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Month: August 2016

1: You don’t get Fitbit steps by wearing walking shoes.

2: The heat index is real.

3: Toilet paper doesn’t buy itself.

4: The dog likes me best when I’m giving her a treat.

5: When I say “I don’t want to do anything today,” I mean, “I only want to do what I want to do today.”

6: I spend most days not doing what I want.

7: Doing what I want is really hard.

8: Some days it is simply too hot to be outside (see #2 above).

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The Unvarnished Truth

I was in the eighth grade. We had recently moved to North Carolina where we met our new Van Hecke family. One branch of the family lived in Charlotte, the same city we did. That was Daddy’s younger brother Merwin, his wife Faye, and the kids, Kelley, Michael, and Charlie. My sister and I had played in their yard; they’d visited our duplex. Yet, we didn’t know each other that well. Until the day Aunt Faye took me to school.

Faye was a high school English teacher. I wasn’t in high school. I was an extremely shy junior high student who thought she was naturally smarter than most everybody else. (I’ve always thought more of myself than I should.) Faye wasn’t an ordinary teacher. She was an intellectual free-thinker. Thus did she bring me up short the day I began talking about the war we were studying in geography class.

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Entertaining Angels Unawares

Like a water bug on a lake, he zipped past me, twirling around the display case, flailing his skinny arms, talking to himself, entertaining himself at the T-Mobile store. He was my favorite kind of child. A frenetic, voluble young boy of five or six, the type of child who might puzzle his classmates and drive his parents to distraction.

A child who, in fact, was driving his parents to distraction as they tried to talk to the clerk about business plans and Tax IDs. Every once in a while his mother—stepping around the baby sleeping in its carrier at her feet—would scoot away from the counter to tell the boy to quit, or stop, or sit. His dad divided his attention, too, between his business dealings and cutting his eyes to see what his older child was up to.

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What the Hell, Dentists?

For all of my adult life, I’ve been flossing. Okay, okay. Not when I was in college–who needs to floss when the only thing going in your mouth is cold beer? And not when I was a young lawyer. Man, I was too busy trying to make partner to floss. And not when I was newly divorced—I gave up all reputable pursuits during that period of my life and flossing is the very definition of reputable, so there was that.

But, now, I’m saying. When I’ve begun to see the specter of the yawning grave and care about how long I’m gonna be on this mortal coil. A person in that position pays attention when the authorities say something adds years to your life. Flossing was one of those things. As a result, I’ve been flossing for YEARS. And you’re saying flossing has no demonstrable benefits?

For the last forty years, the dental profession has put flossing next to Godliness. I mean, right smack up against it. I didn’t just take up flossing for my health. I flossed because it was the RIGHT thing to do. I was a better person for flossing. Flossing gave me MORAL points. I’d look in the mirror at this stupid activity and think, yeah, this stupid piece of string keeps breaking in your stupid fingers because if God had meant you to put something between your teeth, she wouldn’t have made them SO DAMN CLOSE TOGETHER. But, that’s okay. You will go to heaven. With clean teeth.

Flossing was my get-out-of-your-slovenly-habits-free card. I might go to bed with my mascara on. I might rack my brain to remember the last time I took a vitamin. I might forget to wear deodorant in July in Memphis, Tennessee and only remember when I begin to sweat like a pig. But, by God, I flossed.

Now I read where, after some diligent research, the AP can find no actual, reliable studies showing flossing is beneficial. We’re not saying the studies disagree. Or the results are debatable. Or tough to discern. NO RELIABLE STUDIES HAVE EVER BEEN DONE! One study lasted for the astounding period of . . . two weeks. One focused on a single instance of flossing.

It’s like I’ve been eating spinach because Popeye told me to.

This is not a no-harm, no-foul situation. I have heart issues that mean flossing isn’t just flossing. It’s brushing, followed by mouthwash, followed by flossing. Flossing entails risks. Every time I release groady bacteria into my mouth, I have to make sure the buggers are zapped before they travel to my heart and infect it. Or as the article says, “Though frequency is unclear, floss can dislodge bad bacteria that invade the bloodstream and cause dangerous infections, especially in people with weak immunity, according to the medical literature.” I am not weak. I am BRAVE every time I floss. As it now appears, for no reason.

So, okay, the dentists still say brushing is good. But nothing shows adding flossing to the mix is worth anything. That’s a fifty-fifty record in the dental advice department, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s like me, the writer, advising dentists to always put a period at the end of a sentence and to end a question, draw a duck.

The failure of the one outshines the success of the other, doesn’t it?

If four out of five dentists recommended I wake up tomorrow morning, I wouldn’t do it.

You dentists just keep on flossing. And when you do, take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Who’s the fool now, you with the string dangling from your teeth?

I failed at the conference for racial justice this weekend.

I gave racially tinged advice to a perfectly innocent question that had no race element to it.

I mistook one African-American woman with glasses and short hair for a different African-American woman with glasses and short hair, because all African-Americans look alike to us white folks.

Multiple times, I walked up to a conversation between two African-Americans and stood there like a white person, expecting to interrupt and be acknowledged.

When asked what next step I was going to take, out of all the things I’d written down, I chose a vague, politically correct answer because I wanted to show I was down with the program.

But worst of all, at a conference subtitled “Sacred Conversations on Race,” I argued with a man in my small group. Not once, but in some demented version of Groundhog’s Day, I argued with him twice. On the EXACT SAME SUBJECT. Sweet baby Jesus, that is failure.

They say that failure is an inevitable part of talking about race. That white folks fear this failure so much, we just don’t do it. We clam up rather than risk saying a racist thing, a hurtful thing. If we’re silent, at least we don’t risk stepping into a pile of mess (or, as the Conference called it Situations Happening In our Town-Memphis).

The way most conferences unfold doesn’t help. Invariably, after listening to a mind-bending talk or watching an eye-opening video, we’re directed to small groups where strangers circle up folding chairs and commence solving the world’s problems. One of us kicks it off, offering an opinion that hangs in the air. No one responds because back and forth slides too easily into argument, and the last thing anyone wants to be is the obnoxious group member who argues (again: I was that person, me with all my Parker Palmer active-listening training, not just arguing but interrupting—what the hell, Ellen?)

In contrast to my argumentative self, two members of our group made astonishing, transformational comments. Afterwards, when the conference was over and I’d been talking to my husband about the experience for, oh, 48 hours straight, I heard myself saying, “Those two women, they didn’t argue with someone else’s truth. They spoke their own truth.”

I paused, letting that sink into my brain.

The name of the Trinity Institute conference was “Listen for a Change: Sacred Conversations for Racial Justice.” Everyone at the conference who spoke to the title assumed it meant listen to SOMEONE ELSE. But I find listening to myself to be incredibly valuable. So I tried it, and what I heard was a white woman arguing with a white man about what really happens when African-Americans encounter the police.

After a bit, I told my husband, “I need to articulate my own truth so I can speak from that.”

What is my truth?

It’s a truth born in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s when racial injustice was the legal, embraced societal norm. It continued as an adult when I left my home state and devoured every book I could find on what was really happening when I was a kid. Over time, my reading spread out to include the South then the country, slavery then sharecropping, convict leasing then Jim Crow, poets and historians, memoirs and novels and 1970s sociological studies—all of it, or at least as much as I could get my hands on.

My truth switched from the page to people when I hooked up with the Memphis School of Servant Leadership where I was schooled by African-Americans willing to hang in there with white ignorance (I’m not beating myself up; “ignorance” is a lack of knowledge). My flat out baptism in truth happened when I and a handful of brave souls who were living on the street started the Door of Hope Writing Group. What had been “book learning” and protected conversations in safe spaces became extraordinarily personal.

Every week for eight years, the members of writing group gathered around a table and wrote our truth. Gradually, we branched out, and over time we went to doctor’s appointments and museums. To mental health facilities and awards ceremonies. To the bank and the blood bank. To court and to church. To galas and grant interviews and Graceland. To restaurants and retreats and jail (and jail and jail and jail). To the hospital and into neighborhoods where I was told, “Lock your door and don’t stop on the way outta here.” To the library and to shelters. To funerals. To public readings and the park and wherever we needed to go. And what I learned from our time together was that white America has no idea what Black America experiences.

Yeah, I’d seen some, but only enough to know that when Black folk tell me what’s happening to them, I need to listen. Their description may be totally foreign to my experience of the world, and that is irrelevant. We whites see the world through our glass darkly, and we need help to see the light.

So if an African-American tells me the police stopped her because she was Black or arrested her because she was Black, or shot her friend because he was Black, I’m going to believe her unless and until I see evidence that, in that particular instance, it isn’t true. And still I will weep, because it could’ve been true.

So next time I’m in a small group and another white person begins analyzing the truth of police encounters with African-Americans, I won’t argue with him so he can see more clearly. No, I will ask, “What do the African-Americans viewing the tape say happened?”

So, yes, keep showing up and struggling to talk about race. To do otherwise is to really and truly fail. But, as you show up, make sure you listen for a change.

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