gone. It feels like I just took a breath, and suddenly it’s almost Thanksgiving.

I have no regrets about anything that has happened this year. I just wish this year had happened over the course of 2 or 3 instead of just one. This has been one of the hardest years of my life thus far. But has it been a bad year?

No. Losing Min and losing Kosette were part of loving them. When I love a cat, I know that one day, that cat will die. And I make a choice every time that I will love this cat as much as I can for as long as I can and I will not hold back any love or affection out of fear of future pain. In a way, those final weeks approaching the end of a cat’s life have a sacred beauty all their own. The love fulfills its potential in those weeks. Do I love this cat enough to truly put their needs before my own? Is my love strong enough to let the cat go? I learn what my love is truly capable of in that moment, when my vet asks, “Are you sure? Are you ready?”, and I nod or say yes even as my whole being is screaming NO.

And then, I choose to love again. Because how could I not?

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“Nothing is what we thought”: A reflection on grief

Today’s slogan is, “Nothing is what we thought”. I love this quote by Pema Chodron because it has so many different meanings. First, it can mean that things are not the way we thought they were, that our perception of things is wrong. Second, it can mean that we are thinking nothing, that our mind is empty. And third, it can mean that our thoughts are nothing, that they are insubstantial and fleeting.

When this quote comes up in her book, it is the first meaning that she is referring to, and it is that meaning that I want to ponder in this post. A few months ago, I was feeling awfully smug about my ability to handle whatever life could throw at me. I felt that I was comfortable with the way grief affects me and I had a set idea of the losses that I expected to occur in the next couple years. Kosette, our 17-year-old cat with kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, and high blood pressure, would die within the next year or two. Then, five or so years later, our 12-year-old cat Min would die. That was how it was supposed to be. But life makes a mockery of our expectations, and nothing is as I thought.

220709_originalWhen we came home after being away for Christmas, Min had stopped eating. Over the next two weeks, we took her to the vet many times, searching for the cause of her anorexia, expecting it would be something fixable. It wasn’t. It was intestinal lymphoma, meaning that even if she were force-fed, the food had nowhere to go. She stopped purring, was barely drinking, stopped urinating and defecating, and spent a lot of time each day hiding.

On January 13, my husband and I made the decision to put Min to sleep. There was nothing else we could do to end her suffering. There were things we could do to prolong her life, but nothing we could do to actually make her better.

It was a shock. And I learned that grief is not predictable, that life is not predictable. Life doesn’t care about your expectations. All you can do—all I can do—is love as much as you can, because, as cliché as this is, you just never know. And so I start 2014 not feeling smug at all, but feeling vulnerable. And raw. And uncertain.

Because nothing is what we thought, and that’s just the way things are.

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Filed under belief, buddhism, cats, daily life, death, ego, grief, impermanence, slogans

Reflections from Discussions on Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”

A Friend and I organized a discussion series at Third Haven Friends Meeting about Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. (See here for a link with information about the discussion series.) What follows are my reflections at the end of the discussion series, written to share with my Meeting.


  • “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” pg. 6
  • “One in three young African American men will serve time in prison if current trends continue…” pg 9
  • “Between 1980 and 984, FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,026 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to $181 million. By contrast, funding for agencies responsible for drug treatment, prevention, and education was dramatically reduced.” pg. 49-50
  • “When the War on Drugs gained full steam in the mid-1980s, prison admissions for African Americans skyrocketed, nearly quadrupling in three years, and then increasing steadily until it reach in 2000 a level more than twenty-six times the level in 1983… The number of whites admitted for drug offenses in 2000 was eight times the number admitted in 1983… Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino.” pg. 98
  • “The racial basis inherent in the drug war is a major reason that 1 in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men… One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006.” pg. 100
  • “African Americans were more than six times as likely as whites to be sentence to prison for identical crimes… African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.” pg. 118

This is the truth we have been hiding from: that our United States prison systems are mostly full of young African American men; and that they are full not because young African American men are more likely to commit crime, but because they’re more likely to be arrested and incarcerated because of crimes committed. This is particularly the case with the “War on Drugs”, which has been used disproportionately against African American males to imprison them in federal courts with mandatory minimum sentencing, whereas their white counterparts are instead more likely to be tried in state courts, where mandatory minimum sentencing rules may not apply.

Michelle Alexander’s book, “The new Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindedness”, argues that incarcerating young African American males through the “War on Drugs” was done intentionally as a method of control for African American males after the Civil Rights movement. While some may find her premise difficult to believe, what is made abundantly clear in her book are the statistics that show African American males are being imprisoned for the War on Drugs at an obscenely high rate compared to their white male counterparts. For anyone who cares about equality, justice, peace—which I would hope would be all Quakers everywhere—the system has to be changed.

The question then becomes: what can I do? What can we do?

The first step, as always, is education and conversation. Nothing will change if we are unwilling to discuss race in our criminal justice system. We at Third Haven took this first step during our book discussion group on “The New Jim Crow”. L.A. and I will continue to make ourselves available to any who wish to discuss this issue further or who were perhaps unable to attend the discussions. Other recommended books include:

  • “Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin”, an African American Quaker who was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington;
  • “The Soul Knows No Bars” by Drew Leder, a Baltimore Quaker who teaches philosophy in local prisons;
  • “Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights”;
  • and “Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice” by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye;

all of which are available in Third Haven’s library; and “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson, about the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to the North and Midwest, which is not available in Third Haven’s library, but is available through the Maryland library system.

But what next? As individuals, there are two kinds of actions we can take: local and federal. Federal actions may include: rallies for social justice, emailing Congress and lawmakers to change the laws that support racism in our justice system. There are several non-profit organizations directly involved in ending mass incarceration and the racism in our justice system. They are:

  • Drug Policy Alliance: See this link for a flier that contains a brief summary of “The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race”.
  • Center for Constitutional Rights: They’re the group that sued the NYPD for racial profiling in their Stop & Frisk policies.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): Since the publication of “The New Jim Crow”, the ACLU has become more involved in ending mass incarceration and racism. See this link for information about marijuana prosecution in Maryland.
  • The Sentencing Project: This group is primarily involved in research about mass incarceration and racism. They’re the group that funds the kind of studies that provide the statistics Michelle Alexander uses in her book.
  • All of Us or None: Supports people in prisons and those released from prison, particularly those with children.

Local actions may include: investigating local policies regarding the War on Drugs, petitioning local agencies to become more aware of racial bias, encouraging venues to sponsor events about the subject, writing letters to the editor, supporting our local prisoners by donating books to the prison library or becoming involved in groups such as Alternatives to Violence, and more.

We can take any of these actions as individuals or collectively, as a Meeting. But what it all comes down to, Friends, is that we must care. We must open our eyes to the racial reality of our society. We must be willing to acknowledge race before we can confront racism. As Michelle Alexander says,

“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was [Martin Luther] King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”

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“That of God”: Letting Go of Fear

Most of the time I spend at Chesapeake Cats and Dogs is spent interacting not with people, but with cats. My main function is what’s called “socializing”; that is, I give cats attention—pet them, pick them up, hold them, and so on. The goal of this is often said to be making the cats more adoptable. And I do hope that my interactions with the cats ends up with them being more adoptable.

But that’s not what I’m trying to do, exactly. My goal, what is behind how I interact with the cats, is to let the cats grow into who they truly are. What this means in particular for many cats is that I try to encourage them to be comfortable enough around people that they enjoy affection instead of fear it. This depends on trust and respect. The cat has to learn to trust me (and hopefully once they learn to trust me, they’ll extend that idea to other people), and to get the cat to trust me, I have to respect its limits. Respecting a cat’s limits doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes do something that pushes its limits (otherwise a shy cat would never learn to be petted, for example), but that when I do push its limits, I’m aware that that’s what I’m doing and I let the cat dictate how long this uncomfortable interaction continues. And when the cat has learned that he or she can trust me, then the transformation begins: she or he starts relaxing into interactions instead of tensing. Purring happens. Greeting me when I walk into the adoption center begins to happen.

Ultimately, it’s about teaching the cat how not to be afraid. I don’t believe there are any “mean” cats; I believe that when cats aren’t afraid, they’re loving and affectionate. But this isn’t a natural state for cats when they interact with people. It’s something they have to learn or be taught. And the older the cat is when this learning begins, the more fear there is to overcome.

In short, what I’m doing is seeing and answering “that of God” in these cats. And they appreciate it.

And I’ve been thinking that this is how I’d like to interact with people, too; to interact with other people in such a way that they know they have nothing to fear from me, so they can become who they truly are. Because people, like cats, aren’t born learning how to interact with people. It’s something we have to learn. And sometimes that process of learning gets tainted with fear and we forget who we are, at our core.

We’re like cats, I think: when we’re afraid, we lash out. And when we’re with someone who knows us—truly knows us—we blossom. Can we learn to see each other how God sees us? Can I learn how to answer “that of God” in people as well as cats?

I hope so.

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Filed under cats, daily life, God, inspirations, love, practice, quakerism, speak and listen with love, that of God

Poem: “A Day for Shadows”

Today is a day for
Shadows—
Subtle shifts in light
Quiet dances of darkness
The tired metaphor of good and evil.

When I wake up, it will be to a
World of shadows
Not pushed against a cave wall
But settling on my skin

Like a lotion.

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Poem: “A Day for Whispers”

Today is a day for
Whispers
Soft caresses of
Silence
Misty with the dew of
Yearning
The grey satin breeze
The gentle rain of
Awakening.

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Poems

“A Just Being”

Being as just
Being
Sitting to sit
Writing to write
Writing to right
Wrongs left
From
Unseeing
Unfeeling
Believing non-being
Instead of
Just
Being


“Holy Differences”

Wholly different perspectives
Stand their ground
Trip me up
Put motes in my eyes and
Cotton in my ears.

Where is the common ground?
Where is the shift we need to
See the same?

Yet in the differences rests
Diversity, the
Holy harmony of humanity,
That which turns the
Wholly different into
Holy differences.

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Filed under human rights, inspirations, leadings, oppression, poetry, racism, speak and listen with love, that of God

White Privilege: Reflections after the George Zimmerman verdict

I’ve been thinking a lot about racism and white privilege since the George Zimmerman verdict. (I’m not going to call it the “Trayvon Martin” verdict, because Trayvon Martin wasn’t on trial.) I’ve been having lots of conversations about race issues on facebook, some of these conversations haven’t gone very well. But these have been some of my thoughts…


Some people have tried to make the point that because Zimmerman is Latino and not white, race wasn’t a factor in the trial.

Let me be brutally honest here. People don’t like to think of themselves as racists, so let me clear the air a bit.

I am racist. When I see a black man or teenager, for a split second, I’m suspicious. Then I become aware of that irrational suspicion and I let it go. In today’s America, where most of our arrested criminals are black (because most of the people arrested are black), it’s very hard not to be a racist. It takes a lot of effort and work.

We’re culturally trained to associate criminal behavior with black men.

If I saw George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, instinctively I would be suspicious of Trayvon first.

Look deeply and honestly within yourselves. Can you honestly say your first impression would be different?

And if not, then how can you claim this trial had nothing to do with race?


The term “privilege” has always bothered me, even though the ideas behind the terms like white privilege, ableist privilege, etc., make sense. And I just figured out why.

Privileges are something extra you get, like when you’re a kid and your parents tell you you can earn a privilege by doing a chore. And when we talk about white privilege, we’re talking about unearned privilege. We make our “privileges” a source of guilt. In other words, the fact that I can walk down a street alone at night without being shot for having my skin color making me appear “suspicious” is something I should feel bad about, that other people don’t have the same safe experiences.

But being able to walk down a street at night without being shot because your skin color makes you appear “suspicious” shouldn’t be a privilege. It should be the norm.

Being able to walk into a store and not having the manager tail you should be the norm. Being able to get a job based on your qualifications and not your skin color or sex or etc. should be the norm. Being able to live in any neighborhood you can afford without being given sham excuses about why you can’t live there should be the norm.

Everyone should be able to live the life a male, straight, white, able-bodied, etc. American can live.

The guilt involved in the discussions on white privilege I’ve read implies that the privilege itself–our experiences as white Americans–is the problem. We need to give up some of our privileges so those without them can live like we do.

No. I don’t want to walk down the street and be judged as if I were black. I want everyone to be able to walk down the street and not be judged because of their skin tone.

The goal is to improve people’s lives, not lessen some to improve others.

My “privileges” aren’t the problem. The problem is that they have somehow become extra benefits and not the normal experience of just being HUMAN.

So, white Americans, don’t feel guilty that you can walk home and not get shot like Trayvon. Don’t feel guilty for getting into that college or getting that job.

Feel empowered to work so that people who are being denied their human rights can have the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that you do.

Because ultimately, what we’re talking about are rights, not privileges.

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Simple Testimony

The Quaker Testimony on Simplicity has been gnawing at me for a while now, and I didn’t know why. After all, I love this testimony. I love the idea of paring away everything but what’s important to make space for God. The testimonies of simplicity and integrity probably affect my day to day life more than any other explicitly Quaker practice. And yet, there’s been this gnawing sense of something very wrong with our modern understanding of simplicity.

Let’s talk about the Quaker “patron saint” of simplicity, John Woolman, for a moment. John Woolman is best known for speaking out against slavery in a time where very, very few others were doing so. But he’s also known for making the decision to cut back on his business, which was becoming so profitable that he felt it was preventing him from having adequate time for God. This is the model of Quaker simplicity I’ve heard the most about. This is the ideal that’s been explicitly or indirectly implied: that Quaker simplicity is about cutting back so you can make space for God.

I don’t have anything against John Woolman. I think he was awesome for the things he did. He’s one of my all-time favorite Quakers.

But you know what else John Woolman was? A man of means. And the overwhelming sense of Simplicity that I seem to get from a lot of modern Quakers is from this assumption: that you have the means to make economic decisions that will allow you to better follow God.

It’s simple to choose a career that benefits the world and doesn’t exploit others. It’s simple to buy a Prius or a hybrid instead of a sports car. It’s simple to buy fair trade instead of supporting exploitative labor practices. It’s simple to buy organic whenever possible, and the more local, the better.

Isn’t our testimony on simplicity more than just another liberal yuppie shopping practice? Can’t you practice simplicity without having an upper-middle class budget?

I’ll be blunt. Not everyone has a choice what job they work at. (Not everyone has a career, either.) Priuses are expensive cars. I’m going to be needing to replace my 2001 Corolla sometime soon, and I’ve ruled out Priuses because they are way over my budget. Fair trade clothes? Also expensive. Organic food? Expensive.

No one needs to have money to follow God. Period.

There’s another “patron saint” of simplicity, Thomas R. Kelly. With him, it was more about choosing how to spend your free time wisely. One of his most famous quotes is probably, “We cannot die on every cross. Nor are we expected to.” In other words, as worthy as a cause may be, it’s okay to say no and leave that burden to another if it’s not what we are called to do.

Disclaimer: I have the utmost respect for Thomas Kelly. He’s probably my favorite Quaker writer. Still, the assumption is that you have free time to spend and the freedom to choose how to spend it. That’s a luxury and freedom that not everyone has.

So, what do I think our testimony of simplicity is really about, if not about choosing how to spend time or money in better service to God? It’s about knowing what’s important and acting in accord with that. It’s not about how you spend your extra time or extra money, but about what matters to you most day to day—how you spend all your time and money, not just the “extra”. And when you’re clear on what is most important to you and live your life in accordance to that, then you’re living a life of integrity.

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