Saturday, January 9, 2016

“Speak the language of love like you know what it means.”

Nicole Chung, managing editor of “The Toast,” posted an article at “Race” on her Website on January 5th titled “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” It’s powerful story and truth telling about microaggressions and the thoughts and feelings that People of Color experience in a culture that makes the White experience normative.

I felt a cascade of emotions when I read Chung’s article, starting with dismay, but not surprise, that a racist comment was made at a family holiday meal. Next came disappointment, also not unexpected, at the writer's choice not to address the comment head on, and finally I landed on empathy and compassion for the author's analysis of the situation and her predicament and situationally forced decision not to rock the boat. Been there, done that, and reflected on the subject of microaggressions for many moons. Will not be buying any teeshirt.

I remember Arthur Fletcher's comment in an ethnic Chambers of Commerce keynote talk 25 years ago. Fletcher at the time was chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and known as the "father of Affirmative Action." Fletcher was also the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund who coined the phrase, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” On that night in Denver, Fletcher was 67 and had undergone bypass surgery. He declared that there is no benefit in keeping silent about the dismal state of civil rights in USAmerica and that he would speak out again and again. I'm approaching 67, and I've felt the same way since I first encountered the civil rights and women’s movements. Speaking out is something anointed and professed leaders are called to do. 

Human interactions become racialized when someone says or does something that makes race an issue. “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” asked the woman at the dinner table of Chung, referencing Chung's interview with Constance Wu of the television series Fresh Off the Boat, featuring an Asian family. Chung is an Asian woman in an apparently dominant culture family (White, I’m guessing) and has biracial children, just like me.

Chung wrote that several possible responses flitted through her mind, including, "Why on earth would you say something like that?" and "For one wild second I allow myself to imagine speaking freely, with no attempt at self-deprecation or careful diplomacy.” She characterized her unspoken question as being “brutally direct.” Wow! Just wow!

We People of Color have been carefully taught through the school of hard knocks to be circumspect in our speech so as not to cause any conflagrations and be accused of making a mountain out of a molehill when we could have "just let it go." A White woman from the dominant culture could speak freely and say any thought that popped into her head, including “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” -- something I am positive no one ever says to a White person. 

Just imagine me saying to a White person, "Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone in most Fortune 500 board rooms?" It's offensive and demeaning to talk to people that way, and it also can rob the person at whom the remark is directed of her power and self-esteem as she attempts to overlook the question for the sake of a semblance of family peace.

I agree with the direct characterization of "brutally direct" that Chung ascribed to her possible response of "Why on earth would you say something like that?" However, I don’t find the question brutal at all. I find the question honest. I'd really like to know what is going through someone's mind when they say things like that.

We teach our children to question why things are said and done, so that they learn how to discern the motivation behind the things that people say and do. I believe that we also need to model that kind of questioning so that we don’t become too domesticated and trained into model minority behaviors of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy as matters of habit, practicing “going along to get along.”

I am a person who bears those characteristics of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy. When appropriate, I am self-deprecating. However, I find self-deprecation to be overrated as a false show of humility and a characteristic that is unfairly encouraged in females as a means of keeping women down. Remember the biblical verse admonishing us not to hide our light under a bushel basket? [Matthew 5:15] I am also diplomatic, scanning the waters of relationships with diligent alertness to show care and concern for others by how I speak and behave so as to avoid breakdowns in communication and relationship.

Relationships become racialized, but they don’t have to become strained, provided everyone exercises openness and honesty about what they know and don’t know about race and racism. Tina Turner performs a song titled “Simply The Best,” which has a wonderfully relevant lyric on this subject: “Speak the language of love like you know what it means. . . . It can't be wrong.”
  • Conversations need to be direct, using words that convey what we actually mean.
  • Questions need to be precise, asking what we actually want to learn and understand.
  • Feelings of offense need to be owned, disclosed, and respected.
  • And no, you don’t get to say that your feelings are now hurt as your defensive response to having said or done something that was offensive to another, especially to a Person of Color. 
In other words, “Speak the truth with love.” No embellishments to dress up the truth. No diminutions to soften the impact of the truth. No lies to cover up the truth. Let your openness – your vulnerability – be the shalom that you offer.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Being Brave – aka Being the First-Born Son

A friend wondered if my years of participating in church and community leadership – teaching, writing, and speaking – have been fueled by a need for acceptance and approval. My response is that it’s more complicated than that.

I have often remarked that my cultural experience of being a first-born female in the Chinese culture, which values first-born sons as the correct way to form a family, is the defining experience of my identity. My paternal grandmother, who was an iconic matriarch, made it known in words meant to punish my mother for producing an eldest daughter and not an eldest son and thus, being an unworthy daughter-in-law. I was a precocious child, who soaked up these lessons and sought to protect my blossoming heart by trying harder to speak, sing, and dance in ways that might attract the praise of elders. But a child’s version of speaking, singing, and dancing could not elicit the countervailing opinions sufficient to withstand my grandmother’s power to shape a girl-child into a whole person.

The opposing, sheltering winds came from the unlikely community of a German-language Lutheran church that taught me scripture and instilled in me a salvific belief in something beyond the authority of my family and culture. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16 KJV] I also learned to sing, “Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong.” [Anna B. Warner, 1860]

My maternal great-grandfather was evangelized in Guangdong Province and rode a bicycle around his village, and was known widely as the “Jesus Man.” It was his Christianity that tempered his Chinese character, leading to schooling for his girl-children and no beatings for the servants and indentured labor. My mother would adopt her grandfather’s modern Western views and nurture me as the eldest daughter of herself, an eldest daughter, who was also mothered by an eldest daughter, my grandmother.

I went to public school in Detroit, Michigan, in a time (1954-1966, 1st through 12th grades, skipping 2nd and 5th grades) when citizenship and civics were still taught. I gravitated to the concepts of equality and liberty and justice as the lifelines that they promised to be. I was saved intellectually by lofty concepts that overshadowed the demeaning and mean-spirited cultural memes that made me, a girl, less than a real person. It was only later, in my maturation from teenager to adult that I learned the hypocrisy of the USAmerican dream – that it didn’t apply to girls of color and girls from refugee-immigrant families. I’ll tell that story another time.

It was only within the last two decades that I came to name the cultural meme that denigrates first-born girls as a form of child abuse. Naming is a powerful liberating force, and it is never too late to say the true names of things for all to be freed from the tyranny of cultural memes taken for granted as false truths.

Being the precocious eldest child led to the duties of taking care of the English interactions that make a household function when the father works the 12-hour swing shift laboring in Chinese restaurants and the mother speaks only Cantonese. That early responsibility actually restored an identity where one had been ripped away as the first-born girl. My aplomb at carrying out the adult duties gave me gravitas as an eight-year-old and helped me to develop bravado. What was the worst that anyone could do to me? Hit me? I had already been the recipient of verbal blows from an early age. I was already accustomed to racist epithets from the White kids on the way to school and the Black kids on the way home. I already knew how not to cower at the verbal criticism that the adults didn’t know I had heard and absorbed.

I learned at a very young age the power inherent in being openly vulnerable. It is the same power that lives in the story of Jesus Christ who was strong in his human vulnerability, his seeming weakness. Enduring suffering does more than build character. It is like the stone that sharpens the sword, especially if you know that you are shaped by the One Creator who declares that His Creation is very good. 

I know several highly talented, articulate, fabulous women who have important thoughts and experiences to share with the world, but for myriad reasons they are blocked from speaking out and do not allow themselves to be seen as their true selves in the public eye. These women have journeyed from different posts in the USAmerican culture. They receive praise of their gifts with grace and are truly grateful for the recognition. As much time as they have each spent achieving distinction in careers and volunteer service, nonetheless they are mostly hidden from view and not necessarily by their choosing. It is as if their psyches have chosen for them, without their bidding or permission.

I have stumbled and fallen in public, both figuratively and on the steps up to a podium, more times than I can recount. I have made big, painful, public mistakes and paid the painfully exquisite consequences, and I have sometimes repeated those biggies until I finally figured things out or had things pointed out to me. I have hurt my family, especially my children, and caused them to pay for my errors. And yet, I continue to embrace open vulnerability, because I believe in its power to lift up, affirm, and reaffirm the authentic woman I’ve become, grown up from that first-born girl, who early in my 30s claimed the position of first-born son with all its attributes and privileges. I really, really like Star Trek, where all command officers are addressed as “Mister.”

I am sad that these women friends cannot find the release button to present their authentic selves in public, to reveal the hidden parts that their fears control. I recently read a People Magazine article as I sat in the waiting area of a doctor’s office about Spanx. In case you don’t know, Spanx is the life-changing underwear that oft-photographed celebrities wear to bind their bodies so that they can fit into body-hugging clothing that doesn’t allow for eating, drinking, or peeing. I think Spanx is the metaphor for people who cannot be openly vulnerable in public.

Just as I talk about empowerment as something that one claims rather than waits to be given it, so, too, I think of being brave as claiming the role that carries the power and the privileges and owning it. Be it, and strut it, boss!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Decluttering as Spiritual Discipline

Stepping all the way off the merry-go-round involves walking away into the uncommitted future and welcoming a wide-open future. As one nearing 67, the idea of a wide-open future with the possibility of newness, learning, and adventure is very exciting.

Walking away means limiting the amount of news and information coming at me from my usual sources, which is manifested in unsubscribing from groups and causes and their attendant voluminous emails and newsletters. It also means not compulsively reading every post made by my Facebook friends, even though I remain curious about what they’re doing and thinking.

This process of stepping off involves a fundamental change in self-definition and not merely a change in choice of activities. I’ve always valued being a well-informed person and reveled in that self-perception. Others have valued that about me, too, seeking me as a source of information in their searches for connection. I admit that my sense of self-worth has been built in significant measure on such a self-image. When others have commented that I am courageous to be choosing radical sabbatical, I suspect they have recognized how much of myself I must relinquish in order to be able to step all the way off the merry-go-round.

I am letting go of the constant stream of data and invitations to events from religious and social justice arenas that I still care passionately about . . . I continue to hold the people in these ministries in my prayers and meditations . . . I am entering a future where I will not have an identity defined by the outside work that I do or the titles and roles that I bear. All this reminds me of my profession as a teenager that I wanted my epitaph to read merely, "She was," because nothing more needs to be said.

What I know is this: I can’t allow myself to get consumed by the influx of information, requests, and events in this time of radical sabbatical. I am focused on getting down to the roots of my existence and why and for whom I am here.

I wrote recently to a Facebook friend that I had come to view the institutional church as a greedy companion. The church beckons with invitations full of delightful ministry and promises for deep personal growth. The church, which includes all its peripheral communities, never stops beckoning . . . until my own desire to participate begins to reflect more obligation and overwhelm than blessing and nurture.

I wonder how much my own personality traits contribute to my experience of the institutional church. I admit that I have a proclivity towards compulsive activity. So, to be clear, I’m not placing blame on anyone or anything else. Yet, I wonder if this isn’t part of the experience of the emerging church and those who say they are spiritual but not religious.

Tidying my desk has filled bags of recyclable paper . . . numerous sets of minutes and financial reports, notes, newsletters, and brochures . . . as well as the evidence of my compulsion to file statements from all the accounts that financially established adults accumulate.

For the first time in many years, I actually found the time to write a new year’s letter to send to family and friends. It was written and sent in an effort to rekindle relationships, especially with the thoughtful ones who have shared their Christmas letters with us.

The good news is that we can turn over new leaves. We can teach ourselves new tricks or rediscover old tricks we’ve forgotten. I’m giving it a try in a substantive way in 2016. My mother and my husband will be glad to know that next I'm finally going through and tossing the "trash, not treasure" from the boxes used as holding bins in the house and garage! 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Caregiving, Loneliness, and Sacrifice

I read with alarm the story of 98-year old architect I.M. Pei who was victimized by a hired home health aide on December 13, 2015. The health aide, a woman with a Georgian surname, apparently twisted Pei’s forearm, causing bruising and bleeding. She was arrested after a two-week investigation.

I.M. Pei is a Chinese elder, and as a Chinese daughter, this story hits home. It is frightening to imagine that this could happen to our elders or ourselves if we hired in-home caretakers.

We also have Georgian family, whom we adopted as “hanai” family fifteen years ago when we helped them normalize their immigration status. They have since become U.S. citizens. The wife, who was a cardiologist in Georgia, is now a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) working in an urgent care center, after painstakingly learning English, taking courses while working fulltime and raising two small boys, and becoming certified. [“Hanai” is Hawaiian describing a chosen family of one’s own making.]

In many Asian cultures, the norm is to care for elders in our homes, with multiple generations of family members pitching in to provide care and companionship. As we out-marry into other cultures, our familial practices evolve to incorporate the tolerances of those other cultures. Still, many Asians of my generation have elder in-laws living in their ethnically blended homes and wouldn’t consider outsourcing elder care.

My husband Herb and I met and married in Hawaii, where Asian and Pacific Islander cultural influences are strong. We used daycare when our daughter was young and we both worked fulltime, but we didn’t use babysitters for the non-work times. Like my parents’ generation, our daughter was with us all the other times. Family is precious. Our children and elders, the most vulnerable among us, are the most precious, and we hold them close.

My retired, widowed mother joined our household in 2000, when it became clear that loneliness was her daily companion. It was a gift for our daughter, finishing her final years of high school, to have the advocacy and pampering of her last living grandparent to guide her teenage years. For my mother it was an affirmation of all that she had invested and sacrificed to become who she is and to feel needed and useful in the household of her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, with a married grandson and great-grandsons nearby.

One of the great poverties of the single family detached residences that is the USAmerican dream is that families are detached, geographically distant, and unfortunately, often emotionally distant, too. Loneliness becomes one’s daily cup of tea, and the phone calls and photographs that serve as talismans against loneliness simply aren’t sufficient to overcome boredom and undiagnosed depression.

Living with one’s aging mother is challenging, especially for me, less so for my husband. My mother and I have engaged a kabuki dance as to who controls the kitchen and who is the grandmother to my grandsons, while my husband has enjoyed the favored cultural position of revered son-in-law who is kowtowed to by the mother-in-law. For me it has been a welcome respite from the challenges on the home front to engage the challenges on the work and volunteer fronts. Yet, duty remains and trumps all challenges, borne out of love and gratitude for prior sacrifices.

I am keenly aware of the ravages of loneliness. I have seen it in the faces and voices of elders who live alone, especially those who live in cities far from their children and are moved into managed care facilities when they are unable to live alone safely. I also see it in the lives of young people who have been discarded like an unwanted leftover by parents who disapprove of their sexuality or life choices.

Loneliness is so simple to truncate with the gift of our presence, but we have to choose to make that gift. Giving our presence involves sacrificing some immediate pleasures and sometimes making permanent sacrifices we’d prefer not to give up. Giving our presence involves choosing to sacrifice portions of our own lives to enhance portions of someone else’s life. Most healthy people have it within themselves to make those kinds of sacrifices for their progeny, but find it difficult to make those sacrifices for anyone else. True sacrifices are those that come with no payback and no recovery of any losses, real or perceived.

Caretaking does not stand in isolation to the whole of how we maintain our relationships. Loving, giving, and sacrificing are woven into the lives we create. Whether we choose to sacrifice or not, and how we weave sacrifice into our life stories – these are the fibers of our humanity that strengthen or weaken the connections that continue a community or end it prematurely. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Choosing Appreciation, Not Avoidance

"Fixing my brokenness" is not the reason for changing course in my life in 2016.

Yes, I am broken in some serious places, like in my body’s ability to function fully. I have hypertension and out-of-sight glucose readings. My joints ache from being fat. Like a scientific observer I am intrigued by my crooked arthritic toes and fingers. My body today is vastly different from that of my 20s and 30s. Physical changes may be gradual, but self-awareness of them arrives like a light switch being flipped.

Instead, I am focused on possibilities and not impairments. Even at an age nearer 70 than 60, I am convinced there are benefits in life worth moving towards. My hopes are aspirational rather than centered on avoidance. I see the understated charm of seniors' love stories. I understand yearning for the ordinariness of human touch that diminishes as yesterday’s sexuality seeks new expression. We continue to be given chances to change and renew until our last breath.

Forgiveness tends to be twinned with repentance and delivers promises of self-liberation for the forgiver. Waking up as a senior doesn’t have to be paired with regrets and can simply be acknowledgement of actual lived experiences with no judgment attached. Yeah, I really did live that way. I really did those things. Oh, silly me!

I’m grateful for the Internet and search engines that allow me to find inspirational stories of senior athletes and innovators who are off on their next career or adventure. I continue to be inspired by saints who make life better for others. And I also want to be a better me for the rest of my own life.

I once wrote a blog titled “Mending Our Brokenness” about the Japanese use of 24 karat gold to restore a pottery item to new versions of themselves, beautiful and functional. The process is called kintsugiIn 3-1/2 years, it has garnered over 10,000 views, suggesting that humans have a deep interest in mending our brokenness.

I now find myself seeking the 24 karat gold that will create a new version of myself, beautiful and functional. It’s not about fixing any brokenness. It is about finding and embracing the new glue – whether it’s contemplation, nature’s beauty, humor, or kitchen tasks – that will restore my ebullience in encountering every new moment.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Small Pleasures and Daily Treasures

Enjoying the small pleasures of daily life is something I am teaching myself once more. It’s as if the overwhelming busyness of the last ten years wiped out my sense of perspective to enjoy the treasures of daily life. While I know it's true that one never stops learning, I hadn’t expected to have to relearn lessons I thought I already knew.

Discovery is an important part of finding pleasure in what we experience. Novelty is as much about new attitudes as it is about new experiences. While we all can’t have new experiences, we can all nurture new attitudes.

It turns out that I like washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. I feel satisfaction when the dishes and pots are all cleaned and the kitchen surfaces wiped down. My hands get dry and my fingers stiff, and I enjoy the sensation of rubbing lotion into my hands when I’ve set the dishcloth aside. I’ve let go of my perfectionism to appreciate when my brother Jon takes over doing the kitchen clean-up for an evening.

On a recent grocery excursion by myself I visited two grocery stores – a natural foods one and a national chain store – checking things off a list and getting reacquainted with the placement of products, noting items I hadn’t seen before. When I got home, I unloaded the groceries, making numerous trips from the car to the kitchen. It was 8 degrees F, and I relished the cold air that slowed my joints and careful steps from car to house. It was like storing treasures to put away the bright green peppers, skinny zucchini, and large navel oranges. It made me feel wealthy and appreciated, knowing that I had brought food home to feed my family.

As our household figures out how to help Mom become active again after her hospitalization with heart problems, thoughts pop up that I remember thinking when we were raising our daughter, who is now 30. When do I help, and when do I support opportunities for Mom to do things for herself? What is a safe activity, and what requires insistence on using a cane or letting me carry the hot cup of coffee? Even though my patience has grown through helping Mom, I still need to remind myself to practice patience when an activity takes longer than anticipated or needs to be repeated.

One discovers authentic truths that make life worth living like . . . Humility in the rhythm of repeating tasks that support how a household cares for its needs . . . A consciousness of meditative reflections as one contemplates the tasks while doing them . . . The sense of gathering up and celebrating the small pleasures and daily treasures, because one claims them as one’s own . . .

We must soon replace our washer and dryer, which have been nursed and nudged along for 15 years. I’m looking forward to the process of studying our shopping choices, instead of begrudging another required task. I remember a girlfriend remarking on how giddy she felt after installing new carpeting in her house. A new washer and dryer should give me pleasure that I am getting such treasures!

Scripture says, “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” [Acts 9:18a NRSV] I think that’s what happens when we begin to see the moments in our daily lives with new attitudes. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Build the Road as We Go

One of the big projects that has consumed much of my thought, time, and energy has been an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) project that we undertook at the 32nd Avenue Jubilee Center in North Denver, beginning in late 2013. A tenet of ABCD is to build the road as we go. We follow the energy and passion around us, and we set off with no expectation that we will end up in a certain place. We take a leap of faith and trust in the goodness of the Creator and the Creation.

When I blogged yesterday that I am getting all the way off the merry-go-round of my life full of busy volunteer activities to focus on taking care of my family and myself, I didn’t know how the following days would unfold. I felt trepidation and equivocation, and yet, I knew I had to take the first step. I knew I had to save my life in a very real sense, and that saving my life is not an exaggeration.

My Facebook friends have been supportive in their response, and they are helping to lay the pavers for each new step that I walk. I am grateful beyond measure for their affirmation of me.

I have written a lot about affirmation, and one of the most important and most accessible ways in which we support one another is through affirmations. Affirmations are so simple and cost nothing except a moment of your time. You simply say, “I think you are doing the right thing,” or “I appreciate how difficult that decision was,” or “I know that your family will be blessed,” or “I am aware of the thoughtfulness of your choice,” or “I appreciate YOU.” Even one such as me, who has made it my ministry to affirm others, experiences affirmations as the blessings that they are.

I am reminded that on the sixth day of Creation, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” [Genesis 1:31a, NRSV] That is how I feel about life in all its trials and tribulations. Despite the challenges, life is very good, down to each breath that we take . . . if we are mindful. There is something to be said about the wisdom of mindfulness and paying attention to our breaths. It is in those moments of the stripped away simpleness of being still that we know the Creator is.