Saturday, November 19, 2016

after the biscuits

Passion is that unquenchable thirst for that which is not yet.  
       -- Rev. Dr. Patricia L. Hunter
I wrote last week of devastation, of anger and fear and sorrow. I wrote of the need to work towards forgiveness and understanding, imagining others' perspectives, believing the best of others; I wrote of the powerful subversion possible in acts of kindness and beauty; I wrote of the good in carrying out daily practices of care. I wrote a rallying cry for myself and others who were flabbergasted and overwhelmed.

I baked my biscuits, and I hope you baked yours, and I hope you shared them.

But I was aware even as I wrote those words, and increasingly aware in the days that followed, that they could be read as a call to quietism--a level-headed acceptance of things as they are, a shrug-your-shoulders making-the-best-of-it. I lean in this direction, by dint of personality and also social position: I am a white middle-class American woman, a figure who tends to be both symbolically and pragmatically committed to the status quo, benefitting from the stability of hearth and home, often implicitly seeking to preserve it.

Let me make this very clear: forgiveness, kindness, beauty, truth, even biscuits can be profoundly subversive. The way I raise my children, the way I treat my neighbour, the way I care for myself: these are not just domestic, private acts. The personal is political; the maternal is political (see Sara Ruddick). I wish to reclaim these daily acts as powerful, particularly when they are done with an eye toward freedom and justice.

But I am also the citizen of a representative democracy with a vote and a voice, a bank account and a telephone and a computer, with access to unprecedentedly broad news coverage and a dizzying array of social networks. Which is to say: I am rendered responsible for neighbours far afield. And while I believe that activism should be rooted in the local, I also recognize my responsibility within the national and global scope of current injustices--even or perhaps especially as an American living abroad.

This is a less cozy reality to write and read about than the pleasures of flour and butter. It is less comforting. It is less beautiful, even. It is a rallying cry wrenched from my gut, against my desire to hunker down and protect my own.

So after the biscuits, and in between the sweeping, and often while nursing, here is where I am beginning:

1) Exercising my imagination

As Adrienne Rich writes in her collection What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (which I think everyone should be reading right now), "it's the imagination that must be taken hostage, or terrorized, or sterilized, in order for a totalizing unitary power to take control of people's lives."

"The imagination's roads open before us," she writes in "Poetry and the Forgotten Future," "giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum 'There is no alternative.'" These days require imagination of other possibilities, better futures. They require what Junot Díaz, drawing on Jonathan Lear, has recently called "radical hope." We exercise our capacity to imagine and hope by reading imaginative literature--fantastical stories, metaphorically dense poems, narratives of lives other from our own. We also exercise it by dreaming of possibilities, brainstorming with communities, picturing hopeful scenarios while we walk or wash the dishes.

Here's Rich again: "For now, poetry has the capacity--in its own ways and by its own means--to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is found not in ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom."

2) Reading challenging writers, especially people of color 

A subset of my imaginative exercises has been reading poems and stories that ask me to imagine the experiences of others. This week I have been reading bell hooks's memoir Bone Black in order to inhabit a racial reality different from my own experience, and I have been reading Ross Gay's poems, and I have been asking friends for other recommendations. (If you're looking for recommendations yourself, you can never go wrong with my favourites Toni Morrison, Ana Castillo, Louise Erdrich, Chimamanda Adichie, or Zadie Smith.)

I've also been trying to read more about those who voted differently from how I did, to imagine myself in their shoes. This has included seeking out the social media feeds of friends with whom I disagree. (Another idea: read the book that's not for you.) As I've written about extensively (see the link to my first book, above), I don't believe reading about others automatically increases our empathy, and I don't believe literary representations of other lives and experiences of injustice necessarily change the world. But I do believe our choice to engage with such books, with careful openness and risky attention, can change us.

Beyond the realm of fiction, I have been returning to my notes on the nonfiction writers who turned my world upside down a decade ago: to the theologians Emilie Townes and Delores Williams and Kwok Pui-lan and James Cone, to the philosophers Drucilla Cornell and Ewa Ziarek. As Chela Sandoval and others have argued, marginalized people groups often offer unique wisdom for how to creatively function within unjust systems--because they have plenty of experience doing so. More than anyone else right now, and for many reasons, I think we should be following their lead.

To that end, I'd recommend this Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves that's been going around. On a younger end of the scale, last month I went through my preschooler's Scholastic book order (!) and ordered only books with brown-skinned characters. Our collection of children's books, despite our best intentions, was overwhelmingly populated by white figures. This is not a picture of the real world's cultural richness, a world I want my children to grow up recognizing as their own.

3) Doing the uncomfortable work of speaking up

I am not a fan of the phone. I will send a hundred emails before I'll voluntarily dial a number. But phone calls appear to be among the most effective way to get politicians' attention. So: time to call. And time to make some postcards. And time to keep learning from others about how best to act: where to show up, whom to seek out locally, where to send your donations. Some recommendations:

- If you're open to a faith-oriented approach, my friend Ric curates ProActive: The Prophetic Activism Initiative on Facebook

- Likewise, Christian Peacemaker Teams offers helpful resources and suggestions

- Particularly on climate change and radical hope, Rebecca Solnit is a font of wisdom

- Seek out, then join or start a local or digital group for conversation, encouragement, brainstorming, and sharing resources. And biscuits.

I'm hoping you will share more ideas in the comments.

***But Cindy, you lost me at number one. I'm not on the same page with you politically.

Okay. This is okay. I've been thinking about this a lot recently. The news makes it increasingly clear to me that we--all of us--are in for a bumpy ride. If I'm wrong, I will happily eat my share of humble pie. I have never wished more strongly to be wrong.

But if I'm not wrong, then others are going to have to be eating that pie. It is not the most delicious pie. It is hard to admit to being duped or misguided. It goes against our impulses to avoid public shame and blame (see Brené Brown). But I believe the nation and the world and all of creation need us to be clear-sighted about what is going on in the days ahead.

Which brings me back to baking. I bet the challenge of eating that humble pie--of joining together for the sake of justice and truth and goodness in the days ahead, despite past divisions--would be sweetened if we were all sharing actual pie. Thanksgiving will be a good place to start (and goodness knows our family dinners will be needing sugar of both literal and metaphorical sorts), but we will need this kind of hospitality in the weeks and months ahead, with a rugged sort of commitment to generosity and to challenging each other and also to giving each other grace around the table. And wouldn't it be nice if we were widening those tables?

Sharing such pie means living with courageous humility and humble courage: bravely owning up to our mistakes and wrongs and seeking to learn from others, but also stepping out with a steely commitment to justice, to calling out corruption, and to standing with the most vulnerable, even though we will doubtless misstep at points. To act in this way means extending grace to others and accepting it for ourselves, but also an unstinting, risky, even passionate pursuit of the common good. It means living with hope, grabbing hold of beauty, rolling out the crust and filling it and baking it and maybe sometimes giving it all away and going hungry, or wailing because you've dropped it on the floor, or extending your metaphors to the edge of breaking just to make the point that there is beauty and there is horror and there is mourning and there is joy.

And there is hope, because there must be, because we will be needing it.

This is just a beginning from my own limited view of things. I'd love other reading, resource, and action suggestions in the comments. 


  1. Have you seen this spreadsheet of who to call yet? Incredible work.

  2. Yes! Thank you for adding it here!