Luis Urrea and the Serendipity of Inspiration–With a Side of Humor and Grace

Have you ever experienced one of those wonderful moments of confluence, when suddenly all the trickling aspects of your life seem to be pouring into the same inspiring river?

Consider these trickles, seemingly unrelated:

  1. I’m teaching myself Spanish for a few years now.
  2. Since the 2016 election, I’ve been listening to podcasts of On Being, with Krista Tippett, on a semi-regular basis, to give me inspiration.
  3. I’ve been contemplating opportunities to bridge our national divide on a local level–whatever that means.
  4. Ursula LeGuin, a writer who felt like more of a teacher than an author to me, died this year.
  5. A friend recommended Luis Urrea’s The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Last week I tuned into my favorite podcast, and found, to my surprise, an interview with Mr. Urrea himself. The topic: “What Borders Are Really About, And What We Do With Them.” I also discovered that Ursula LeGuin had been Urrea’s mentor. She called him Luisito.

Luis Urrea at the Texas Book Festival, 2015 (courtesy Wikipedia)

Urrea knows about borders. He is the son of a woman from Philadelphia and a man from Tijuana. On his website, he sums up, in eerily tidy prose, how he lost his father when he, Luis, was 20:

I won’t belabor it here–many of you know the story already.  But some of it is central to the Ursula story.  In short, my dad had gone to Mexico to retrieve money from his bank to give me a graduation gift.  And on the long drive back to the United States, he fell afoul of some Federales and local cops in Sonora.  He died awfully in their care.  And then they sold me his corpse.  He cost me $750.

The details of those days are ugly.  Suffice it to say that by the time I got home, I had forgotten certain words in English.  My bestie, Rick Elias, was waiting for me at my house.  He couldn’t stop laughing because I had returned with a heavy Tijuana accent, and he thought I was kidding.  Because I was always kidding.  But I wasn’t kidding this time–I was broken.

As I listened to Urrea and Tippett talk–hey, is it cool if I call them Luis & Krista? Yeah? great–the streams of inspiration just kept building. Luis is a teacher, like I was, and here’s what he has to say about bridging divides in his classroom:

As a teacher, I teach in Chicago, and I watch students fear each other. I come into a class, and African-American students are on one side, and white students are on the other side. Or I come into a class, and there’ll be two young ladies with the hijab, and no one will sit near them. There’s an empty arc of seats around them. And so I’m always trying to find ways to stop these things, because it only takes this much, I think, for us to see each other, know each other, and then, love each other. And that’s what’s so dangerous. That’s very dangerous.

So one of my writing rules with my students, which I use all the time — and it’s why the books are so comedic in places — is, I always tell the students that laughter is the virus that infects you with humanity. And if you sit with somebody and laugh — not at them, but laugh with them wholeheartedly, how in the world can you get up from that table and say, “Pssh, those people.” You can’t. And if you’ve laughed with them, you’re going to cry with them too. That laughter is a very dangerous portal for humanity.

Yes, please! I want that infection. Don’t we all?

Luis’s book, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, is itself inspiring, being the fictionalized story of Teresa Urrea, “the Mexican Joan of Arc,” “Saint Teresita”–who happened to have been his real-life, great-great aunt. It’s full of humor, and pathos, and faith, and Spanish. Gaps are bridged all over the place, between races, between theists and non-theists, between men and women. I could not have found a more apt book for this moment in my life, and the life of our nation, if I’d done research.

Speaking of our nation’s moment, Luis also gives the background of his nonfiction book The Devil’s Highway, a look at the path traveled by people crossing the desert to enter the U.S. without papers. That story hit me harder than anything else he said. While researching the Border Patrol–and being essentially hazed by its agents, he had a moment of epiphany:

...the supervisory agent of Welton Station, Kenny Smith, a lovely man, a 30-year veteran of the Border Patrol, while they were basically eating me alive, tearing my sinews off my bones, he came out, and he said, “What’s going on?” They said, “This idiot’s writing this book about the…” And he just looked at me, and it is what I call grace. I don’t know what else to call it. But this moment came, when his eyes focused and he looked at me, and he said, “I sent out the rescue. I sent out that big banzai run.”

And at that moment, without knowing it, my life changed. And he took me in, and he began training me. And he took me out and showed me what it means to track people and how to know what time of the morning somebody walked by. It was incredible. I realized, this guy had a Ph.D. in dirt, I say in the book, because he could read a piece of dirt like we read a poem in a lit class; then he was saying things that were blowing my mind.

And there came this moment — the transformational moment, for me, was standing on the Devil’s Highway with him. And there’s nothing there. There’s no fence. There’s no barbed wire. It’s just desert, as far as you can see…

And I am standing there with him, and he says to me — and mind you, I still think they’re evil. He says, “I know what you think of me.” And I remember looking, because he’s got his .40-caliber Glock on his belt, and I thought, oh, man. And he said, “You think I’m a jackbooted thug.” And I was busted. I wasn’t gonna say, “Well, yes, I do.” I just stood there. And he said, “I am your jackbooted thug in shining armor.” And he started talking about his life.

And he told me all this amazing stuff that I couldn’t have imagined in 100 years: how agents park — they live 70 miles, 50 miles away from any station, because it takes that long to get into the game and change the human being you were when you woke up, to the human being that has to go out now. And he said, “And you gotta drive 70 miles home, because you gotta go home and bounce your child on your knee.” And he said to me at one point — it’s a white cowboy. He says, “My daddy was a rancher. I’m a rancher. You know what I do all day? I chase ranchers around this.” He said, “I know they’re my own people.” And he said, “My job is to save innocent civilians dying a terrible death. My job is also to arrest those same civilians.”

I could go on and on with quotes from the interview, not to mention quotes from the novel. (Can’t quote Luis’s other books ’cause I haven’t read ’em yet, but believe me, I’m going to.) But I think I’ve made my point.

Borders. Bridging. Grace. Hope. 

Any questions?

 

 

O Say Can You See…The Beloved Community?

This past week, several friends of mine in different parts of the country voiced ambivalence about celebrating America. Their common refrain: “Our current government seems to be all about turning people against each other. What’s to celebrate? Make America Hate Again?”

But as Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote (and as President Obama loves to remind us, even if he quotes it incorrectly), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m trying to keep that in mind these days, keep my eyes on the prize: the Beloved Community.

The Huffington Post’s Dr. Jeff Ritterman published this blog a while ago, defining the Beloved Community and breaking down its real-world implications:

As explained by The King Center, the memorial institution founded by Coretta Scott King to further the goals of Martin Luther King,

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood .

Now, that sounds mighty high-falutin’ to me. But here’s what the Beloved Community looks like to me, here on my little island: everyone can talk to everyone else. People feel bad if someone in the community is suffering, even if they themselves are untouched. We are islanders together, maybe even more than we are Americans together.

Is this true now? Of course not. But this vision draws me eagerly to our amazing community parade, and our even more amazing fireworks display. This vision fuels my conversations with fellow islanders I’m pretty sure vote differently from me.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Kabir Bakie, Blue Ash Fireworks Display, July 4 2005

Would I have those conversations with similar folks on the mainland? Not sure. That’s a pretty daunting thought. But here? It’s a start, at least.

What is your own version of the Beloved Community? Can you sum it up in one sentence? 

Celebrate America–by Remembering Philando Castile

Philando Castile died two days after Independence Day, July 6, 2016. Shot to death in his car, in a traffic stop in Minnesota, in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter, by a police officer who later swore he was in fear of his life. One year later, in July 2017, the officer was acquitted by a jury containing men and women of different races.

Courtesy Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, via Wikimedia Commons

 This is not a post about guns, shooting, police, or even Black Lives Matter. This is a post about love. This is a signpost, showing a way forward.

According to a story by Michelle Krupa of CNN in March of this year, Philando’s legacy is still alive, helping children the way he used to, when he worked as a custodian at a public school in St. Paul:

One by one.That’s how Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop, used to help kids who couldn’t afford lunch. The school nutrition supervisor would dip into his pocket and pay the bill.

Now a charity run in his name has multiplied his mission by thousands, wiping out the lunch debt of every student at all 56 schools in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked.
“That means that no parent of the 37,000 kids who eat meals at school need worry about how to pay that overdue debt,” according to a post at the YouCaring fundraising page Philando Feeds the Children. “Philando is STILL reaching into his pocket, and helping a kid out. One by one.”
This July 4th, I’m going to celebrate my country, which I love, as much as anything, for its ability to rise from its own evil–slavery–and become better. And I’m going to remember Philando Castile, who died because the legacy of slavery has legitimized the idea of a black man being scary, even as he sits in his car with his family. I’m going to celebrate the fact that an American like Philando, held to one of the lowest jobs, chose to help children the way we all want adults to help children.
God bless America. God bless the example of Philando Castile. Let’s make ourselves and our country better.

 

Better Bundo Book: How an Adorable Bunny (and John Oliver) Remind Us That Love is Love

Do you like bunnies? How about adorable illustrations? Are you in favor of marriage equality? Then you might appreciate this post…

…especially if you subscribe to the “Be Careful What You Wish For” school of Maybe Impeaching Trump Isn’t the Greatest Idea.

Here’s how all those concepts connect: in this crazy, sweet book.

OMG that is one cute bunny!!!

Quick back story, in case you are not a follower of comedian John Oliver’s show “Last Week Tonight”:

Back in March, Oliver did a show reminding the nation of our Vice President’s hostility to gay marriage. I won’t go into detail; you can watch the episode here.

Here’s where the adorably illustrated bunnies come in, if you don’t have time to watch the clip. Mike Pence’s daughter Charlotte wrote a children’s book from the perspective of the Pence family’s pet rabbit, Marlon Bundo (gotta admit–cute name, and cute rabbit too). Her mom, Second Lady Karen Pence, illustrated—very skillfully, I might add.

But John Oliver, in order to highlight the VP’s less-than-warm & fuzziness toward gays (and to cause trouble–he is, after all, a comedian), chose to commission and co-write his OWN bunny book. Only this one’s about Marlon Bundo himself.

Safe to say Pence is not the hero of this one.

And even more, it’s about Marlon’s Very Special Day, where he meets…

Awww….

I won’t be a complete spoiler: please, buy your own copy of the book (which, by the way, has been massively outselling the original it’s spoofing). Buy several copies. It’s a great story, even better read aloud. Don’t believe me? You can practice right now with this final page:

Amen to that.

Remembering An Awful Day: The Murder of Dr. King

April 4, 1968. I was six. I remember looking down from the top of the stairs to see my mother looking up. She was crying.

Courtesy Wikimedia

If you are old enough to remember the day Martin Luther King died, where were you?

If you are too young to remember…here’s a song for you. It’s about Coretta, because April 4, 1968 was worse for her than for any of us.

 

Coretta

 

Every city in this land got a street named for your man;

We celebrate his birthday, we sing and hold hands.

But sometimes I wonder if we’d ever be here

If you hadn’t stood beside him for all of those years.

                        All of those years…imagine the tears.

                        Coretta Scott King, your name hardly appears.

 

Lovely young soprano, Alabama to Ohio:

Your music could’ve carried you even further, you know.

But Martin sweeps you off your feet, or you sweep him,

And you’re swept into the movement, sink or swim.

                        Sink or swim…opposition is grim.                     

                         Montgomery Bus Boycott is the first big win.

 

 

Martin’s filling up the jails, says that love will never fail              

And you’re right there with him, center of the gale.

But your four little children can’t be left alone

And Martin says their mama needs to stay at home.

                        Stay at home, keep the children calm.                          

                        Thank the Lord you are out when your house gets bombed.

 

 

Klan don’t need to wait for dark; Selma’s like their personal park.           

Cross the Pettus Bridge to face Sheriff Clark.

On that Bloody Sunday you can hear the cries

With your hands in the laundry and your eyes on the prize.

                        Eyes on the prize…when a martyr dies                                  

                        Best step aside, feel the power rise.

 

Martin goes to Memphis town; hand of hate cuts him down.          

Now they’re looking to you to lead ’em to high ground.

You’re still in shock, you don’t know what to feel

But just like Martin, you’re made of steel.

                        Made of steel…Lord, this is real:               

                        41 year-old widow of a slain ideal.

 

So you take up Martin’s cross, learn to be a movement boss         

And you march and you rally and you  pay the cost.

You tell your fellow women to embrace their role:

“If you want to save the nation, you must become its soul.”

                        Become its soul…it took its toll.    

                        But Coretta, look around, we’re approaching the goal.*

 

 

For over thirteen thousand days, you walked those weary ways      

Speaking out against the war, supporting the gays.

For the poor and persecuted you carried the flame

And never got a monument. Ain’t it a shame?

       Ain’t it a shame? No one’s to blame.                              

                        But Coretta Scott King, we remember your name.

                        Ain’t it a shame? No one’s to blame.

                        But Coretta Scott King, we remember your name.          

 

G. Wing, March 2013

*I wrote this song in a more optimistic time. Not sure I still believe that goal’s getting any closer

Road Trip VIII, Days 24-27, Asheville to Durham, N.C.: The White Privilege of Road-Tripping

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been trying to up my game since the election, using reading to deepen my understanding of the America experienced by People of Color. If you’re doing the same or just looking for a great read, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Must-read.

One section of this book hits particularly hard at the moment, as it concerns a road trip…by a Black man—or colored, as he was called in 1953—crossing the desert  alone. Since we have recently, and frequently, traversed the region described in the book, I found myself sharply reminded of how even the simple act of driving contains an enormous racial divide.

Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, starting from segregated Louisiana, has crossed through Texas at last, and is ready to celebrate his escape from Jim Crow. But here’s what happens when, exhausted, he tries to get a motel room in supposedly un-segregated Arizona.

“I’d  like to get a room for the night, please,” he said.
The man looked flustered. “Oh, my goodness,” the man at the front desk said. “We forgot to turn off the vacancy sign.”
Robert tried to hide his disappointment.
“Oh, thank you,” Robert said.
He climbed back in the car and drove away fro the motel and the vacancy sign that continued to blink. He had been in the South long enough to know when he had been lied to…
…He drove to the next motel in the row, a hundred or so yards away.
“I’d like to get a motel room,” he said, stiffer than before. He was cautious now, and the man must have seen his caution.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, polite and businesslike. “We just rented our last room.”

A third motel owner turns him down, “sweetly.” By now night has advanced; his is the only car left on the road. The doctor is on his last legs.

“He didn’t want to make a case of it. He never intended to march over Jim Crow or try to integrate anybody’s motel. He didn’t like being where he wasn’t wanted. And yet here he was, needing something he couldn’t have. He debated whether he should speak his mind, protect himself from rejection, say it before they could say it…
…He pulled into the lot. There was nobody out there but him, and he was the only one driving up to get a room. He walked inside. His voice was about to break as he made his case.
“I’m looking for a room,” he began. “Now, if it’s your policy not to rent to colored people, let me know now so I don’t keep getting insulted.”
A white woman in her fifties stood at the other side of the front desk. She had a kind face, and he found it reassuring. And so he continued.
“It’s a shame that they would do a person like this,” he said. “I’m no robber. I’ve got no weapons…I’m a medical doctor. I’m a captain that just left Austria…and the German army was just outside Vienna. If there had been a conflict, I would have been protecting you. I would not do people the way I’ve been treated here.”

The woman listens sympathetically, so Robert continues to plead with her, in all his dignity. She calls him respectfully by his title, and goes to confer with her husband. Robert’s hopes rise. And then…

“We’re from Illinois,” the husband said. “We don’t share the opinion of the people in this area. But if we take you in, the rest of the motel owners will ostracize us. We just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”

Later in that interminable desert night, Robert stops for gas. The attendant asks him what’s wrong, and Robert breaks down.

“Yes, there was an evil in the air and this man knew it and the woman at the motel knew it, but here he was without a room and nobody of a mind to do anything had done a single thing to change that fact. And that made the pain harder, not easier, to bear.”  (pp. 207-210)

This was ARIZONA. Not a Confederate state. Yes, Dr. Foster’s experience happened in 1953. But Black families continued to be rejected by motels and restaurants well into the 1970s, in Arizona, New Mexico, California…and probably every other supposedly integrated state…states through which the Mate and I, two generations ago, could have been zooming without a care in the world about where to lay our weary heads.

We’ve always been able to stay wherever we wanted. Because we are white.

Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, said you never really understand someone until you climb into his skin and walk around a while. Sometimes just driving a car through the desert, with an aching head and a full bladder, is enough. God bless America. She sure needs it.

That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Why I Have To Say “Relatable”

Bias Alert: 

  1. Like most English teachers, I shudder at the newly-developing word, “relatable.”
  2. My family and I LOVE the Daily Show; Jon Stewart practically raised our children.

So you might not think we’d love his replacement, Trevor Noah. But you’d think wrong. We loved Trevor from the beginning (forgiving him his occasionally juvenile humor the same way we forgave Jon his old-Jewish-guy schtick).

And now that I’ve read Trevor’s memoir, Born a Crime, I admire him on a whole new levelAnd I admire his mother more.

I only wish I had finished Trevor’s book before Christmas, so I could have given it to everyone I love. I don’t want to tell you too much about it; the book is comprised of anecdotes, to divulge any of which would spoil your joy in reading.

But I will tell you this. Although Trevor claims a different nationality, gender and race (OK, half different–but in South Africa that MEANS different) from mine, I found his story more…RELATABLE than anything I’ve read in the past year. He doesn’t just write of racial injustice–though there’s plenty of that, growing up in the last days of apartheid. He writes of topics I, privileged white American female, RELATE to:

  • adolescent yearnings to belong
  • a complex relationship with religion
  • self-consciousness over appearance
  • heartbreak (over the opposite sex, pets, family members)
  • joy in his own gifts (languages, foot speed–and you’ll see why that’s important!)
  • deep, unshakable love for his AMAZING mother

The book is also really stinkin’ funny, but that’s something I simply appreciate rather than relate to, because, alas, I am not so gifted.

And it’s shockingly sad. Something else I, thanks be, cannot relate to. But Trevor makes his family’s sadness ACCESSIBLE, and that’s close enough. Also–“accessible” is a real word.

Have you read it? Please add your review here. If not, do yourself or someone you love a favor and read Born a Crime as soon as you can.

 

White Privilege, Part…II? XVIII? Who’s Counting?

The US election of 2016 ushered me, like a lot of folks, into a new era of reading, listening, and discussion, all aimed at understanding, to paraphrase Hillary, “What the Hell Just Happened (And What Does it Mean)?”

I quickly figured out that it was mostly my fellow white people who were asking that question. People of Color (whom I’ve mostly just been reading and listening to, since leaving very-colorful Tacoma for this very-white island 7 years ago) not only sounded less surprised on the whole, but also less shook. The overall message seems to be more along the lines of, “Really? Didn’t see this coming?”

For these thinkers, Trump isn’t the blacklight lighting up the creepy-crawlies in the sofa cushions; he’s just one more creepy-crawly in a house whose infestation was built into its foundation-which some of us have been noticing only intermittently. I realized I had something to learn.

One of the most powerful passages of one of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year comes from Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between The World And Me. He writes of the Dream—NOT Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” but quite the opposite. This Dream, to Coates, is the illusion of fundamental American fairness, decency and democracy that middle class whites cling to in order to feel good about living the way we do when we know others have not been, and still are not, able to live that way.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge those horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

Coates concludes that stark paragraph with this statement:

It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. —pp. 88-89

I think I might change that last word to “soul,” or perhaps “heart,” because I feel Coates’ challenge more there than in my mind. And for me the challenge is not to change my opinion about America so much as it is to change my focus. To think about what I haven’t had to think about. And to let new voices have my ear.

One such new voice I heard recently on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, debuting his new song, “First World Problems,” accompanied by Daniel Caesar.

Son One likes Chance and Caesar, and urged me to listen. I now urge you to do the same. Not your style of music? It’s not mine either. But give this song—pun intended—a chance. And pay attention to the lyrics.

These lyrics especially–notice the connection with Coates’ Dream?

Now—think about what you are thinking about. And let me know. Keep the conversation going.

 

What If I Did? Four Words Away From Empathy

When I make my way through my American day, I don’t have to think about the way my skin color, or the style of my dress or hair, or my accent might be taken by my fellow Americans. But what if I did?

I don’t have to worry that someone’s phone call to authorities might lead to my deportation away from my family. What if I did?

I don’t have to fear for my sons that a chance encounter with law enforcement might kill them. What if I did?

I don’t have to worry that a friend or family member might succumb to addiction and death despite everything I did for them. What if I did?

I don’t have to think hard before choosing which bathroom to use, knowing the wrong choice could get me beaten up. What if I did?

I don’t have to check my wallet or the family budget before buying myself a cup of tea, or a muffin, or even dinner out, whenever the urge strikes. What if I did?

I don’t ever have to suffer from lack of natural beauty. What if I did?

In each of these scenarios, I can imagine different responses, in thought or action or both, from the ones that flow from my usual cushy oblivion. I can imagine more involvement, yes. More self-education. But most of all, I don’t have to imagine, I FEEL more empathy, both toward people I am different from, and toward people with whom I deeply disagree.

So what? Still working on that one. Stay with me.