Reflections on Race after the Verdict

Here are a few random thoughts on race.

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I believe more people should learn conflict mediation skills and fewer people should carry guns.

I was thinking about the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI) workshop that my daughters and I attended last year. A key factor in resolving conflict is TALKING, not fighting, not fearing each other.

After being shot by the Taliban, on 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations. (photo courtesy of Charter for Compassion)
After being shot by the Taliban, on 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations. (photo courtesy of Charter for Compassion)

The talking solution may sound girlie, sissy, touchy-feely. But in fact, if more people talked about their feelings and fears, there would be less trigger-happy people and disputes.

Look at what a girl can do when you look at Malala Yousafzai who had been shot by the Taliban for speaking up. She celebrated her 16th birthday by speaking to the United Nations in favor of educating girls.

Personal gripe: Last year, when I worked for the faith-based women’s group, I wrote a curriculum on using conflict resolution skills in small group settings for a young women’s training. Despite being riddled with conflict, even the women’s group saw conflict mediation as a low priority.

**

If my 16-year old son were walking the streets of Florida, no one would feel alarmed. This case was definitely about race. The Paula Deen incident shows people talk about race in private, but not in public.

We say nothing. We are afraid. We don’t want to offend. We avoid conflict. But talking (writing) is the best solution. And we may need to employ conflict mediation skills to let one another talk without judging. Use “I” statements and all.  We need to learn to talk about tough stuff. I do, any way.

**

What the hell, Florida?

My father belonged to a neighborhood watch group in Florida.

Last year, I asked him if he saw anything worrisome. He said once he saw a group of Hispanic men hanging out near a park at night. He called it in. The cop said leave them be. My father said the group claimed to be a soccer league, but my dad did not see any soccer ball.

He never saw the group again.

**

Once I was at a cocktail party in the Adirondacks and I met the writer Nell Irvin Painter. She wrote the book, “History of White People.” She was about to go on the Daily Show to talk about her book. She was studying art. We sat on a comfy couch and talked about Princeton, art, writing, and race. Her book sounded brilliant.

Nell Irvin Painter
Nell Irvin Painter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We shared some laughs. I wanted to read her book about white-ness and the construct of race. I have not read it yet.

**

I was at another cocktail party in the Adirondacks. (Apparently that’s the only place where I go to cocktail parties. (Though once I went to cocktail party at Gay and Nan Talese’s house. That’s another story. (Charlie Rose was there.))

Back to this friend in the Adirondacks — she said that the U.S. should’ve never fought the Civil War. This idea was anathema to me. She said, ‘We should have annexed the south because southerners were and are such a drain on the country. The north would accept all people as free people. The south, because of its bigotry, would implode. All would be welcome in the north. We would thrive.”

Again, it was provocative cocktail party talk.

**

I want to take my kids to see Gettysburg.

Once I went to Gettysburg with college chum Jeff Carey (T. Jefferson Carey). I was splitting up from my first marriage. He was going through some shit.

We took this crazy road trip in his really crappy car. We totally made all these connections about how the Civil War was a metaphor — for my marriage and for our families, for our divisiveness within ourselves, and for our country, even today.

I kind of remember him burying something on our road trip  — some kind of talisman — under a tree. Or maybe he dug something up. I can’t remember. It was a long time ago.

I do remember that Jeff and I bought this tape. We played the dramatic tape in his tapedeck as we drove around listening to the story of the bloody war at Gettysburg. I remember crying over that tape’s dramatic narration of Gettysburg — where brother fought brother.

I want my kids to hear and learn about Gettysburg. I want, as a country, for us not to forget the Civil War. I want us not to forget Trayvon Martin. I want us to listen to people like Malala Yousafzai and Nell Irvin Painter.

I want fewer people to have guns. I want to read books and talk about race. I want people to learn how to mediate conflict and talk about race and gender, like we learned to through the GLI.

After all, this is the least we can do to mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

P.S. I want to go to more cocktail parties.

Stronger than the Storm

We kept singing the New Jersey jingle, Stronger than the Storm, when I visited Long Beach Island last weekend. Small businesses on the Jersey Shore are back.

The beach is beautiful. The Atlantic Ocean is freezing, 59 degrees, but there’s nothing the board of tourism can do about that. The ice cubes in the ocean didn’t stop us from dashing in. And dashing out, victorious, refreshed.

Every one rides bikes on Long Beach Island.
Every one rides bikes on Long Beach Island.

This stronger-than-the-storm theme applies to my life – raising my rambunctious teens, hanging tough with Chris, working on a novel, freelance writing, and all the while, procrastinating on the much-needed workout.

I admit some of my life’s storms I seek. I am a storm chaser. I could take the easy way out of town. But I like a challenge. It feels like starting my own biz is a perfect storm. But one that I can ride. I don’t think it will swamp me.

Sometimes, I avoid the storm, hunkered down in a safe sanctuary. I plug in my ear buds and wait for the storm to pass. I read a book, escape through literature.

Sometimes I seek safe sanctuary by making art. I started making collage art again. Making a collage is like creating and resolving your own storm. You get caught in the whirlwind of creativity. My teacher Mariano says, you can’t make a mistake with collage.

The Atlantic Ocean refreshes you.
The Atlantic Ocean refreshes you.

I rode out Hurricane Sandy last fall. I was leading a writing weekend in the Adirondacks. I was alone in the Big House.

Outside the third floor bedroom window, a big tree rattled the window screen. The scraping of the branch sounded like the knuckles of a witch trying to get in.

I beat it back to the hunkered-down city rather than stay alone in the mansion. I made it back to my wild and restless kids, my somewhat overwhelmed husband, my weathered city. I stayed stronger by rushing back home.

I should know I cope by rushing in. Just like I rushed back into the Atlantic weekend, though the waves hit me hard and the water was an ice cold bath. Life is all about rushing back in.

Don’t let fear win

So some cowards want me to be afraid. But I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to take up their fear. I’m going to keep loving people. I’m going to keep loving strangers even. Just because some idiots want me to be afraid, doesn’t mean that I have to. If fear is contagious, then so is kindness and hope. Sometimes hope is a harder mountain to climb, but I like a challenge.

I know it’s natural to catch the contagion of fear. It’s human. I may feel the fear but I won’t let it poison me.

I’ve been here before. After 9/11, I felt the collective fear. At that time, I’d wake in the morning and wonder if it was all a bad dream. Or I’d lay there and just wish that years would pass quickly so that the tragedy would be only a mild ache instead of a a pervasive pain.

And yesterday, I felt that poisoning pain again.

Still. I’m not buying fear. Instead, I’m buying the instinctive hope of the people who rushed to help. I’m buying the hugs and calls of loved ones checking in on each other.

I will always remember the line, blocks and blocks long, of people who wanted to donate blood to Red Cross after 9/11. Millions more people wanted to help than hurt one another.

Healing, like creating, is hard work. It takes a minute to destroy and years to rebuild. Still, I’d rather be in the business of rebuilding: lives, loves, hope.

Living with someone who’s chronically ill, I live with fear and worry. Parkinson’s Disease has challenged my husband, affected his posture, his walking and more. But I’m not going to let Parkinson’s win either. I’m not going to let a fairly inevitable trajectory of decline ruin my hope for him or for my family. Not today. I have hope today that from the ashes come some sort of new life and some inevitable spring.

I am going to hug my darlings close, write, teach, try to make my small corner of the world a little better than I found it. That’s what I’m doing today. And then tomorrow, I’m going to get up and do it all over again.

Because fear doesn’t win. Love wins.

In times of stress, I know I have to:

  • Connect with friends and family more
  • Work out more
  • Do more self care
  • Eat and sleep well

How do you cope?

at Harvard
Last month the kids and I visited Cambridge and Boston.

2 Great New Movies about Mental Illness

Silver Linings Playbook
Silver Linings Playbook

Just in time for the holidays, there are two awesome new films about mental illness.

I just saw Silver Linings Playbook and The Master. Both of these films show the journey from destructive madness to precarious sanity. The films show the impossible internal tide as Pat, Bradley Cooper, and Freddy, Joaquin Phoenix, descend (ascend) into their altered states and try to get back to life again.

The movies made me wonder about something I read a long time from Carl Jung. I am paraphrasing, but the idea from Jung, is that: Maybe it’s not these individuals who are mad, but their societies are insane.

Maybe madness is the only sane response to an insane society. Coping is hard enough in life, without the stigma and consequences of mental illness, brought on by intense stress or some biological deficiency.

Both lead actors in these films chew up the scenery. Oddly, during a few intense moments in Silver Linings, the director cuts away from the Bradley Cooper character, a manic-depressive, to get the reaction shots of Jennifer Lawrence (from The Hunger Games).

The title of Silver Linings refers to the benefits of positive thinking to overcome difficulties. I am fan of optimism. Here are my other take-aways from Silver Linings.

  • Dancing and running help heal obsessive minds
  • Beat craziness with more craziness
  • Two messed-up people can make a sane thing
  • Find the silver lining in every crazy moment
  • Mental illness runs in families

The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams are incredible in The Master. There is never a cutting away from their faces during intense scenes. If anything, the close-ups just get closer. Tormented minds reveal themselves through dialogue and action. Actions have consequences.

Here are my take-aways from The Master

  • Every one serves someone (the master?). (Did Bob Dylan say this too?)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, especially for wartime survivors
  • Communal living is healing (and destructive)
  • We may be better than we think we are
  • Don’t give up on love
  • Talk therapy works (hypnotherapy too?)

Overcoming mental illness is no joke, although, turns out, these two films depict the efforts to overcome mental illness as entertaining and compelling.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

After the characters of Freddy and Pat slide into their dysfunctional moments, they seem always at war with themselves, trying to reign in their destructive sides and crawl back to lives with family or community. They look for a state of grace. Or at least, they seek connection with others and a state of normalcy. Balance eludes them.

Just in time for Christmas and New Year’s, you can see these movies and contemplate having more compassion for your family members who may have diseases or mental illnesses.

Even though I loved these films, I hope to see a mainstream movie about a woman with a mental illness, preferably depression, which is far more common in women than men.

In the newly-released Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln denies her depression. Her mental illness is only viewed as an impediment to her emotional closeness to her family. For women in films, like Mary played by Sally Field, relationships matter most. For men, it is the journey to wholeness. But surely, Mary’s depression could be a fascinating feature-length film, not just a subplot in Lincoln’s life.

Maybe I’ll write more about Lincoln later. I just saw it yesterday and am still reeling from those performances and the immersion in a time of history when men and women fought to knit the country together rather than to pull it apart. To unite us.

PS I modeled this blog post from my previous post on 2 great new movies about alcoholism

History Repeats Itself

Everything is fine. But I am having a slightly depressing day. I don’t want to go into any of the details, but suffice it to say, I have been here before. (My Kids Can Be Mean to Me.)

There are legit reasons why I feel unhappy and unsatisfied in my home life. I remind myself that I am feeling this way today, not every day. Just today.

I think that when I worked full time, I could submerge my difficulties at home into successes at work. I got good at compartmentalizing. That was one of my keys to success.

And, in a way, I’ve had part-time work this week — going to the movies. I have seen three movies and one play in five days. Last night, at the Public, I saw Sorry by Richard Nelson. The story was about four adult siblings on Election Day putting their demented uncle in a home. Really good.

Today, I saw Cloud Atlas. It was a trip. Set in six different time periods, the characters return as descendants from an earlier time or, maybe, as reincarnated souls. They are marked with a shooting star tattoo.

Cloud Atlas, based on the book by David Mitchell, reminded me that our lives are interwoven, past hurts are revisited. The people in power corrupt and exploit those in their care. When consumerism and greed is the value upon which a society is based, take heed. Yet kindness in the extreme can heal the wounded souls and societies.

So going to the movies this week has left me with lofty thoughts. I put my grievances aside. For today. Just today.

I probably should go to therapy instead of the movies. Yet I find my way of coping entertaining.

I heart unemployment!

2 Great New Movies about Alcoholics

Just in time for the holidays, there are two awesome new films about addiction and alcoholism. I just saw Smashed and Flight. Both of these films plot the journey from stupor to sober. They show how fun it is to drink and how crazy the consequences of that night of fun can be.

The acting in both of these films is awesome. Denzel Washington is a genius. I never tire of watching him. The man is unafraid to take his emotions to the edge. (Love that in a man!)

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed is playful, lovable, out of control and fricken’ scary. And you feel scared for her. You feel like one her kindergarten students, asking yourself, “Is she okay?” And then you think, “Oh, whatever. She’s funny!”

I love a subgenre of movies — movies, I dub, learning how to love again. As someone who’s loved my share of alcoholics, I can attest to the wild ride of fun and despair in loving an alcoholic (or, I imagine, in being one).

Overcoming the disease of alcoholism is a compelling story line — after the slide into despair comes the crawl into a state of grace.

Of course there are other great movies about alcoholism, like Leaving Las Vegas or Clean and Sober. I loved Clean and Sober because the whole second part of the plot revolved around the Michael Keaton character’s obsession as he substituted his addiction to cocaine to his attachment to his girlfriend.

If, like me, you can identify with the life of a codependent, attached to another person’s dysfunction, these are good holiday movies for you. Both films left me shaken and stirred, just in time for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, when I can toast these two new movies. I recommend that you do too. Make yours a double (feature) and take it neat with a twist.

Leaving the Job

In about a month, I’m going to be divorced from my job. In many ways the marriage has been fruitful. We’ve had wonderful children (projects) together; we’ve gone many places; we’ve grown; we’ve pushed each other to grow; and now we’re moving on. We are going our separate ways. We have other loves and other children and other journeys to take. Still, it’s weird. I have mixed emotions.

I find myself moody and at times sad and in need of attention. My friend Rachael said, “That’s good. As it should be.” I remember as a kid going to summer camp or to college and missing my crazy family like crazy. (Work has been like a family to me.) But I assured myself, “It’s okay. It’ be horrible if I was just happy to be rid of them. Just to be free.”

There is a longing for freedom — a desire to speak my truth and not care if my truth jibes with the dogma of the faith-based group. I want to scream from the mountaintops, “I love Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs! I love all religions — no one has a corner on truth. No one of you is more perfect than the rest!” And if I blog about how I love gay marriage I don’t want to fear some stuffy church exec pulling me aside, “You represent the agency so please keep your public opinions to yourself.” (Yes, that kind of thing, on occasion, happens!)

I’ll miss the family dramas. I’ll miss the comedy. I won’t miss the meetings.

I’ll miss my identity as a writer. I always felt I had the best job at the place. There are many writers who want to write full time. And for most of my 20 years with the agency (10, part time and 10, full time) I’ve done it. But writing for work is different than writing for your own passion. And because I’ve given at the office, I don’t always feel like giving out at home.

I gave the best years of my life to that workplace. (I get dramatic. Maybe the best is yet to come?) The agency made me better and I made the agency better.

Still, I feel untethered, unmoored. What am I doing? I need the apron strings of a day job to get by in NYC, especially since I have three kids heading to college within the next six years.

I assure myself I am not alone. I am one of 38 of the 201 full time staff of my agency who accepted this voluntary severance package. That’s about 20 percent of us, who are cut loose and footloose.

I’m starting my own business coaching writers. (Check out my new biz.) I’m freelancing writing and teaching in a couple of afterschool programs. Oh, and I’m going to every single one of my kids’ meets and games in track, swim, basketball, soccer, and gymanstics. I’m going to volunteer with the PTA, go on field trips, and help backstage at the shows.

Here’s the view from the top of my office building.

I’m not going far. I’ll still hang out with my old work friends for lunch, happy hour, maybe even to walk the 19 flights up to the roof, hit up the art opening, visit the ecumenical library, or take my old Pilates class. It is, it turns out, all of these peripheral things that I’ll miss, that I’ve added on to my work life, that have made my life meaningful. It is what I’ve brought with me. And these things, it turns out, I can take away.

I may be getting a divorce from work, but it is an amicable one. We still love each other very much and want only the best for one another.