A call to empathy

It’s so easy to sit in judgment of parents and children and zookeepers and strangers. People who you’ve never met.

It’s so easy.

It’s infinitely harder to person up. To pull loose your heart strings. To release the strict hold you keep on your borders and really look at another person.

Because really seeing means letting yourself be seen. Means being vulnerable. Means realizing that the things that we judge other people for are things that we do all the time.

Who hasn’t been guilty of letting our guard down for a moment? The only difference between all of us and certain mothers and zookeepers is that we weren’t the ones taking our eyes off of our child at that crucial second.

We weren’t. But we could have been.

And that fact is the thing that keeps us from true empathy with other human beings.

Because acknowledging that the only thing separating us and them is a cruel blend of circumstance and blind luck is too terrifying to handle.

So we blame. And we stand up and call for the heads of people who have made the same small mistakes that we make every day at a critical moment that ended in tragedy.

Blame is easier. Judgment is easier. Hatred is easier.

Love is hard. Empathy is hard. Compassion is hard.

Within those three things dwells the sharp knowledge that we, in all of our convictions and certainty, are as fragile and as vulnerable to harm as the people we are so quick to villainize.

Empathy is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. The easier it becomes to do the hard work of looking at another person and recognizing yourself.

Try it. You’ll see.

Grave Gardening: Meet Mary

Last night I went to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society here in center city. I got there way early for my 6PM meeting with the other Grave Gardeners. Our talk for the evening was entitled Forget me Not: Planting a Cemetery Garden.

I am new to gardening, but in no way am I new to cemeteries. I spent my life up until I was 21 living across the street from Magnolia Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.

I spent most of my childhood running around that cemetery. We didn’t have much of a yard at our house, so the “cem” – a word that I have only encountered in the vernacular of my neighborhood compatriots – acted like a natural extension of my childish territory. Fully half of it was empty, so we used the half not occupied by the dead to play baseball, set off fireworks on holidays, play tag, and generally run amok on.

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A historical photograph of the cemetery from Bryn Mawr College. It doesn’t look like this today.

As I got older, I went to the cem to read. I had a favorite tree that I would sit beneath and friends that I would visit when I journaled.

I was fiercely protective of the cem. When I was 16 I caught a guy peeing on a grave and chased him with a large branch that had fallen from a tree. He ran, dick flapping in the breeze, terrified of the young girl threatening to beat him with a part of the very place he was defacing.

It’s been a long time since I felt as connected to any place as I was to the neighborhood where I grew up. The cemetery and the Wawa and the streets where my childhood was spent.

Recently Frankie and I moved to a house in West Philadelphia. It’s on a quiet little street and, in the months since we moved there, it has become a home to me in a way that nowhere has been since I left Magnolia Cemetery and my childhood home behind.

A few months ago, a dear friend posted a link to the West Philly Local calling for Grave Gardeners. I got deeply excited immediately at the prospect of beautifying a graveyard. And the Woodlands is not far from where I live, so it seemed ideal.

Along with my excitement came the immediate apprehension at the prospect of confronting my legendary Black Thumb head on. I have never been able to keep plants alive. It’s a serious detriment to my image of myself as a nurturing human. I recently got a plant for my desk that I have named Oscar. Oscar has lived for several months on the edge of my desk, in view just above the edge of my computer screen. He was dying in the office of one of my colleagues because she has no windows. But I have access to all the light Oscar could possibly want in my front office.

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Oscar, his brother, a candy dish, and All The Light A Living Thing Could Want.

Against the calling of my Black Thumb, I sent in my application to the Grave Gardeners and awaited their response. I was surprised and delighted when they told me that I had been accepted. Our first class was last month and concerned a history of cemeteries in the United States, the transcript of which I will make into a blog entry at a later date.

Last night’s class was our second meeting, and the last one that will be held outside of the bounds of The Woodlands itself. And the most exciting thing is that, last night, we got our grave assignments.

Mary S Ruehman.pngIt is with great pleasure that I would like to introduce you to Mary Siffert Ruehmann. A resident of the 29th Ward here in Philadelphia, Mary was born to Frederick Ruehmann and Caroline Ludy on January 27th, 1846 and died on the 12th of May, 1909 at the age of 63. At this point, I do not know if she had any children. It does not seem likely since she died with her father’s name, but I am going to try to do some more research and see what I come up with.

I have not fully decided what I would like to do to pay tribute to Mary. I am going to visit her over the weekend and see what her grave calls for. Since it doesn’t look like there is any writing visible on the headstone part of her cradle grave, I will likely put roses or some sort of vine up there as a large backdrop to what I will do below.

Any advice that any of my gardening friends have would be most welcome. She is placed in such a way that her garden will receive full sunlight, so do keep that in mind.

I am very excited to begin working on this project in earnest. There will be a lot more blog entries coming as I learn more about gardening and as Mary’s plot develops over the summer. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

Burnout. Holidays. Self Care.

Thanksgiving is finally upon us. Tonight we are heading up to my parents to decorate the tree ahead of the Thanksgiving gorging that will happen tomorrow.

It’s strange how families can change over the years. Or our attitudes to them can, at any rate. I’m really excited to see my parents and eat and relax and have everyone together.

Thanksgiving has turned into a holiday filled with mixed feelings for me. When I was growing up, the whole family would turn up to my grandparents place and we would all eat together. So many of the people that I used to celebrate this holiday with are dead now or have moved on. Nowadays my Thanksgiving is small. My parents, my brother and his girlfriend, Frankie and I.

But the good thing about the smallness of the holiday for me is that everyone is a known quantity. I have seen so many articles recently on how to survive the holidays and how to talk to racist relatives and so on. It seems like people really don’t know how to handle their families at the holidays. The only thing I really have to do is avoid talking politics. But outside of that, everything is pretty smooth.

And honestly, if my parents and my family gave me so much stress that I had to think about coping mechanisms like drinking games when they were racist or thinking “YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE” in order to avoid saying it out loud, I probably just wouldn’t go to family holidays any more.

One of the biggest things about self care is the ability to say “no” to things that we know are bad for us, after all. And toxic people aren’t good for anyone. Not for themselves and not for the people around them.

At any rate, my small Thanksgiving isn’t so bad. It’s a little sad, but the people who are there are such a good and big part of my life that I don’t mind being a little sad when I think about the people who are gone.

Another reason I’m happy to have some time off and relax with family is that I won’t be on social media as much. The things going on in the news lately have been making me so sad that I can barely stand it. Hopefully I’ll be better able to cope with what I’m seeing after I’ve had a little time off from the constant grief streaming.

A World in Pain

On Friday the 13th of November, terrorists coordinated attacks on Paris that consisted of mass shootings, hostage taking, and suicide bombing. When the dust settled, 129 people were dead and 415 were wounded.

ISIL is claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks in the wake of attacks made by France on targets in Syria as part of Opération Chammal, a French military operation that has been ongoing since September of 2014. And France is responding to their declaration as an act of war. On November 15th, France sent 12 planes to drop 20 bombs on ISIL training camps and ammunition facilities in Raqqa in the single largest air strike of Opération Chammal so far.

I followed the explosion on Twitter as everything unfolded on Friday night. I watched people sending out messages saying that they were OK. I watched the inevitable unfurling of racist tongues lashing out to speak hate against groups they felt justified in maligning.

The next day, I watched people speaking out against the violence that has been happening in other areas of the world. Violence in Syria, Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere that goes unremarked.

Like a lot of other people, my mind went back to the only substantive moment of terror that most Americans can remember. September 11, 2001.

The actual circumstances of where I was and what I felt and thought while it was happening don’t matter. What matters is the fallout. The aftermath.

In the days and weeks that followed the terrorist attacks on American soil, America did what it does best when it feels directly threatened: It fought back. And we the people saw paraded in front of us a veritable parade of reasons for fighting. A parade of images of the people who had harmed us and who rightly deserved our hatred.

When I look back at that time, I remember to my shame how I locked step with the rest of the country and hated a whole group of people without discrimination. I was 17. I focused my hate along with the rest of the country, impotent as it may have been.

I was so, so wrong. And even a year later, if you had asked me what my thoughts on the Middle East were, my answers would have been so, so different.

Before we even had a death toll on the attacks in Paris, people were taking to the internet and calling for the blood of the “Islamic State” without having the first idea of the implications of what they were saying.

It’s so easy to turn to a place of absolute hatred when things like these happen. And I think it’s especially easy for developed, western countries to flip a switch and go to a terrible and hateful place. But ask yourself this before you give in to that feeling.

We experience attacks like this very rarely. When you feel that hatred well up inside yourself, pause and think. Imagine what it would be like if we experienced an attack like this every year. Every month. Imagine experiencing something like this every day. Imagine the fear, the terror, the hopelessness that would come from experiencing something like that. And then realize that what you are imagining could not possibly compare to the reality of living under those circumstances.

So when you feel like the pain is too much and the world is too scary a place. When you feel that hatred well up in you, try reaching out with compassion to areas of the world that experience terror and violence every day. Turn your pain and your anger into love and empathy and compassion. Make a donation. Volunteer to help refugees in your area. Write your elected representatives and ask them to speak out for the rights of people fleeing violence.

As hard as it is, that love is the only way that I can see out of the horror that threatens to overtake us in those dark moments.

As an atheist, that love and compassion is the closest I can come to an offering of prayer.

Enough is Enough: Terrorism in America

Last night my phone blew up just as I was going to sleep. There had been another mass shooting. This one in Lafayette, Louisiana.

After the previews, John Russel Houser stood up, turned to his fellow audience members, and opened fire. As of right now, reports are of two dead and eight wounded. Houser, of course, killed himself after perpetrating the act.

What happened last night in Louisiana was nothing less than an act of terror carried out against innocent people.

The question is, how long are we as a country going to let this shit go on?

So far this year, there have been 204 mass shootings in the United States. Mass Shooting Tracker (i.e., the most depressingly relevant web site ever to exist) defines a mass shooting as an incident “when four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period.” These shootings, it should be noted, do not have to involve a death to be added to the list. That said, 204 is a completely unacceptable number.

204.

204 shootings.

This is unacceptable.

Houser last night stood up, calmly, in the middle of the theater, and simply unloaded his gun into the crowd in an act of blatant terrorism.

Ten dollars says that the gun he owned was purchased legally. They are already saying that he had a criminal record, but that it was quite old. So he may have been able to purchase the gun legally depending on the type of crimes he had previously committed.

It is worth noting at this point that he has not been characterized by the mainstream media as a “thug.” Nor even as a terrorist. They are calling him “shooter” and “gunman.” They are white washing his crime with words that are not meant to incense the public emotionally. They describe him so far as a man from Alabama who had “no known connection to Louisiana.” We haven’t seen his previous mug shots. They aren’t speculating on his possible mental health. Dealing with crimes committed by white people in this country is a surgical procedure. Everything is carefully named and processed and handle

As opposed to when a black person commits a crime in this country At which point the investigators and reporters play Jackson Pollock with the facts.

Governor Jindal of Louisiana said last night that what we can do is “pray” and “hug these families.” How about we do more than that? How about we work on reforming gun legislation in this country so that this shit never happens again? Because if you’re not doing that, your fucking hugs don’t mean jack shit.

Black Lives Matter: Sandra Bland

It seems as if I wake up every day to the sound of another name. Like a gunshot. They ring out over social media.

This week it was Sandra Bland.

I didn’t know who she was last month. Last year. She wasn’t a friend. Wasn’t someone I knew. But I knew her story as soon as the hashtag popped up on Twitter.

#WhatHappenedToSandraBland.

I already knew what happened. A moment of digging into a link posted by a friend yielded the details.

She was 28 years old. Younger than me. But she was vocal like me. Specifically, she was vocal about police abuse. Like me.

The difference between the two of us was that Sandra was a black woman. And there are consequences for being a vocal black woman that there are not on the table for me as a vocal white woman.

They found Sandra dead in her cell in police custody on July 13th.

The initiated a federal investigation on the 16th. They thought she might have been murdered.

Then they released the dashcam footage yesterday. And it did not come anywhere close to exonerating the police. I will not share the video here. You can go and look for it. I watched it once and I will never watch it again.

A summary, though, for those of you who want to avoid watching it.

In the video, officer Brian Encinia pulls her over. After a brief exchange, he tells her to put out her cigarette. She refuses. He asks her to step out of the car. When she refuses, they argue for a minute until he tells her to get out of the car again and threatens to “light her up” with his taser. Then he moves to arrest her on the sidewalk, out of view of the dashcam. There is some kind of physical altercation on the sidewalk, out of view, and Sandra is arrested.

Far from exonerating the officers, this video was troubling to it’s very core. She was being pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. She is not required to put out her cigarette during a traffic stop. There was no reason for the officer to have her exit the vehicle. And the sound of the scuffle off where the cameras can’t see was disturbing in the extreme.

Today, the latest news is that the video appears to have been edited. Which just makes everything worse. It’s clear that the footage has been doctored within the week that has passed since Sandra’s death. In the video, the footage appears to have been looped and edited several times, with cars appearing and disappearing and people walking out of the frame multiple times.

I just… the thing that keeps getting to me about all of the deaths and abuse that we have been seeing is the brazen way that they are perpetrated.

It’s obvious that Sandra’s death was wrongful with even a cursory glance at the facts. It’s obvious that she did not need to be arrested. It’s obvious that the officer’s behavior was out of line. It’s obvious that the video was doctored.

And yet, as with all of these cases, I hold out no hope that Sandra’s killers will see justice done. At most, they will get fired or something. They won’t stand trial for her murder. They won’t suffer for the way that she suffered.

It’s horrible to feel the truth of that. The immunity that police enjoy in these cases. Because really, every time this happens, it erodes my faith in the justice system a little more. It takes away from the ability of people of color in this country to feel safe in their own neighborhoods. It erodes the ability of good cops to do their jobs safely.

The more this happens, the more we lose. I just wish someone in government would wake up and see that and do something.

Morbidity & Mortality

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dying.

I was introduced to death when I was 10 years old. My great aunt was 93. When I left school one day my mother told me that she had died. I cried so hard. I barely even knew her, but the idea that someone was permanently gone from my life was so difficult to imagine at that age.

I remember her funeral. I remember burying her and going to this big restaurant to eat and really just wanting to go home and be sad in my room.

When my grandmother died I was at work. I was just out of high school. I got a call on the restaurant’s phone and went back to answer it. After that I don’t remember much. I remember sliding down the wall like in a movie. Crying in front of the whole kitchen. I remember sitting at her funeral next to my grandfather who was crying openly and telling me he didn’t know what he was going to do without her.

He died shortly thereafter. He waited for me to come and say goodbye. I sang to him in the apartment beneath my aunt’s house that he had shared with my grandmother. Then he died.

When enough people in your life slip away from you, you start to think that it doesn’t even really matter anymore. One more death. You’d think it would numb you. But it doesn’t.

When my father’s best friend died I was in Germany with my mother. He’d had cancer for a while. I had to comfort my mother, so I didn’t grieve for him the way I had done for the people before. Years later, I find myself missing him with this sharp ache that hasn’t really started to ease yet.

When enough people in your life die you start to be afraid of phones when people are sick. Which, when I was younger, wasn’t as difficult as it is now. Now, whenever my grandmother’s number appears on my phone, I worry that someone has found her in her apartment. But instead of my phone being in my house all the time, it’s in my purse. This weird specter that looms over my everyday life with the threat of bad news when things get dire for someone I care about.

I don’t know why death has been in my head so much lately. Maybe it’s because things have been so good that I’m expecting the other shoe to drop. Maybe I’m dreading the thrice-fold tumbling of people I know into some abyss. Maybe I’m just anxious and this is how the anxiety is manifesting.

I worry about my family. I worry about my dog.

I have to remind myself to breathe. To let the worry go. To remind myself that death is a symptom of life and to live my life with fervency and relish. To fight the fear. Death is inevitable, after all. And living my life in fear of it is not going to do me any good.

Hatred, Terror and the Shooting in Charleston

I woke up this morning to the same news as many of you. Last night in Charleston, North Carolina, a white man consumed by hate shot and killed 9 people in a church after a prayer meeting.*

My heart goes out to the community in Charleston and to the families and friends of those injured and killed. I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through.**

The scariest thing about events like this is that, although we condemn the people who have committed these acts, the fact is that the person behind the gun is simply that: a person.

Things were simpler when I was younger and lived under the mistaken assumption that Bad Guys were easily identifiable and worked for Evil Organizations with names like Cobra so you knew they were bound to do something terrible. As an adult, I’m aware that a lot of the terrible things we see happening are the result of individual choice. And that terrifies me.

When I was in high school the 911 attacks happened. I won’t bother to recount what they were like. So many of us were around when they happened. And the events themselves are not the point.

After the attacks, the people around me were so angry. I want to say that I was somehow above all that. That I saw instantly the inherent humanity of the cultures out of which the terrorists arose. But I was young and I didn’t have that inherent response. The people around me infused me with anger. I didn’t know who to point my anger at, so I pointed it at the countries that we were told by the government were the ones responsible. And I felt that anger with all the forcefulness of a teenage girl who had not yet learned important lessons about temperance.

I hated a group of people intensely. For a moment. Before I stopped myself and started to work out the nuance of that group. I saw the absurdity of hating a whole swath of human beings as though they were responsible for the actions of individuals.

The things that cause and engender violence on the part of individuals are more complicated and nuanced than simply being born in the same place. Eventually, the choice to do violence unto another person comes down to individual choice.

But that’s the scary part.

Individuals.

I could walk through my life and manage to never be pushed by external or internal forces into an act of senseless violence. But the people around me have no way of knowing if I will one day snap and do something terrible. Something irrevocable.

The bastard who shot up that church last night deserves to be punished. The terror that he has inflicted upon the community in Charleston is very real. And lasting. The damage that he has done can be measured in lives lost and terror inflicted.

He is just one man. And that’s what frightens me. That one man could do so much damage and cause so much grief and somehow be missed by the authorities until after he had done something so terrible… it makes me afraid. Which I’m sure was at least part of his goal. That’s the way that terrorists usually operate, after all.


*That man, Dylann Roof, has since been apprehended. It’s worth noting that he has been taken alive despite having killed 9 people. A privilege that is not afforded many people of color in this country who have been killed for merely having a gun, or just walking down the street. I can’t wait to hear the mental health and “he was a quiet boy” defenses start rolling off tongues in the peanut gallery. I want to talk more about this story as it unfolds. I’m already exhausted in the face of the racism inherent in our media and police force in their handling of this situation. I’ll muster up the words for my thoughts soon.


**Please consider making a donation to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to help get their community through this trying time.