silence being golden and all

No. No. NO!

Not again.

Please. Just. Stop.

Remember I said in the beginning that this would sometimes be my shouting place? I’m feeling a rant coming on. Fair warning.

An acquaintance this week posted on facebook that she was remembering her mother’s admonition to speak kindly. “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.” It was to be her theme for the day, she said. Thought it would improve the world. And she made a good case, sort of: “No school bullying, no work place gossip, no racial, religious or homophobic slurs, no Rush Limbaugh or the like, no ‘airing of your dirty laundry’ or derogatory, demeaning comments on FB…” My own mother said it too. And maybe it’s a reasonably good rule for children. Maybe.

But just this week in the news, there have been stories about the income disparity that continues to grow in our country, abetted by politicians enacting laws that favor the wealthy; about health insurance companies lying to customers and trying to trick them into committing to more expensive insurance plans; about phone companies over-charging those in prison, and banks charging fees of $8 and more for the “privilege” of re-loading pre-paid debit cards. A story from the Washington Post told about cities selling off minor tax debt to unscrupulous “investors” who then evict poor people from their long-time homes — their homes being in many, many cases their only asset. One man living with dementia was evicted and stripped of every bit of equity in his paid-off home; after his memories and belongings were removed against his will and without even his understanding of what was going on, he spent the night in a chair on his former front porch. All over a $134 tax bill.

Say-nice-or-say-nothing would leave us painfully mute in such circumstances. What “nice” is there to say about these predators? Silence is complicity, it is refusing to stand up to power, it is staying “in our place,” and being ladylike and not causing a fuss and not rocking the boat and minding our own business and all those other things people have told us we are to do instead of standing brave and tall and saying this is wrong, this is evil.

So, with all due respect to your mom and mine, I disagree. The problem is that the ones who would follow such a rule aren’t the bullies, the limbaughs, the racists and homophobes. The ones who would follow the rule are the ones who should be the anti-bullies, the anti-limbaughs, the anti-racists, the anti-homophobes. I know because I’ve done it. Failed to speak when someone said something objectionable, ignorant, unjust. Failed to speak when “the powers” steamrolled one of us one more time. I’ve also been the one to speak, and then the one blamed when the situation got awkward or contentious. “For heaven’s sake, do you always have to make a scene? does everything have to be political with you?” Yes. If i’m faithful, yes.

But “faithful” needs a bit of dusting off, reconsidering. My friend says she is doing this as homage to Jesus, suggesting that this was his rule as well, that we best emulate him by only say nice things, and she isn’t alone.

The church has taught us this. Through our mamas, and sunday school teachers and children’s sermons and whatnot. The church has also taught us this by its example: the church is way too often way too silent. I’m in the search and call process right now, and reading more than my share of church profiles. It astounds and disheartens me to read all the ways that churches insulate themselves from the brokenness of the world, from the evil that persists and the predatory nature of our national culture right now. From “we don’t talk out loud about politics or that kind of thing” to “we are a family church and want our pastor primarily to engage in community activities like little league games” to “our pastor should visit the sick and preach sermons that help us stay close as a congregational community,” the church is hell-bent, perhaps literally if there is a hell, hell-bent on staying clean of the poison dust of exploitative economic practices and the gear-clogging grime of politics-as-usual.

And we think Jesus told us to do this? to be quiet and just take it?! Politely put, that doesn’t pass the sniff test. Bad theology. Drunk-reading of scripture.

There is nothing Jesus-like about silence, nothing righteous about keeping our mouths shut in the face of despicable, exploitative, predatory, gluttonous behavior. Rather, we would be really wise to follow the trail of power and money, to see who has a stake in our silence. Bet that SOMEONE or something is benefiting from our acquiescence; who is it? Church leaders? Elected officials? Wall Street masters of the universe? The NRA or AARP or CEOs of our biggest corporations? Our mamas didn’t make up that little rule for children; it has been passed down from generation to generation for so long that no one can say for sure who said it first and what they were hoping to gain by making us keep our mouths shut.

But it sure as hell wasn’t Jesus. If he’d just been about saying nice things, no one would have killed him. How do we keep forgetting that?

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pleat hooks and parent trap

I was walking through the arts-and-crafts store over the weekend, wandering down the upholstery aisle, admiring printed fabrics and wondering if I had anything that needed a facelift. I didn’t. But as I wandered, looking at all the various hardware and interesting devices, my eye fell on pleat hooks. Pleat hooks? you ask quizzically. Or maybe you know. Yes, I answer enthusiastically. Pleat hooks.

I have no need for pleat hooks, as I have never as an adult chosen drapes designed to require them. But I knew what they were, because my mother taught me how to use them. When I saw them in the craft store, I was suddenly flooded with awareness of things I know about, not because I have degrees, but because my parents told me. Because my parents had time to tell me. Mother taught me to sew and hang drapes and mend things, how to “put up” peaches and get out stains. Dad taught me how to use tools, how to tell the difference between screws and bolts, and how to choose the right washer, and how to countersink the head of a finishing nail, how to change oil and plugs and plug wires. I know about wood grain and selvage edges because Mother’s sewing cabinet and Dad’s workbench were both open for my imagination, with generally only one rule: put it back where you found it. I am thankful for that.

It was a good moment, there in the craft store. I am a generally well-rounded adult (disclosure: that is a self-assessment) with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

It came back to me later, as I was on my back under the kitchen sink, replacing the sprayer on the faucet. I thought about parents who don’t have sewing cabinets or workbenches, who don’t have time because they spend it all at multiple low-wage jobs, with little energy left for their kids when they get home, little resource for anything besides meals, maintenance and a bedtime prayer that somehow, against all odds, tomorrow will be different. Exhausted, stressed and less-healthy-than-average adults who constantly are blamed for their “failures” as parents. They are the people who make our world work, and they are the ones we continually deprive of the riches they more than others work to produce.

I’m telling you this because Nanette wrote a letter this week to the newspaper.

“All the school tax increases, social services, ‘tough on crime’ voters and ‘war on drugs’ money will not make a dent until each parent takes responsibility for his or her own children and raises them correctly.”

(And Nanette gives the impression she knows exactly what “correctly” means.) She goes on:

“It is not the government’s responsibility to feed your child breakfast, lunch and dinner… to read to your child, to stress the importance of education, respect for others, discipline and civility… to provide a stable home environment…. Get yourself up and out of bed every morning, feed your child, use decent language, turn off the TV and video games. Give them structure, routine and discipline. Pay attention to the human being you’ve created. … When each of us does what we’re supposed to do as parents, there will be more than enough room in the jails.”

Wow. Nanette has some strong opinions, and perhaps some anger. But she shows little evidence of understanding. In fact, if all “those people” were to stay in bed next week all on the same day, Nanette would be up a creek. Her life depends on them going to work despite whatever else may be compelling.

I invite her, and you, to enter into someone else’s world for a little while. To put away your presumptions and gain some perspective. Is there an epidemic of lazy, self-absorbed parents who don’t love their kids? Or is there an economic system that operates like a hamster wheel, forcing even the most well-meaning parents to run in place rather than get anywhere? (Shameless plug: UrbanSpirit will help you figure it out.)

Responding offhandedly that “no one helped me and I’m doing ok” is the least helpful approach. Even if that were true (and I’d argue that it is impossible), no one of us can paste our experience onto someone else’s life and assume it is accurate – or even relevant. Entering someone’s reality means honestly, diligently asking and hearing what the barriers are to good parenting and economically healthy households. Then, confessing our complicity in devastation — and pledging to be better neighbors, to do something to change the system.

For those who claim faith, this is really a no-brainer: nearly every faith tradition has sacred texts asserting the importance of upholding the dignity of workers and caring for the poor and vulnerable. Likely including yours.

Style, life.

I style my hair. You may not know it today, and frankly I’m not happy with it, but I do spend time on it. It’s too short right now, but it will grow. It always does.

I have a style of clothing that makes me happy, makes me feel comfortable and confident as I do my daily whatever. It usually includes Birkenstocks. About 13 years ago, pumps and stockings fell by the wayside, no longer a style I was willing to deal with. I do still wear suits. And black Birks and flip-flops for dress-up. (They go well with clergy collars.)

My home has a style. Across the pine living room floor, an old 8-foot shutter leans against one wall; a black window screen from a much earlier era hangs on a different wall – next to the charred oak lid from a Four Roses bourbon barrel; a bowling pin signed by my high school teammates is on a bookshelf, along with a marching band hat, a wooden shoe-form, spindles from an out-of-production textile mill, a hurricane lamp filled with buttons, and several small flower vases in the shape of dogs or antique cars; there’s an ancient mirror that used to be on someone’s dresser now resting on the andirons to cover the fireplace in the off-season, and in the wine rack are scarred rolling pins that once belonged to someone’s great-grandmother. In the middle of the floor is a long-retired and fairly squeaky railroad cart, gray with age and – some would say – begging to be restored. I like it better unrestored.

Old, worn, used, perhaps unkempt. This is my style.

This is the busy season at UrbanSpirit. Groups from other places have come to Louisville for an experience, a simulation, of life in poverty in America. They are well-meaning, out of their comfort zones, encountering realities they never knew existed, discovering causes and consequences they couldn’t have imagined. And they are struggling for words. Trying to put language to such an unbelievable state of existence. I appreciate their efforts. And one day I’ll be excited to vote for one of them, the candidate who can see something new and isn’t afraid to pursue it. But in their struggle and ours, there is a word I would like to banish.

“Lifestyle.”

Poverty isn’t a lifestyle.

Lifestyle suggests preference, taste, choice, options. Lifestyle is about whether to buy porcelain or pottery for your everyday dishes; lifestyle is whether to go camping or stay in 4-star B&Bs for vacation. Whether to tailgate at the stadium or hang out in a sports bar – or eschew sports altogether and take up knitting. Lifestyle is about cashing in your split-level ranch and moving to a condo in a high-rise. Downsizing so you can travel more, deciding to move to a city where you can take the train instead of owning a car. Lifestyle is vegetarian or pantheistic or community garden or philanthropic. Lifestyles are subject to change, to whims, to trends.

Lifestyle is voluntary. Even if you prefer picking foods from dumpsters, buying clothes from consignment stores, and bartering for babysitting, if you choose to live this way, this is lifestyle.

Poverty is not a choice. In fact, poverty is lack of choice. Social mobility is a huge problem in America. People born poor tend to stay poor, held there by myriad social policies and political agenda. Our simulation participants learn the very difficult lesson that poverty is not merely lack of ambition or a poor work ethic. Despite their creativity and effort, they are knocked around and tripped up by a system that doesn’t much give a damn. As I’ve argued before, the “system” depends on poor people, thrives on poor people; the system – the ‘American Dream’ for some – requires there be poor people in America to do the jobs that we need but don’t want to pay a lot to have performed.

Lifestyle? Living every day uncertain of food, shelter, employment, health?
Lifestyle? Sleeping poorly at night worried about what the next day will bring to shatter the fragile equilibrium or undo the tiny step forward you’ve somehow made?
Lifestyle? Knowing that people are blaming you, demeaning you, sacrificing you for their own comfort?
Lifestyle? Living with hopelessness, having no reason to believe that anything will ever be different?

Worn, used, perhaps unkempt.

Not a lifestyle. Not even much of a life.

I have no sense of humor.

So I’ve been told. Again.

It was to be expected. I even warned you in my “about me” section: I’m a serious person. I take things seriously, often looking for underlying realities or subtleties. And let’s be honest: women and others who want – who insist on and work for – equal rights for all people, have long been accused of lacking a sense of humor.

This time, the offense was an image posted to a design school forum in which I am required to participate. A sexualized pair of ice cream scoops, accompanied by a not-so-innocent invitation. Not a particularly clever design – any 14-year-old boy could have done it. Most probably have. In this case, it was posted by a female student. I asked that it be taken down, inappropriate to the class forum. That’s when I was labeled. No sense of humor. But not just that. I was also a bully for making the request, perverted for noticing the anatomical allusion, and moreover I was a clear representation of “what’s wrong with this country.” It was a big day for me. The epithets piled up. Even my female classmates joined in, labeling me and defending the post, calling it funny, clever, hilarious.

Later that evening, in another arena of my work, I interviewed students for summer internships. One student, a serious young engineer who wants to dedicate her life to making clean water available in impoverished and exploited countries, indicated she’d also applied for engineering internships, but didn’t expect to get hired. “They said they aren’t hiring women this year; they have enough.”

And in the news, Ashley Judd is considering a run for the U.S. Senate. Rather than critiquing her approach to social problems – the foundation for which has come from her childhood in poverty, her graduate education in the Ivy League, and her extensive travel to deprived and forgotten areas of the world – the recent conversation has focused on her movie career (she’s merely an actress) and the occasions when she’s played roles in varying degrees of nudity. But I know Reagan was an actor before he was president; Jesse “the body” Ventura was a pro-wrestling villain before he was governor of Minnesota; Arnold Schwarzenegger was a body builder before… well, you get the idea.

The movement isn’t done. The battle isn’t over. Women are still held to a higher standard, still met with resistance at the highest levels, and, Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow and Condoleezza Rice notwithstanding, still thought to be lightweights in realms requiring serious thinking.

We are always, always telling other people what to think of us and how to treat us. More than my frustration over the barrage of criticism that befell me for my request that the class post come down, I am frustrated that my classmate has done herself and the rest of us one more disservice.

Or maybe I just have no sense of humor.

 

In defense of knowledge.

Jon Stewart always makes me laugh when he chastises his audience for not connecting with a classic cultural reference (like the ending of Les Miserables). “Read a f***ing book!” he bellows in mock disgust (sometimes at me, since I don’t understand everything he says) and everyone laughs. But the larger truth isn’t really that funny.

A friend yesterday posted anti-Obama vitriol on facebook, claiming that Obama has signed more executive orders than all other presidents combined. But it isn’t true. Not even close. He heard it on Fox News, he said; it took me 20 seconds of googling to find the government archives website and get the real numbers. Cousins, friends, friends of friends and old classmates regularly post warnings or forward emails about poisons in packaging, the White House’s supposed refusal to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree, some heinous thing the ACLU is supposed to have done, or the self-esteem issues of a girl with Down Syndrome whose real name isn’t Mallory. The assault on truth is relentless.

LoveThyNeighborIn the most heartbreaking development so far, my uber-right brother has cut me off from my niece and nephew (ages 8 and 15) because he doesn’t want to have to answer questions about my being lesbian (a word he refuses to say). This was precipitated by a t-shirt I sent for my nephew’s birthday (he’s the teenager) that read “love thy neighbor,” and then gave a list of who that might mean. Because the list included “gay neighbor,” he threw it in the garbage and blocked my number from my nephew’s cell phone.  A few years ago, I sent the same brother a book I thought might help him “come to terms” with having a gay family member (a truth he’s known for more than 25 years). He threw it away, and yesterday threw the episode in my face. He doesn’t need a book, he said, except the bible. That’s right: his bigotry is rooted in what he perceives to be Christian faithfulness. He knows all he needs to know.

Parochialism, limited perspective, suspicion of the experience of those not like us, disdain for difference. Fear of a world we can’t understand or can’t control. A need for power over others, or a fear of loss of power. All these may be in some way ingredients in the hostility soup that is our culture these days.

I’m overwhelmed. I feel like Elijah[i], searching for a cave in which to avoid the venom of hatred that is all around. Self-preservation seems a worthy goal some days. Where even to begin? How to combat the comfort so many people find in ignorance? And when that ignorance becomes violent, as ignorance so often does, who do we suppose will claim responsibility? The churches, “news” stations or facebook groups that incited it? Doubtful.

One pressing question is how to get Elijah out of the cave. There is no energy for me in hurling epithets of my own. I don’t want a culture war. I want rights as a gay American and I want justice for my neighbors who are economically deprived, environmentally poisoned, and emotionally overwrought.

A further question is how to advance the cause of knowledge. God got Elijah out of the cave by giving him a new assignment. UrbanSpirit, the center I run here in Louisville, has a mission of poverty education; our primary tool is a week-long simulation of life at minimum wage. We’ve learned that putting ourselves in other people’s shoes is a powerful way to gain understanding, insight and empathy. We invite groups from all over the country to come and experience this reality. This is my work, my passion, my assignment to keep me from the cave. Some days it feels like droplets in an ocean. But it is something I can do. Way better than calling names or spreading someone’s lies.

About a decade ago in a difficult time, I dreamed of God, and I heard – in waking or sleeping, I can’t be sure – the voice of God saying, “I am faithful; you be faithful.” I think of that regularly. So I’ll continue to speak, to preach, to teach, to try to have conversation, to challenge the lies and put forward the truth. And I’ll keep trying to support and encourage truth-tellers I meet on the path.


[i] 1 Kings 19 in the Hebrew scripture (what Christians tend to call the “old testament”).