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.

Redneck Central

You know I love antique malls and flea markets. I love browsing through rusty, dusty piles of cool stuff from earlier eras. Wash it down, call it vintage, and make your house feel more like home. Sometimes the stuff isn’t actually old; it is someone’s art or craft, made from found whatevers, but likewise hoping to barge into my heart and home. I tend to wander past this stuff. No judgment; it just isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Lately, I’ve noticed the escalating assault of crafts bearing the name ‘redneck.” Redneck windchime made of beer cans; redneck wineglasses made of mason jars; you get the idea. An entire industry is developing around the use of toothpicks, shotgun cartridges, peanut shells and hub caps.

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but this makes me really uncomfortable.

It isn’t just about arts and crafts. A pastor I was in conversation with recently referred to a place as “redneck central.” He wasn’t talking about a flea market or craft shop; he was talking about a neighborhood. Redneck Central. You can even substitute the word “hillbilly” for “redneck.” How short a leap is it after that to the term “white trash”? Sadly, I still hear that phrase as well, white trash, used to describe actual people, generally people living in poverty, people whose choices and opportunities don’t align with ours, people who are nonetheless our brothers and sisters.

Folks who could not imagine hurling racist slurs, who long ago quit saying “queer,” are still okay calling someone “redneck.” Why is that? Am I wrong to think the intent is pretty much the same? What are we really saying?

At UrbanSpirit, we begin every program week talking about the power of language. It matters how we talk to or about people living in poverty, living in the aftermath of conviction and incarceration, living on the fringes of what we call “normal,” “acceptable,” “honorable.” Words are codes sometimes forcing our hearers to draw conclusions, to ride the undercurrent of our meaning. And if they disagree, we say we didn’t mean it, we were kidding, they took it wrong, whatever.

I know there are people who describe themselves as “redneck.” Like black rappers who use the n-word and gay activists who use “dyke” or “queer” to identify themselves, they siphon honor from painful historical realities. Each of us has the privilege of describing ourselves in whatever way we choose. The problem rises when we assign words to others, words that bear our own unnamed ignorance, fear and disdain. I did not get the impression that the pastor who called the place “redneck central” was hoping to move there.

So, why didn’t I say something?

What’s your manifesto?

Do you have a manifesto?

This week I read that Chris Dorner, the LA police officer who sought revenge by killing some people, had a manifesto. “Like the Unabomber,” wrote the news reporter. Manifestos aren’t only about destruction, you know, though they seem to get a bad rap. They can give us focus. They can speak our heart’s lovely desires and our life’s creative purposes.

Some time ago, a friend was in professional transition, and asked me to help her draft her “elevator speech,” the one she would use anytime she was able to steal 30-60 seconds with someone who might have a job connection. More recently, I was asked to write a faith statement, something I could tell to anyone who asked.Lift Every Voice and Sing

Then, in typography class this week, we were assigned to choose 80 or more words that mattered to us – song, poem, speech, whatever — and integrate them into a design. Mostly it’s a about learning to work with type, but I found the biggest challenge in choosing the 80+ words.

I considered “this land is your land,” by Woody Guthrie, especially the verses we don’t sing. Know this one?

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

(I think it’d make a dandy, way more singable, national anthem.)

Next, I thought of “here’s to the crazy ones” (which may be Jack Kerouac, Steve Jobs, some folks in the marketing department at Apple, or somebody else altogether); I considered the Ira Glass thing on not giving up, and Anne Lamotte’s irreverent reverence. I thought of “Passover Remembered,” by Alla Renee Bozarth, with its raw images of what freedom can do to a person and to relationships; I often read it in worship during our poverty events at UrbanSpirit. I pondered the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and excerpts from any number of books I’ve read – Goad, Ehrenreich, Krugman, Kozol.  Poets and preachers, from Jackson Browne to Jeremiah Wright; Holly Near and others in the “women’s music” genre who were early influences for me. (“It takes every muscle in my heart to dance at our revolution, but I’m dancing, Emma.”) I thought about Sojourner Truth, Jesus, theologians, scripture, and the psalms and prophets that move me. There’s a lot to consider!

Finally, I landed on the words of the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Sometimes called the Black national anthem, it is a liberation song. So, for this assignment, I set it into the symbols of the gay community — symbols of Nazi genocide, burned into our psyches as they were carved into our forearms, symbols that we only later claimed as our empowerment. I also hear these words speak powerfully to the never-ending struggle for economic human rights; they move me, often to tears.

This song I’ve chosen isn’t my manifesto, exactly, and it isn’t my elevator speech, but it does call me to consider who I am, where I came from and what I want my life to be about.

My classmates in typography at Ivy Tech SoFAD are an interesting bunch of folks. We are all white, and mostly from Louisville/Southern Indiana, but we come from multiple generations and circumstances, and bear our varied perspectives on the world. They educate me; I hope I do the same for them. I’m asking them to post their choices, and offer a word or thought about how they decided.

I’m asking you, as well: what moves you? What would your “80 or so” words be? If you’re willing, add yours — or a link — in the comment section.

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”).