A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

Road Trip VI, Days 28-32, in my hometown, Durham, NC: My German Grandmother’s Take on Civil Rights Martyrs

Everyone who enjoys the privilege of time spent with aging parents knows this pattern: touch an object, hear a story. It could be an oil painting or a plate with cows on it; if it’s been held onto for decades, it has something to tell.

This week I’ve been roaming through my parents’ house in North Carolina, touching things and letting them talk to me. I’m especially lucky here, since my paternal grandma, my German Oma, was a sculptor. This house is bursting with her work. Today I’m going to let one of her pieces tell its story.

June 21, 1964. Philadelphia, Mississippi. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered buried in an earthen dam.

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Actually that’s incorrect. Civil Rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared that Freedom Summer, having left their base in Meridian, Mississippi to investigate some church burnings in the eastern part of the state. According to Curtis J. Austin in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, “The Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion Church because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. After the three young men had gone into Neshoba County to investigate, they were subsequently stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. After several hours, Price finally released them only to arrest them again shortly after 10 p.m. He then turned the civil rights workers over to his fellow Klansmen. The group took the activists to a remote area, beat them, and then shot them to death.” It took several weeks for their bodies to be found.

My grandmother, Edith Brauer Klopfer, moved from California to North Carolina in 1965, to help take care of baby me. Thirty years before, she had moved with her husband and young sons from Germany to Philadelphia–temporarily, she thought, to give that pesky Herr Hitler a wide berth. The Klopfers were Jewish.

My parents have not been able to tell me exactly what my grandmother thought of the Civil Rights movement she walked into when she moved to the South. But they don’t need to. This sculpture says it all. She called it Three Martyrs. It’s Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer.

Three Martyrs

Three Martyrs

Most historians agree that, because Schwerner and Goodman were White, the federal government’s response left earlier responses to murders of Black activists in the dust. If you’ve seen Mississippi Burning, you know they established an FBI office in Jackson and called out the state’s National Guard and U. S. Navy to help search for the three men. Freedom Summer organizers weren’t dumb–they had hoped for exactly this kind of attention when they asked for White volunteers.

Austin continues,

After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen, including Price, were arrested and tried for the brutal killings. A jury of sympathizers found them all not guilty. Some time later, the federal government charged the murderers with violating the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. This time the Klansmen were convicted and served sentences ranging from two to ten years.

This is as moving to me as it probably is to you. What moves me even more, though, is thinking of my German Jewish Oma, wielding her chisel to coax these figures out of the wood…figures which still testify, 50 years later, to the darkness from which our country is still hauling itself. Did she think of her homeland and its six million martyrs? Was it a work of despair or hope, sorrow or rage, or honor?

I think it was all of those. I run my fingers over the grooves her chisel made, thinking of her strong arms, and I pay homage to the three, to all they represent, and to her–and all she represents.

John Oliver, Edward Snowden, and Us: Why Does a Brit Seem to Care More About American Freedoms Than We Americans Do?

Quick: Turn to someone near you and tell them who Edward Snowden is and why he matters to Americans.

If you’re like the folks Comedy Central’s John Oliver interviewed on the streets of Manhattan, you will either a) draw a blank or b) confuse Snowden with Julian Assange, the “Wikileaks Guy.”

Hopefully you’re not like those folks. But if you suspect you might be, watch this breathtaking interview conducted in Moscow with what Oliver calls “America’s most famous patriot and/or traitor.” When I say breathtaking, I mean that literally: breathtakingly bold, breathtakingly honest. Oliver asks Snowden the questions most of us would want to ask.

But in so doing, he also turns the camera on us, in effect asking Americans, “Why don’t you care more about the real effects of the Patriot Act? Why don’t you care more that your government has been proven to have the capacity to spy on you?”

A quick warning, before you watch this episode from Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”: if you’re offended by casual profanity and excessive references to male body parts–don’t. This ain’t the New York Times, remember–it’s Comedy Central.

But in my opinion, it still deserves a Peabody Award.

So, you watched? Is John Oliver brilliant or what? Tell me what you think.

That Rings a Bell: Birmingham Still Echoes at the March on Washington

I was still in diapers when it happened.

The bombing of that church in Birmingham, Alabama. September 15, 1963. You know–the 16th St. Baptist Church. The one on the corner of the square where the German Shepherds and the firehoses were turned on the peacefully assembled people.

(courtesy bplolinenews.blogspot.com)

(courtesy bplolinenews.blogspot.com)

(courtesy engineerfloknowledge.blogspot.com)

(courtesy engineerfloknowledge.blogspot.com)

(courtesy pinterest.com)

(courtesy pinterest.com)

The one where those four little girls died.

Watching the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington this past week brought it all back. Not because of the speeches or the music, however inspiring. It was that bell that did it for me.

At noon, right after an impassioned speech by one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughters, and right before the appearance of our nation’s first Black President, they rang the bell that had been salvaged from that bombed church all those years ago. And I started to cry.

(courtesy dailymail.co.uk)

(courtesy dailymail.co.uk)

I am a 51 year-old privileged white woman, but I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1957, my parents moved from California to North Carolina to start my dad’s career and raise a family. They were horrified by what they found there. You don’t need me to describe it for you: the “Whites Only” signs, the “Colored” drinking fountains. You’ve seen it all before, in documentaries if not the actual news of the time. Maybe you’ve even lived it.

My parents didn’t want their three little girls going to segregated schools. So they, as part of the Durham Friends Meeting, started the Carolina Friends School, the first integrated school in the state. And they got involved in the sit-in movement.

Three years after the first, spontaneous sit-in at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworths, and a year after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, my dad got arrested, along with a few others, trying to desegregate a Howard Johnson’s in Durham.

His case went to trial. The jury couldn’t reach a verdict, so a mistrial was declared. The state prosecutor compelled my dad not to leave the state until the new trial, but at the same time refused to set that new trial date. My dad was trapped. As a young professor of zoology, he could not travel anywhere for his field research, or to attend a professional conference. North Carolina had imposed a kind of in-state house arrest.

So he took the state to trial. And lost. He appealed to the State Supreme Court…and lost again. The Court agreed that my dad had, in theory, the right to a speedy trial, under the 6th Amendment, but that he couldn’t force the state to prosecute him because…wait for it…the 6th Amendment did not apply to the states, but only to the federal government.

So…on to the Supreme Court. I’ll skip to the happy ending. In 1967, the Supreme Court sided with my dad and said, yessiree, the states do too have to give people their 6th Amendment rights, just like they have to give you due process and equal protection and all those other wonderful rights from the 14th Amendment. (Can you tell that one’s my favorite?)

If you want to be a Super Legal Geek like me, you can read about the case here:

http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=us&vol=386&invol=213

You can probably tell that I’m skipping over a lot of anguish and fear from the time, as well as deep guilt from my family’s knowledge that our whiteness was a protection that my dad’s Black colleagues did not have. Take all that mix of emotions, insert it into childhood, and voila: memories and images from that time period still make me cry.

Here’s another example, from Birmingham itself. My husband and I drove through a couple of years ago on a cross-country road trip, and stopped at that famous park to make a pilgrimage.

Then…

(courtesy amistadresource.org)

(courtesy amistadresource.org)

…and now:

DSC02248

Let me tell you, I had to force myself to walk between those snarling dogs. And they were only bronze.

So that’s why that bell gets me. Because it was THERE. Like those brave folks, who continued facing down the Birmingham police and the Klan even after that murderous bombing, it survived. It RINGS.

Do you have memories of that time? Or images that get you right in the heart? Or does it all seem too long ago and far away? I am so very interested to know how the images of that time work on you. Let me hear!