Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dear Facebook Friends & Fam,

So I am hopping back on here for a minute to speak my mind, to say the things that I’ve meant to say since 11/9, but have been biting my tongue every day since.
I have been blessed to have two Holocaust survivors in my life. I have heard their firsthand accounts of the horrors of fascism, of the murder of their beloved families and friends, of their own brutal path to survival, of the way that ordinary people just turned away and let hatred grow and build until it became a nearly unstoppable force of destruction. And yet, still, witnessing this for themselves, they chose to believe in the beauty of humanity, in the hope of America, a nation that fought and helped to defeat this great evil.
So are you happy now? Is this land, the actual opposite of the promise that caused Anna and Schlomo to move here, a land of bullying and hatred and intolerance, of disrespect of all of our immigrant roots, denial of our promise of equality, is this the America you wanted? Is America great for you now, today, in Charlottesville, VA?
I hope you’re happy, I hope you’re exuberant. Because this America is not great for me, or my family, or my friends, it is actually a threat to our lives. We tried to warn you, we tried to tell you that OUR CHILDREN’S LIVES would be endangered if this level of hatred was unleashed from the dark shadows where it has lived for a long, long time, and now is unrestrained. We are not na├»ve, we knew it was there, and we knew exactly what would happen if it was given a real place at the head of the table.
We told you there would be Nazis in the White House, and there are. We told you the justice system would be run by white supremacists, and it is. We told you that immigrants, that people like our parents, and our grandparents, innocent people who have labored and suffered to reach the American dream, would be ripped from their families, and they are. We told you that gay rights would suffer and be set back, and they have been. We told you that women would have to give up our rights, and we have. We told you that our beautiful land, our very breath, would be endangered by science deniers, and it is. Whether any of those are your beliefs or not, you chose to turn away and ignore what we were all telling you. OUR FAMILIES ARE IN REAL DANGER IN THIS AMERICA.
So today, as I watch my country turn into a place that is a threat to my children, I have one request for those of you who chose not to listen to us.
Please stop pretending. Stop pretending that you’ll care if this form of hatred spreads and is turned on my family. Please stop pretending that you’ll care when it is turned on our Muslim friends. Please stop pretending that you’ll care when it is turned on our immigrant friends. Please stop pretending that you’ll care when it is turned on our LGBTQ friends. Please stop pretending that you’ll care when it gets worse, which it will, and open your eyes and stop pretending that you are shocked by what you see. You unlocked it.
Please stop pretending to be my friend. Unfriend me. Cross the street when you see me. Roll your eyes in disdain at what a snowflake I am. I don’t care. I would rather you show your real feelings, that you believe people like us have no place in this country, right to my face. You’ve already shown which torch you stand behind right here on Facebook.
And for God’s sake, please stop pretending that you actually give one single f*ck about Felipe or Jake or Kai. I will spend the rest of my days on this Earth, trying to be a good Christian, trying to find a way to forgive those who with their vote or non-vote have shown how little they care about my family’s rights and safety. But right now, TODAY, I have no room for hypocrites. Blow it all up, start a new world war, make America in exactly your mirror image, rage at the rest of us all you want, revel in the hostile and bullying language, feel satisfied at our outrage that the boots of hatred are coming back to crush people like us again. I will follow the path of my mother, of Liz, of Momma J, of all the accepting and loving women I know who chose to live a life of tolerance and love and acceptance. I will be mother above all. I will protect all the children I can—every last one of them—because I will never judge any single person the way that you have all judged people like me and mine.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

His Name Was Konerak Sinthasomphone


I should be sitting here stressing over the upcoming New York City high school admissions process for my 13-year-old son. I should be obsessing about junior year and SATs and all the challenges and hurdles it will entail for my 15-year-old. I should be worried about my husband’s health.

Instead I am alone with my laptop, wishing that instead of being out at baseball practice and physical therapy, my husband and sons would be here with me—safe and protected, forever and ever. Wrapped in a bubble of love and comfort. Because I know that every time the men in my family step outside our door, they are in danger. Of course, in some way or another, everyone is. But things are more dangerous for them. They are black (or Latino, or people of color, or whatever you want to label them) men in America.

Yesterday and today I watched videos no mother should ever watch of police gunning down black men across the country. I felt the same old feelings of hopelessness and despair well up in my chest as I thought about the mothers of those men. I did not grow up expecting to ever have those feelings. I am white. I have privilege. These feelings were alien to me. And now that I’ve known them for nearly 30 years, I want to make sure they never become familiar to anyone ever again. Not to me. Not to any mother.

I am hardly important in this story, though. Hardly.

Instead I am sitting here thinking of another brown-skinned teenager. Not my son. I'm thinking of Konerak Sinthasomphone. Because he’s important. He was never a trending hashtag. He won’t join the ranks of #altonsterling and #philandocastile and all the other important names that have caused #blacklivesmatter to be a hashtag. We should repeat every one one of them, over and over, like a prayer. A prayer for a better world, a better nation. We should add Konerak Sinthasomphone to the list. He was a victim of our broken systems, too.

Konerak Sinthasomphone is someone who haunts me. I have a few ghosts who haunt me, who beg me to share some piece of them on the printed page. He is one who has come back to me from time to time over the past 25 years, broken body aching for me to scoop him up in a motherly embrace. I honestly have never known what to do with him. But he is back, and I don’t even know how to wrap my fingers around the keyboard in a way that does his story justice. I’m sorry, Konerak. I will keep trying.

#blacklivesmatter seems like an impossibly difficult concept for some people to embrace, people I know and love. I wonder about the friends and family who resist it, who struggle to understand its importance.  We all want to live in a world of peace and harmony. We all want to believe that it can be #alllivesmatter, that we can simply show each other basic human kindness and respect and that will be enough. 

Some are afraid that #blacklivesmatter is anti-police and will put themselves or their loved ones in danger on the job. Some are fearful that #blacklivesmatter is anti-white.  Of course, the hashtag is neither. It’s necessary.

One friend posted, disbelievingly, “It’s like we live in 2 different countries.” I can see some of my black family and friends shaking their heads and laughing at that statement, (not today, though) as if this is a stunning revelation. They’ve known it all of their lives.

I read so many posts and articles trying to explain all of this, and my head spins and my heart aches. I read the Reddit post about “getting your fair share at dinner.” Konerak taps my shoulder. “It’s not about that,” he whispers. “It’s about me.”

I think some people see #blacklivesmatter and think it is about a single event, a distinct set of individuals in a certain moment of time. They dig and dig to find validation for that moment. Why the officer was justified. Why it is different this time. They think the individuals set the equation in motion.

Mourning is for individuals. The mothers and fathers and children and neighbors and co-workers who have to grieve for the loss of their person.

This equation, though, was set in motion by systems, not individuals. Broken, corrupt, need-to-be-fixed-immediately systems.

#blacklivesmatter is about these systems and what the failure of those systems makes people do, on both sides of that certain moment of time. It is failing those police officers just as much as it is failing those black men. 

 Our systems have failed us.
“Repeat, 100,000 times,” Konerak says.
OUR SYSTEMS HAVE FAILED US.

Our educational system has failed us.
Our justice system has failed us.
Our political system has failed us.

OUR SYSTEMS HAVE FAILED US.

Konerak is whispering to me again. He is going to explain how this system failed him. He wants to help you understand why #blacklivesmatters matters. 

Konerak Sinthasomphone was 14-years-old when our failed system grabbed him and threw him into a deadly equation. His family had fled from a broken communist system in Laos, with hopes to give their children a bright hopeful future in the United States of America. He was their baby.

Before our failed system got to him, though, Konerak was grabbed and held hostage by a cannibalistic serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Grabbed and held and beaten and a hole drilled into his head and filled with muriatic acid by a man who had a few years earlier been charged with molesting Konerak’s older brother. A man who was released because he wrote a letter saying, “Sorry.” A white man. A brown boy. Case dismissed.

And then, remarkably, incredibly, somehow, Konerak was able to escape from Dahmer’s grasp. ESCAPE! It was a miracle. He was watched over and protected by two black teen girls.  Protected as Dahmer tried to drag him back home.

But then our failed system grabbed Konerak and walked him to his death.

Konerak Sinthasomphone. 14 years old. Naked. Beaten, bruised, and bleeding.

Returned, by the police, to Jeffrey Dahmer. Returned as the police ignored the protests of the black girls and listened to the lies of a white criminal.

A CHILD, returned by the POLICE to A SEX ABUSER, CANNIBAL, SERIAL KILLER.

The POLICE threatened the TWO BLACK TEENAGERS with ARREST.

Dahmer himself could hardly believe that the police did not smell the decomposing bodies as they accompanied Konerak into his apartment. The officers laughed about the supposed “lover’s spat” as Dahmer explained the situation to them. They did not even question Dahmer.

The girl's aunt called police 10 minutes later to check on the state of the boy. She repeatedly told the officer that she was worried that he was indeed a child, not an adult, as they were claiming. Her fears were dismissed.

Konerak Sinthasomphone was later strangled and dismembered by Dahmer.

Konerak Sinthasomphone liked drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and playing football and swimming, just like my boys.
He was a child.
He was a victim of our failed systems.

Mothers, all of us, want to believe that our children's lives will be valued, protected, considered, in the same way that any other child's life will be. Some mothers—Konerak's mother, Tamir Rice's mother—know that this is not true for their children. Know. Not suspect, not worry, they know. We all need to chew hard on that bitter pill for a long, long while.

If you still cannot understand #blacklivesmatter, then I need you to picture this scene right now.

A white 14-year-old boy, lies on the ground, screaming, naked, and bruised, protected by two white teen girls. Imagine the police’s response then. Then imagine that somehow, unbelievingly, they still bring the boy to 924 North 245th Street, Apartment 213. But the man who answers the door is black, or Laotian, or Muslim. And imagine that he has a criminal record.

Is there any stretch of the imagination that can make you believe that those same police officers would have left that white boy to die in there? If you say yes, I won’t believe that you are telling the truth. Because those officers, they are victims of the broken system, too. I am sure Konerak haunts them even more than he haunts me.

Someday, if we work hard enough, we can get to the place where the outcome of any of these equations is not a failure every damn time. But we will never get there until every last one of us agrees that our systems are broken.

DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW? If we—every damn one of us—don’t agree that our systems are broken, don’t understand the disparity, don’t realize the nightmare it brings to people on both sides of the line; we will all fail together. If we don’t realize that it is now or never to fix these systems, together, we will just continue down this horrific path time after time after time.

I do not have the answers tonight. I am willing to listen to anyone who believes they do, and to do whatever part I can to make things right.

But I do know that Konerak Sinthasomphone deserves better than what we’ve given him.

#blacklivesmatter



ADDENDUM

Since my sincere mission is to be inclusive and not divisive, to inform and not accuse, I am sad that this piece is offending some. I'm going to try to say this another way.

If you read #blacklivesmatter to mean #onlyblacklivesmatter or #blacklivesmattermore, than you are misunderstanding the slogan.

From my perspective, it is really means…

"Every black (and can be extended to 'every non-straight, white, Christian, male') life should matter just as much as any white (SWCM) life, but historically, and presently, this is not true in many places and many systems of the United States of America, including, but not exclusive to, our justice system. We all need to recognize this and talk about it and work together to untangle the many strands of this tangled web, with unity and understanding of many different perspectives, so that we can heal our nation and take it to a place where all lives will be valued equally one day in a way that they never have been before. However, that is not where we are at today."

But you know, slogans, they're supposed to be short and to the point, so…

#blacklivesmatter




Wednesday, May 6, 2015

LEGACY

For Jane, Sadie, Nettie, Rosie, and Bridgie; 
for Greta, Agnes, Anna, Betty, Bridget, Mary, & Marie,
for Liz, and, always, for Mary Jane. 
With love and gratitude.




All the women who have a piece in me are gone.
Bones and teeth,
Ash and dust,
Scattered remains.

They bequeathed their strength,
And I rise on their bent backs.

    Mind set on their course,
        Mindful that I will never know
their poverty
their pain
their oppression
their opportunity denied.

My fingers never broken by sweatshop machines.
My heart never bound by conventions and prejudice.
My mind never confined by misogyny.

Shaped by strength, they stomped the Earth.
Titans
                  (I imagine the worlds they would run
                  With just a tiny piece of my privilege.)

All the women who have a piece in me are gone.
                                    Bones and teeth,
                                    Ash and dust,
                                    Scattered remains.

They shove me forward and scream my name.
Rest in peace, my beloved Titans.
I remember your names.
I remember your pain.
I will never forget.            
I remain,
 filled with the pieces of you,
until I am legacy, too.


--Sheila Sweeny Higginson

Saturday, February 14, 2015

That Time I Ruined My Valentine



I shatter
                       like a crisp of ice,  
                       flash-frozen pond top

     with your slightest move,
         Glance this way, turn that way,
         focus in some other direction
              (Not a stomp, nor a monstrous roar, it takes
               so very much less than that.)

We, like water, are a polar molecule 
      Covalent bonds, positive and negative charges
      Filling the years with an atomic dance toward and away from each other

And I, a weaker element alone, seek strength in that union
      Growing to be more than myself,
      Depending on the core of an unbreakable chain
            Forgetting to acknowledge, forgetting to embrace,
            forgetting the steps of the dance.

Will we dance that liquid dance again, moving this way and that?
Will we move mightily together, a solid that steers in one direction?
Will we steam, then scatter, nebulous as a gas?

The essence of the form will change, no doubt.
Melting, or heating, or freezing—the bonds will not be denied.

I am weaker alone.
I shatter at the flicker of a thought of that existence.
Shatter me, though, if you will.
I am weaker, but not weak.
I will flicker and float my way through the universe.

Or, better yet, dance with me.

The glacial buildup will be neither rapid nor trouble-free.
Cracks are to be smoothed over.
Paths will be carved.
Electron crashing may no longer be as volatile.
Still this is where I wish to be.

Part of a molecule, singular in strength, one and only, with you.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Found in Translation


The Setting

Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, early spring of 2004. It's just a few blinks after 9/11 and the neighborhood, hard hit by that tragedy is still in many ways shell-shocked. There is also a great deal of tension between the "old school" white Brooklyn residents and our Muslim neighbors, many of them new immigrants to the community.


The School Yard

Moms, dads, grandparents, and nannies gathered in the fenced-in courtyard of my son's preschool to wait for their children every day at pick-up time. Like all caretakers of young children, we were, at varying times: rushed, frazzled, late, desperate, in terrible need of adult communication. Before long, though, the invisible dividing lines of the self-selecting groups started to make the yard resemble a middle-school cafeteria. The separation was created by comfort and ease, Spanish-speaking moms talking to other Spanish-speaking moms, St. Anselm parishioners talking to other St. Anselm parishioners, and so on. You know how it goes.


The BFF

A few months into the school year, my son Jake started talking incessantly about Tarek, his new preschool friend. The conversation morphed into a daily, "Mom, can Tarek come over to play?" query at pick up.

Tarek's mom always stood near the picnic table, where a group of hijabi moms gathered each afternoon. I always smiled and said hello to them every day, but honestly, I did not make much effort beyond that. I knew that Tarek's mom didn't speak a lot of English, had a toddler daughter in a stroller, and was also pregnant. I had no idea how to broach the topic of a play date with her.


The Best Laid Plan

As the weather started getting warmer, I thought planning a trip to the park together after school might be a good compromise. When Jake and Tarek came running out of school one day begging for a play date, I asked Tarek to translate for me. We went back and forth a bit and chose a date—Thursday. 

On Thursday at dismissal, Tarek's mom gathered a few of the boys from the class, then walked over to me and handed me a piece of paper. It had her address and phone number on it. She said, "I take Jake. You call. Pick up." 

I was confused. This wasn't the plan at all. "I'm sorry," I said. "He can't go. I thought we were all going to the park." She looked at me, hurt and confused. "Why?" she asked. She gestured to the other boys who were all going to her home.

The silent awkwardness between us felt like it lasted an eternity.

"Jake come to my house," Tarek's mom said again. I stood there, not knowing what to say. I didn't know how to explain everything that was behind my denial, and so I said the first thing that popped into my head. "I'm sorry, Jake's dad won't let him go." 


The Aftermath

It was a cowardly act. Not quite a lie, but totally pawning my culpability off on my overprotective husband, and it was wrong.

Tarek's mom looked teary as she walked away with the other boys. I took Jake to my car, strapped him in his booster seat, hung my head on the steering wheel and we both sobbed. I had hurt another human being, and I had no idea how to fix that. I knew that I had to, though.


The Fix

I went home and wrote my thoughts in a letter to Tarek's mom that said something along the lines of, "Thank you so much for inviting my son to your home. It is truly an honor and I am sorry about the miscommunication. We are overprotective new parents, and Jake has never been left with anyone but a family member, he has never even had a babysitter…"

A few phone calls later, and I had enlisted the help of a friend's mom who took the time out of her busy day to translate my words to Arabic. The next day, I walked over to the picnic table and handed the translated letter to Tarek's mom. Her friends gathered around as they read it together.

Suddenly, I was embraced in an all-forgiving group hug. Tears fell to the concrete. "I understand," Tarek's mom said. Another mother explained, "We're the same way. We would never leave our son with anyone but family. Don't worry."

Then, sadly, they asked me where I was from and shook their heads at my response that I was raised in Brooklyn. "You can't be American," they replied. "You're too nice to us."


The Lesson

I've reflected on the lessons of that day a lot. I came to the realization that to carry my baggage as a socially anxious girl geek to my interactions with other people is, in fact, quite selfish and ignorant of my inherent privilege. I now ask myself:
  • When I'm in a situation with new people, to whom do I choose to talk? Why?
  • Can I look at myself objectively? See myself the way others actually see me rather than the way I feel about myself?
  • What are some strategies I can use to connect with new people, especially people who may never feel comfortable initiating contact with me?
  • Would anything I say…or do…or write hurt another person? How can I anticipate that pain to make sure I change my approach?

The Journey

One of my husband's mantras is: When you admit you're wrong, you're right.  

I am a flawed human, but I am trying to be better at it. I will continue to make mistakes. I try to live by this truth. 

I was wrong that spring day in the preschool schoolyard. Acknowledging it not only helped me grow as a person, it opened up a world of new friends. I can only hope that, with practice and self-awareness, one day I will get it right.