The ticks of racism: a white person addresses whites

Look, we’ve been over this. I have been over this, in this blog, which is not even my political venue of choice. This blog is supposed to be a place for my own benign commentary on writing, my own and other people’s; remember “benign commentary?” To me it’s like one of those spiders you fit into the center of a 45 record so you could play it on a 78 turntable. I don’t know how to “benign commentary” anymore. All I know is I have to find a way to be in this world so that the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer won’t be ashamed of me in that cloud of witnesses that unwarrantably swells now day by day.

So. If you are white and reading this, know that what Black voices are saying right now is more important than this. I’ll put a representative sample from my milieu here. If you haven’t read it yet, do that first.

To be quite honest: I don’t fucking know why it is not self-evident to everyone that Black faces are the Image of God — i.e. fully representative of humanity at its pinnacle, as any other human would be; and possessed of the right to exist untrammeled, as any other human would be. If you feel the urge to quibble with that, to say it doesn’t apply to the hellscape we’re living in, you must not think it’s self-evident and I refer you back to the beginning of this paragraph. The rest of this writing assumes that self-evidency.

But to be even more honest: it’s not quite true. I have an idea why it’s not self-evident to a startlingly large percentage of my fellow white folks. Because here’s another truth: treating people badly makes us hate them more. We think it’s the other way around. We think that hurting or kicking or insulting or mistreating someone discharges hate and ill-will towards them, that if we can act upon that anger and ill-will then we will be rid of its corrosive effects. We will have closure if we can punish just the right amount. We will be able to think well of someone once they have accepted whatever we wish to heap upon their head.

The hardest sin to forgive another person is the sin committed by ourselves against them.

And we white people know damn good and well that we have committed a vast cataract of sins against people of color who ought to be our fellow citizens. Collectively and individually we have committed them. With mens rea and without. And just as I can’t shop for basic groceries without giving my dollars to some gross corporation, I can’t live my life without benefiting, right now, from the practical effects of that cataract of sins.

Other people are saying better than I what can and should be done about structural racism. What I have to say here is about relational racism. I don’t have jack to say to my fellow white people about what our grandfathers did or didn’t do. They did it, or they didn’t do it; who cares. I’m talking about what happens in your and my everyday life, when someone, Black or not, calls you out for something you did or said. How can you, how can I, bear what seems like an attack on our stable self-identity as a nice person who is not A Racist??

I came up with this metaphor in a less fraught hour, so it may or may not play. I think of racism as I think about ticks. Anybody can get a tick on them, anybody. In a bad tick year, you don’t even have to go into the woods; sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the house, especially if a pet or person brings them in.

Ticks are just ticks. They are just pests. But it doesn’t pay to be complacent about them, because: they also carry diseases.

So when someone says, “You have a tick on you,” do you say: “I most certainly do not! I am not the kind of person who gets ticks on them. I never even go to the woods. How dare you!” Well, do you?

Historically speaking, when I’ve been told I have a tick on me, what I do is: I whimper piteously and beg them to take it off, and dispose of it so I don’t have to look at it.

But here’s the thing. Nobody is obligated to pick off your tick. You would hardly collar some random member of the public, drop your drawers, and ask them to remove a tick from your posterior. No, you ask a trusted friend or family member to take care of this intimate task. And even they are allowed to say, “Ugh, no thanks. Ask someone else.”

A day may come when you and nobody but you is available to remove the tick. And you may feel very sorry for yourself in the process. But that’s between you and yourself. Open your private bullet journal and commemorate the occasion:

  • Today, 2 June 2020: I removed a tick by myself. It sucked, but the tick is gone. Yay!
  • Tomorrow, 3 June 2020: make appointment with doctor to make sure I’m not infected.

People who do not attend to their ticks can get so infected that they no longer think they are sick, and eventually become a public health hazard.

Apparently quite a lot of people have decided to become a public health hazard. I guess they thought the coronavirus was fucking lonely or something.

This little trip down analogy lane has been half facetious, but I’m serious about one thing. If it matters to someone you don’t even know that you put on a mask, then it matters to someone you don’t even know if you check for the ticks of racism.

Because when it comes to bad tick years, this is Annus Horribilis.

Solaces

Let’s be real: in terms of mental health, I’m often not playing with a full deck right now. Sometimes, I’m not even playing with half a deck. I have a three. And if you get that reference, let me invite you to my Zoom happy hour.

Still life with solitary lilac.

I mean, I’m one of the lucky ones. I can work from home, I have my own sanctuary, I have my cat and my Netflix Party and my book club group text and a jumbo bottle of Beefeaters. But luck, in these circumstances, is definitely a relative term. In normal circs, a four-day panic attack is not the thin end of the suffering wedge, but it is now — and I can’t even tell myself that there’s no grounds for being worried and upset. Nope, I said, I need to call my doctor and tell her I need either an industrial-size Xanax or my own personal pulse oximeter. Or possibly both.

Nevertheless, I persist. And fait accompli still applies. There’s room even in this miasmic situation — perhaps especially in this misasmic situation — for reality and humor and wry compassion for self and everyone else.

So I share a couple of things that have brought me solace or cracked me open or both.

Music in particular has been a source of catharsis. I might have mentioned here my love of Widor’s Toccata for organ, and how I longed to finagle some way of getting someone to play it on Kauffman Center’s organ some Symphony night. So I was scrolling through FB yesterday and saw this — and when I unmuted it I instantly burst into sobs.

(I’d embed it but FB and WP are not playing nice.)

It wasn’t even the first time that week that music had got to me like that. We haven’t had much in the way of spring thunderstorms yet, but it rained heavily the other day and so I broke out the Dona nobis pacem from the Bach Mass, which I always play at high volume during the first good storm of the year.

It undid me completely.

It strikes me that crying at beautiful music at a time like this is an eminently sane thing to do, so I embrace it. But it’s not the only sane thing. On the advice of my coach I’ve also embraced taking my mask and saber out to the backyard and practicing cuts and lunges. It makes my whole body feel lived-in and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. I guess it’d take a fencing coach to think of something so obvious to suggest. I envy my friends with gardens; but I reckon there are plenty of people who envy me my saber drills.

Solace is richer if you can share it. And if you can’t share it, I suppose the next best thing would be to enjoy it in honor of those who are in need of it. Good will is a paltry gift, but in times like these we can see the difference between good will and nothing.

Take care. Be well. May you make a good offering.

The vicarious synapse

Despite the fact that, if such a thing were possible, I am even less capable of sustained coherence than I was a month ago, I figured I had better post some proof of life. I mean, Facebook people are already getting cat pictures from the home office and reposted memes and the like, so I’m not terribly concerned that no one knows I’m alive if I don’t post here; but still.

Today in my Lenten meditation booklet (“Lent: It’s Not Rocket Science,” courtesy of Forward Movement a couple years back), Bishop McKnisely reflects on the hidden reality that atoms are largely composed of empty space, and concludes that he is very thankful for our sense of being jumbled up and close together, so that we can feel connected despite being so insignificant in the universe. Ha ha. Today makes three weeks since I have gone into pandemic seclusion, and never have I felt more atomic. I’m one of the lucky ones: I can work from home, I have plenty of toilet paper, and I have little need to go outdoors. Most of my relationships were already conducted in pixels, the only human touch I was likely to share week to week was passing the peace at church, and I already had a home office routine for days when I didn’t commute in. Nothing’s changed, right?

Wrong. It’s fuckin’ weird, is what it is. The space between me, the atom’s nucleus, and the electrons by which I contact the world is uncannily apparent: like when you have an inflamed organ in the gut — it doesn’t hurt exactly, but you’re not supposed to know it’s there. The whole is dispelled; everything is reduced to the sum of its parts.

More than once over a Zoom meetup, someone has remarked that it’s a balm to at least see everybody even if it’s just over a screen. But although I’m very glad of the chance to talk to people, I don’t know that it makes me feel more connected — or less, for that matter. For one thing, it’s even easier for my voice to get lost in the shuffle than it is in person; a couple of times I’ve just given up trying to say something and just let the interruptions roll on like a tide. Worse, I’ve had the dreadful experience of actually getting the virtual floor and then feeling my brain lock up in a full-on fit of aphasia. All in all…I’m not really a fan.

Nevertheless, I’m toying with the idea of conducting a Tenebrae service over Zoom (or whatever) next week; if there were any liturgy designed for this #MOOD, Tenebrae is it. The only real question in my mind is how public I should try to make it.

Meanwhile, on the writing front, I have achieved some edits on Household Lights, commissioned cover art, and hope to have it up for preorder soon. Household Lights, I find on my reread, is full of the kind of things we can’t have right now: cross-country train trips, in-person meetings, co-sleeping with friends, bonfire dances, maternal care in moments of pain and need, and Ryswyck’s daily morning silence with three hundred people all breathing together in the arena. I wasn’t expecting to market this book as an immediate and expedient salve of vicarious comforts, but here we are.

At the moment, though, it’s not vicarious comforts that are getting me through this time of awareness that every person I love in the whole world is someone I have to worry about. It’s more the little, funny things that address this absurd situation head-on that comfort me. So I leave you with one of them: Here is John Finnemore with a series of short videos as Arthur Shappey, his character from Cabin Pressure — “Cabin Fever.” This one is “Episode 1: Fitton”; closely followed by “Episode 2: Fitton,” “Episode 3: Fitton,” and so on. I think it’s probably still hilarious even if you don’t get all the Cabin Pressure references, but if you haven’t listened to the Cabin Pressure radio plays, well, you’re not going to get a better opportunity, are you?

Orbis Factor

I’ve been wanting to make a post for a couple of weeks now, but my ideas were all too inchoate to put hand to keys for. My thoughts are only barely starting to coalesce, but it’s time to take a stab at posting anyway. So here they are: beads on a string, notes in a mode.

To start with, this morning’s offering from the Lent Project included a chant from Ensemble Organum, a ninefold Kyrie Eleison that made me sit right up in the predawn dark and then seek it out to listen again. I’ve said before that the chants in my ‘verse owed something to plainchant from both western and eastern Christian traditions, but didn’t have an example to put forward. Now I do. Longform chants in the Ryswyck ‘verse have plumb notes and refrains, and there is usually a lead cantor for the verses while the assembled sing the response. This piece evokes the tone better than I could have hoped.

And then there’s the actual theme, which is appropriate not just for Lent but for this particular constellation of events and decisions and griefs on earth, for this exploded diagram of a theological moment:

Maker of the world, King eternal, 
Have mercy upon us.
O immense source of pity, 
Have mercy upon us.
Drive off all our evils, 
Have mercy upon us.
Christ who art the light of the world and giver of life, 
Have mercy upon us.
Consider the wounds produced by the devil’s art, 
Have mercy upon us.
Keeping and confirming thy believers, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou and thy Father, an equal light, 
Have mercy upon us.
We know that God is one and three, 
Have mercy upon us.
Thou, merciful unto us, art present with the Holy Spirit that we might live in thee, 
Have mercy upon us.

Last night I showed up at fencing practice to discover that I needed to practice something new for the next tournament: refraining from the handshake at the end of a bout. I shouldn’t have been surprised; protocols for containing the spread of COVID-19 have been circulating in all the other circles, church and workplace, that I frequent. And invariably, the question gets asked: if we don’t shake hands to pass the peace, if we don’t shake hands to greet our colleagues at a conference, if we don’t shake hands to honor our opponent on the strip, what do we do instead? Elbow bumps? Hip checks? Toe touches?

My immediate instinct was to lay my open hand against my heart, as my characters do. And I reflected yesterday, both in a work meeting and at fencing club, on how hard I had had to work while writing to push aside the echo of clasps and handshakes for greetings in my own world, how (worldbuilding often works this way) I had speculated that maybe unchecked epidemics in my ‘verse during the bad times had given rise to the no-touch greetings I wanted to depict.

And lastly in my exploded diagram, I voted in my primary the other day. I don’t often address politics directly in this blog, in part because I prefer to do it elsewhere, and also in part because unlike when blogging was new and I was younger, I don’t assume that political opinions are necessarily significant just because I have them. But here again is another enharmonic between the tones of the world I didn’t make, and the one I did.

You may guess I am less than enthused about having our field of presidential candidates winnowed down to two septuagenarian white men, not when we had multiple viable alternatives on several axes of value. But that’s democracy for you. When the other party has ejected all its reasonable and/or honorable people, those reasonable and honorable people have to go somewhere, and there’s no use pining after a parliamentary system where you can put party bulkheads between the groups within a coalition. Nope, the coalition is calling from inside the house.

I particularly regret that Team Warren (i.e., me and others like me) was not able to successfully make the case for her to the African-American part of the coalition. By and large, they’ve clearly chosen their guy, and I’d rather they hadn’t, but I get it. I spent one evening five years ago in the company of some friends — all white women, all reliable Democratic voters who espoused progressive principles, all people who understand what the word intersectionality means — and someone brought up the topic of the protests in Ferguson: and the things that started coming out of people’s mouths utterly appalled me. But I doubt any Black person would be shocked. So unless you win enough time and produce enough solid, present-tense deliverables, a movement is not going to get traction with African-Americans if its prime selling point is that the White Left really really likes it, even if the policy promises are good, even if the candidate has an admirable voting record. I know, I know, people are not their demographics. But the demographics are their people. And every part of the coalition is our people. Obviously, I’ve discovered I can’t speak for the rest of the White Left, but I’m convinced that we owe the first gesture of respect for others’ insights, rather than demanding acknowledgment of ours out of the gate.

Warren’s period of silence between Super Tuesday and suspending her campaign gave me a chance to recover my own equilibrium. And the letter she sent her supporters underlined my admiration for her, rather than dissipating it. All of it was good, but this was what snared my attention:

Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.

If Barack Obama was a pastor, Elizabeth Warren is a paladin. What else would you expect of a candidate whose supporters took one of her quotes about fighting for the CFPB (“I want…” either a good agency, “or no agency at all and a lot of blood and teeth on the floor.”) and spontaneously brandished the slogan, “Blood and Teeth!

She’s got all kinds of plans for the symptoms, but her real lance is aimed at the disease: that complex of inequality, misogyny, the lust for domination, and fear that reached pandemic proportions long before COVID-19 was ever heard of. In that perspective, becoming POTUS was a modest aim.

And from my vantage, Warren’s campaign served as a laboratory for the counterpart of Ryswyckian principles of courtesy in the environment of middle-school meanness that infests our public discourse wherever it takes place. (But I was glad for the excuse to get off of Twitter again.) Would I have rather it prevailed? Of course. But the principle of “Smile. Bow. Hit them.” doesn’t promise victory. It only promises the chance to make a victory even of your deepest defeats.

We’re all still here. So I guess it worked.

So it’s back to persistence. I still want more people to read Ryswyck — it’s obviously becoming more relevant than I ever dreamed; or wanted, let’s be real — but even so, the persistence of dreaming and writing has freshly become an end in itself. I make the world, and the world makes me.

Kyrie eleison. Blood and teeth.

Advent calendar #19: Margaret Atwood

I still can’t bring myself to read or watch The Handmaid’s Tale, because, well. I can observe plenty of nightmares going on round here without seeking the same out in my fiction. However: I know that Atwood is snarky and brilliant, so for today’s Advent window I give you a short essay of hers that I read 25 years ago and appreciate better now than I did when I was an undergraduate.

The Female Body, it’s called. (Honestly, “my topic feels like hell” should be a regular tag.)

Meanwhile, it’s the day’s deep midnight, and I’m looking forward to the crescendo again.

Advent calendar #(16), 17: O Sapientia

Yesterday it snowed more, and I worked from the home office in the wintry hush. Solstice is approaching: and the Great O Antiphons are here.

The last seven days before Christmas Eve are celebrated with these antiphons — refrains preceding the Magnificat at Evensong — that invoke Our Lord with names and honorifics, gathering up the goodness of the world in one sweep before the Nativity. (The antiphons are probably best known as the verses of “O Come, O Come Immanuel”.) They form a sort of crescendo to the celebration of Christmas.

But I have to admit that my favorite one is the first one: O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence. I love how Wisdom is framed in metaphors of discursive intellect, and yet is not really any such thing. It’s an articulate silence that seems to characterize this force that “mightily and sweetly” orders all things. And many times, when I have encountered a profound moral lesson, I have had to resort to poetry even to make myself capable of remembering what happened. Wisdom is neither immanent nor transcendent; it is intimate with the world and yet never mastered by it.

It’s this antiphon, I think, that inspired me more than esotericism when framing the religious worship in my ‘verse. And it was this name of God that I thought made a fitting refuge for a scarred world sickened by worshiping gods made in their own image. Silence and letting go: this is a worship so dangerous to the ego that every time we brush close, we pretend that we’ve already done it.

So this morning I made another noise generator: one that evokes a meditation hall with a storm pouring rain outside the low lintel. A challenge, to sketch out the noises of quiet prayer! But here’s the result: One Light Burning.

May your day be mightily and sweetly ordered from end to end.

Advent calendar #6: Nicholas of Myra and David Sedaris

St. Nicholas says: of course it is wrong to hit a man with a closed fist, but it is, on occasion, hilarious.

Good morning! And a very happy Friday to you all.

It’s St. Nicholas Day, which — aside from its associations with the Christmas season — is an opportunity to reflect on one of our tradition’s more interesting bishops. Besides resurrecting children pickled in brine and tossing dowries through the windows of young women about to be sold into prostitution, Nicholas is also said to have punched Arius at the Council of Nicaea. All of these stories are spurious to some degree or other, but you have to admit, there’s a certain swash to St. Nick’s buckle. Like, he’s the patron saint of nearly every member of the crew of Serenity, one way or another. What’s not to like?

Of course, if you’re aiming to misbehave, the early-modern and modern legends of Santa Claus are less friendly to your cause, as David Sedaris discovers in his essay Six to Eight Black Men. I do enjoy that essay, but because (mindful of St. Nick) I am moved to be generous, here in addition is David Sedaris reading my favorite of his essays, “Jesus Shaves.”

This has been your Hee-Haw Advent window of the day.

Advent calendar #3

Good morning!

On today’s little Advent window, I give you a noise generator that I built on the MyNoise site. One of the perks of donating to Dr. Stephane’s site is that you can harvest stems from any of the sound profiles (and there are many!) in the lists, and collate them in a generator of your own. I’ve played with creating themed generators, or particular sounds, or effective white noise for the office, with varying degrees of success. My latest effort was created to evoke the feeling of stirring hands and feet in the bathing warmth of a hot spring: certainly a welcome feeling at this time of year!

So here you go: enjoy Chaleur.

Advent calendar #1, 2

To celebrate this website’s second year, I’m going to do a little Advent calendar of things that give me pleasure and gratitude.

A year ago I started building this website in preparation for launching my first novel in what I hoped and planned to be a series; a year later, I have launched the book, finished an interstitial novella and put it into edits, and started on the second full-length novel which I hope to finish over the course of the next year.

It’s been an intense and busy year on all fronts: but this, I hope, will be a relaxing exercise for me, as sometimes I get hung up on trying to remember what Significant Thing I had planned to blog about some time but didn’t write down. These little Advent windows are not going to be significant of anything in particular. I suppose that’s a measure of what the theme of this year has turned out to be: that even launching a book, significant as that is in my own life, is a granulation of little acts, little pleasures and struggles. And one might as well take note of them and do them justice.

Today is a two-fer, since I didn’t have this idea until last night and did not post anything on December 1. First, for those of you who like this sort of thing: Check out The Advent Project, an annual compendium put together by the staff at Biola University. Every morning there’s a Bible reading, a poem, a piece of art, a piece of music, a collect, and a meditation. Because these things are gathered from all over, many perspectives are represented, which frankly relaxes me because I know I don’t have to like it all. I signed up for this last year, and enjoyed it and the group’s Lent Project enough that I stayed subscribed this year. It adds dimension to my morning ritual of tea on the couch — especially when the mornings are so dark.

For the second — how about something completely different! I’ve already inflicted this vid on my Facebook friends and anybody else I can get to stand still, but it just makes me happy, so on the slate it goes: Pomplamoose doing a mashup cover of the Eurhythmics and the White Stripes.

(If I were going to make an out-verse playlist for my characters, this would totally be one of the songs I picked for Speir.)

You should totally check out the weekly cover vids that Pomplamoose is doing, because this one is not the only awesome one, it’s just my favorite.

And there you have it. Happy new year*!

*Liturgically speaking.

On Thankfulness and Gratitude

I keep meaning to read Diana Butler Bass’s book on gratitude, but haven’t got round to it for much the same reason I don’t do a lot of things that I look forward to being good for me. “You’ll be happier once you’ve washed the dishes,” I say to myself, as how Bullwinkle might say, “Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of a hat!”

That trick, as any ADHD person knows, never works.

So my thoughts on thankfulness and gratitude this Thanksgiving season are unguided by anything other than my own insight. (I might have said exactly this when I was 25, but I would have meant something rather less modest.)

I am thankful fairly often. It isn’t very difficult; I think of thankfulness as an undirected feeling of relief and obligation, and reasons to put oneself in that headspace are plentiful. I’m thankful for a good day, a finished task, a delicious meal, avoiding a car accident, getting a good night’s sleep. Having a continual background anxiety that some other shoe is about to drop — that makes thankfulness noticeable by contrast.

So I never particularly liked that Thanksgiving exercise of “let’s go around the table and everybody say one thing they’re thankful for” — what, like it’s hard? I’m thankful for breathing, for getting over a sprained back when some people have a lifetime’s worth of the same chronic pain, for today not being a day when something terrible happens to me… I mean, it’s great and all, but there’s not much of a so-what factor there. And every thing I just listed is something someone else isn’t getting. I think the exercise would work better on a community level, like what David Mamet is said to have said Jewish holidays are all about: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

Gratitude is something totally different. Gratitude is directed. It sometimes isn’t explainable because so often it’s for something you can’t do for yourself. You can’t put your own hair up when you’re sick over the toilet, like my mother did for me on one occasion. You can’t make someone apologize to you for some hurt they did. Sometimes, you can’t even explain to a person what it is they did that eased you, or revived you, or humbled you. Sometimes, when I’m grateful, I feel thankful that I’m grateful, like it’s a sign that my soul is in good working order.

I’m not sure what makes gratitude so inescapably spontaneous, though. Like, it’s easy enough to explain when someone does something for you specifically to manufacture your gratitude for their…gratification. But sometimes, a gift is given, a favor is done…and the firefly doesn’t light. In my experience that mostly happens when I feel secretly that I ought to have done it myself, or been able to do it myself. That I needed power more than I needed the gift.

I think gratitude is reserved for the meeting of an unambiguous need.

I think we shouldn’t expect people to be grateful when we meet a need for them that was manufactured by people or by structures. But the thing is, sometimes people are grateful anyway. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s one of the most helplessly genuine reactions we humans possess: and like tears, it’s made of the thing that caused it. It’s something that is still sacredly right when lots of things are wrong.

I guess if I’m going to be thankful for anything this holiday season, it’s that.