Category Archives: trauma stewardship

tomatoes

The summer Trump rose to the epicenter of political spectacle, the garden grew thick with tomatoes ripening late into September, and I decided I wanted to have a baby.

Standing at the kitchen sink admiring the depth of color in the heirloom fruit the size of my fist I wondered if a German woman, in the early fall of 1931, had chosen to cultivate life, had grown tomatoes, as she watched in powerless horror as a madman rose to power. A generation later and from deep within the safety of American Democracy we learned that it was all her fault, that she by her silence allowed Hitler’s rise, allowed the genocide that followed.

I rinsed the tomato and watched the water bead and drip off its skin, shaking off the last drops.

In the borderlands of Ciudad Juarez/El Paso during the fall of 2004, my friends and I piled into minivans and pickup trucks and bumped along the unpaved roads of southern New Mexico handing out flyers for the Kerry campaign and registering voters in remote neighborhoods where a wrong turn meant a dead-end at a barbed wire fence beyond which a desert stretched to the horizon. Our Juarense “moms” laughed at our insistence on watching the debates, available on the American stations that drifted over checkpoints to Mexican TVs. They teased us over our moral outrage, called us naive and muy seria, as they reminded us that politicians say and do whatever they want. They kindly suggested we shake off our funeral-like post-election gloom and enjoy the life in front of us; we marveled at their laughter, and behind their backs we decided it must be some kind of coping strategy honed by centuries of political powerlessness.

I bit into the tomato I had grown in my own dirt, and as the juice dripped down my face and hands, I realized I had had very little to do with its growth, with its existence and perfection. It was the first moment that I’ve ever felt that I could actually grow, create, a little human being. I ate the rest of that perfect tomato standing in front of the sink.

The thought of bringing a child into this uncertain world seems selfish, and growing tomatoes and baking fresh fruit pies seems less than relevant. In mid-summer, when the tomatoes were barely more than buds on their stems, I wrote a facebook post about hope and despair and how to keep going. It read, “Well, we’ve been mourning hate crimes for a week, and at this point is pretty much certain that Donald Trump is the harbinger of the apocalypse, but surprise, it turns out I’m damn good at making pie.” It included pictures of the pie-in-process, and alluded to celebrating Father’s Day the next day, and got four times the number of “likes” than anything I typically post.

Did the German housewife, with Jewish friends and queer neighbors (though she didn’t pry), who thought differences made life interesting, and who imagined Hitler as a snake in her garden and fantasized smashing his head in with a shovel should he slither nearby, did she put her concerns aside to make a pie for her father just six months before Hitler ballooned from Chancellor to Fuhrer? Did that pie bring her a bit of joy amid the doom?

“While she was making pie we were being pushed into ghettos, killed in the gas chambers,” my sixth grade teacher would have said.

“While she was making pie, we were being targeted, called terrorists, shot in the streets,” they will say about me.

In elementary school I did a social studies project entitled, “Why Do We Study the Holocaust?” and learned, after interviewing local survivors and teachers, that the answer was unanimously “Because we can never let anything like it happen again.” If we study it, we can stop it, my teachers said. If we vote, we can stop it, my parents said. If we speak up, we can stop it, my friends said. But can we? I can hear the sighs of the Juarense mothers, see their heads shaking. No m’ija. She holds up a mirror. It is we who have cloaked ourselves in a coping strategy that’s beginning to fray.   

I was raised on the poetry of Martin Neimoller: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me. Beyond being a cautionary tale, the poem reflects and reinforces an assumption about individual power I never noticed until this year’s presidential campaign: the assumption that individuals are capable of stopping evil.

Tonight, independent journalists are on their way to North Dakota courts to face charges of inciting riots, body cameras document racial bias and manslaughter, the Republican nominee for President mocks allegations of sexual assault, and reporters covering the campaign have to exit Trump rallies flanked by police in riot gear so as not to be attacked by angry mobs of his supporters. I am beginning to think I’ve had the wrong answer all these years.

Maybe we teach about the Holocaust year after year because we need to to tell ourselves a version of the story in which we honest, freedom-loving civilians have the power to prevent such horror.

Maybe believing in poems like Martin Neimoller’s, believing that the German housewife could have stopped gardening and started screaming and that it would have made a difference, believing that we good Americans are in control of our democracy, helps us believe that evil won’t strike again.

Maybe gardening, and pie, and babies help ease the pain of powerlessness.

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Filed under family, Practical Spirituality, trauma stewardship

Home: from StoryWell, July 20th

David’s instructions, with the invitation to participate in this event, are to share a story worth telling, and in this moment, I stand here unsure that anything I could say is “worth telling.”  

I went to a vigil the night after we watched Philando Castile die, two nights after Alton Sterling was murdered, a week after the anniversary of last summer’s hate crime that killed 9 in one of our country’s oldest African American churches, and two weeks after 49 mostly queer, mostly Latinx young people were killed in a targeted, premeditated attack. At that vigil, a woman spoke of hope, and from the crowd a sob erupted.

I listened to that strange dissonance between hope and tears and was reminded that though the story goes that out of depression comes hope, hope offered to soon sparks rage, desperation, and grief.

Though the evil made so evident these last few weeks hurts me to the core, the plain truth is that the black and brown bodies that are falling are not my own; their stories not mine to tell; my grief for their deaths, though honest, is distant. But in that moment of juxtaposition between hope and hopeless, I recalled a moment in my story, a moment when I too found the suggestion of hope offensive, insulting beyond comprehension. It is that moment that I return to as a source of empathy, and as such, I hope it is worth telling.

………………………………………..

No one was around when I got back to campus, so I made myself comfortable on the futon mattress wedged between a dresser and an extra-high bunk bed, sinking in atop Ruth’s pile of Tibetan throw pillows. No one locked their doors, and this was a room we all floated in and out of as we pleased. Ruth and Elly would have it no other way. They entered the room a little while later as if on a wave of laughter, story overlapping story of Thanksgiving dinners cooked and shared, of reuniting with siblings as co-conspirators in mischief, of old loves kissed after those long first months apart. I listened, burrowing deeper into the comfort of the blankets and the company. But as it grew later and the stories were retold with the arrival of each friend, I felt a gap widen the floor between us. Wrapped in their stories of home and a hand-quilted blanket, I fell asleep.

Later that week, feeling as if I was on the other side of a cliff, I pulled Elly aside and blurted out something like: “But I didn’t have fun. My brother threw dinner at me. I left.”

Elly, being the patient person that she is, urged me to go on. I tried to explain, but I didn’t know where to begin.

At 8 years old, my younger brother Steven had been diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome, which finally explained the severe facial and auditory tics he had always had. As he got older, at 11 and 12 and 13 years old, his tics became more extreme and often dangerous, and other diagnoses piled on: Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and something then called “Neurological Storms.” It sounds innocuous, but I googled it recently and found out that these are now referred to as “rage attacks” – a name I can get behind, a name that packs a punch, a name that explains that during my high school years I lived amid unpredictable, uncontrolled and undesired, personified, rage.

But I don’t think I told it to Elly like that.

I think I must have said, well, I had been home for a day or two, and everything had been fine. Calm. My brother and I were getting along-ish – which was a miracle in those days – My mom, newly vegetarian, had asked me to marinate tofu for us for dinner. So as I sliced through the squishy white block and dropped pieces into a bowl, my brother, then 15, came in and stood opposite me at the table. I don’t remember the details of our conversation – Were we arguing? Maybe. Was I barely faking interest while he excitedly told me about his construction plans for a new telescope? Just as likely. What I do remember is that I had let my guard down. As I dropped hunks of tofu into garlicky soy sauce, I was not thinking “Watch out! Be ready! Watch his hands! Anything could happen! ” Three months away must have quieted that voice, so when he suddenly grabbed the bowl and sent those soft white cubes flying, when I felt a splatter of sticky brown sauce as it rebounded off the wall to my right, an old feeling awoke in my chest.

I’m sure I yelled, cursed him, lunged for a paper towel, but I don’t remember.

What I do remember is grabbing keys off the counter and making a bee-line for the door without changing my shirt. What I remember is my mom thrusting a wadded up ten dollar bill in my hand as I stepped out the door, with the words, “Get some dinner.” I left without closing the door, tears streaming down my face as I backed the car down the steep driveway. I cursed myself for being so stupid to not think that would happen, for coming home for Thanksgiving in the first place, for believing there was life beyond these outbursts.

I spent the ten dollars at a noodle shop, trying to read a Creative Loafing.

But the headlines blurred, and my mind filled with the sound of the screams I remembered, while closed safely away in my darkened bedroom, as my brother compulsively slammed his arm against the hallway wall, my dad’s grunts as he tried and tried again to get between his 12 year old son and the wall, to soften the blow with his own skin.

In my mind, I heard Steven barking like a dog in the back of a crowded shul, I heard my silent prayers that no one turn and stare, and my gratitude that the boy I was sitting next to – the once ring leader of the Hebrew School Bad Kids – didn’t move a muscle, didn’t even flinch. (I was so grateful, in fact, that I even went on a date with him.)

As if in front of me now, I saw the hollow-eyed anger of someone who isn’t really there, lunging at me with a sharpened pencil.

I heard my mother’s whisper that the Hebrew School Director had told her he’d said, “I can’t go on like this.” The unspoken truth that none of us knew how to go on.

My dinner left an aftertaste that lingered, one I couldn’t describe: the complete inability to explain these events, their significance to me, over a mug of tea in a warm common room at Earlham College, with the person who was becoming my best friend.

“Why do you think you reacted like that after your brother ruined your dinner?” Elly asked, ever the mediator. “It’s just food.”

I remembered the stories I used to read – the inspirational kind of stories teenage girls often get given as gifts: stories of older sisters who stay by the side of the disabled younger sibling,  stories of families settling into normalcy with a renewed sense of hope after tragedy. In the light of day I used to snicker at the suckers who fall for that inspirational bullshit, but at night I used to read those stories and sob, because at 16 years old I couldn’t stretch my imagination far enough to see our family so full of light.

My solution had been to move 500 miles from Georgia to Indiana, to a private liberal arts college smaller than my high school, where people eat organic food, fight for social justice, talk about “spirituality” rather than “religion,” and practice living simply. Where we didn’t even lock our doors.

I had let – if not exactly hope – some calm – seep in at the edges of my world. I’d gotten comfortable in it, came home softer, and for that, I’d paid the price in a blotchy soy sauce stain and a re-amped voice in my head reminding me to: Watch out! Beware! Don’t be stupid enough to hope for anything different!

This was a voice I didn’t need in the shabby-but-peaceful dorms of Earlham College, a point made resoundingly clear by the way words failed every time I tried to explain why I returned from vacation more hollow, more suspicious, more relieved, than seemed appropriate.

In the years that followed, I set my sights on shaping my life around the values we lived into during our time at Earlham. Honesty. Listening. Simplicity.  I learned to feel safe in the homes we built. I travelled back to Atlanta by car or greyhound bus – never a plane – the nine or sixteen monotonous hours on the road giving tangible shape to the impossible-to-quantify distance between my two homes.

I learned and re-learned and re-learned to trust calm. At the time, I would have told you “hope” was naive, useless. Hope had hurt me, and I wasn’t about to let it knock me down again.

But in retrospect, it was during those years that, unbeknownst to me, hope shifted allegiances. Hope stopped being about how other people and other places would get better, and became a dream of the home I would create: a place of sunlight, and simple beauty, and peace.

And eventually, hope invited me to come home.

 

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