I keep thinking I need to go to a big demonstration—for immigrants, for human rights—but when I hear recordings on NPR a part of me recoils. The chants feel too intense, too assaultive, beating against “them.” It isn’t what I want to be. It doesn’t feel nonviolent. People say Mother Teresa refused to go to anti-war demonstrations, but if we ever held a rally for peace, she said, she’d be there. I want that, a sea of humankind, all swaying and singing “Give Peace a Chance” (hippie osmosis from my childhood). What happened to Gandhi, to King? What happened to peaceful resistance? Can’t we make up songs to sing instead of screaming angry chants? Songs that connect us, singing together in the streets, on freeways or tarmacs, our voices carrying across cities, drifting across the sea. I read that in the wake of the havoc and vitriol President Trump scattered across Europe earlier this month there was a music festival in London. Paul Simon and James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt were all there. Each one of them spoke up. None of them named the president, but every one of them voiced messages of encouragement, messages of love. I’m comforted to know these musicians who I’ve loved all my life were over there, counterpoint to our president’s chaos and hatred, letting people know there are other voices in the United States. Voices that want the world to know we aren’t all ugly and mean. We aren’t all afraid of women, of Muslims, of all the dark-skinned peoples of the world, or foreign tongues, or English spoken with a Mexican accent. We aren’t all afraid of gay marriage or body ink or people in wheelchairs. We aren’t afraid of learning to include all genders, all sexual preferences, to stand up for the rights of children and for a woman’s right to choose. What we are afraid of is losing our humanity inch by inch, of letting what binds us all together be whittled away little by little until it’s too late. What we are afraid of is allowing another holocaust. I wish I’d been in those quiet crowds at that music festival, singing along, soothed. I wonder if James Taylor sang “Shed a Little Light“?
[Editor’s note: Looking at my title now in the light of day—”We Aren’t All Afraid”—I think I might need to change it. Because maybe we ARE all afraid. We’re just afraid of very different things. And some of the same ordinary things, too.]
Hank shook his head and muttered under his breath. Then he shook his head again. He wished Sally was here. She’d know what to do, what to say to his leftie child, this daughter of theirs. Her daughter maybe more than his, but he loved her like there was no tomorrow. He just couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her sometimes. This living with them again wasn’t something he saw coming, but here she was, rearranging the kitchen cupboards, hiding his ashtray. Hell, yesterday he even found a full box of his Frosted Flakes in the outside garbage can. What was she thinking? And now she was on to his politics, chastising him for not trying harder, for not being willing to camp out with her in protest at the community center. He was too damn old to sleep on pavement in the middle of December. And she was too damn old to be living with her parents. When was Sally going to get back, anyway? How long could it take to get her toenails done, for Christ’s sake? Since when did she even have her toenails done? He muttered again, opening the can of dolphin-safe tuna Alexa had bought for the cat. It was probably her idea, the toe painting deal. His wife had been perfectly content with doing her own toenails all these decades, and now when she should have been here helping him deal with her damn daughter, she was off getting her toenails doo-dawed instead.
He couldn’t believe the school was making him have a different kind of class card than everyone else just because he was a foreign student. Foreigner, they should have said. Dark-skinned Middle Easterner. Alien. Maybe he should just wear a sign around his neck: fucking scary. His grandfather would just shrug it off with that peculiar arrogance. But he didn’t feel like that. He wanted to be liked, to feel welcomed in this high school. In his biology class, they each had to take a blood sample from themselves, quick pinprick, smear across the slide. His lab partner Callie gaped when she looked through the microscope at his blood. He swore her jaw dropped. She looked up at him then, confused. He saw it on her face. She’d expected his blood to look different under the glass.
I dream of wearing a sign. Something like, “I’m so sorry. We want you here.” Sueno de tener un letrero que dice, “Lo siento mucho. Les queremos Uds. aquí.” Quiero decir, “No se vayan.” I want to say don’t go. Quiero decir que millónes mas gente no le votó como ellos que votaron para él, nuestro “residente.” I want to say three million more people voted against him than voted for him, our “resident” en la casa blanca. Quiero decir esto es su país, también. This is your country, too. Please don’t go. I speak to my favorite flower vendor, watch him take it all on his broad shoulders, this weighted world. I see him shrug, something I’ve admired for years, the way so often someone who grows up in Mexico can make so much room inside themselves for acceptance. “Vivimos la vida que viene,” he says. We live the life that comes.
I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein,looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
I was ten in 1968, an only child. None of my parents were activists. I was imbued with the spirit of the time but not a part of it. I am a child of the seventies. I grew up with duck and cover drills, crawling under our desks at school and covering our heads (as if this might actually help us in the quake of an atomic bomb). We grew up knowing Social Security may not be there when we reached 65, knowing the world could be destroyed anytime at the press of a button. Maybe it was in the face of this I became an eternal optimist, or maybe it was simply in my nature. But optimist or not, I have lived my whole life afraid that one day I would need to put myself in front of people with machine guns to stand up for what is right. And I didn’t want to have to die like that. In recent years, I’ve shaped a softer possibility for myself. Maybe I don’t have to die. Maybe I can speak up, do the right thing, without risking my life. But our current climate in the United States has awakened all my earlier fears. On the way home from my mother’s last week I met a woman named Liz. She and Zoë and I met at the Fullerton Amtrak station and shared the three seats at the back of the bus on the last leg of my journey. We talked nonstop for hours. Liz told me they threw grenades at the protesters in North Dakota. She said one woman had her arm blown off. She said another had one of her eyes put out by a rubber bullet. She said they used water hoses on the protesters in the heart of a northern winter. I have not researched this, but I’m inclined to believe her. Today between work needing to be done I Googled “Sacred Stone” and signed letters for my U.S. senators and my congressman to stop the pipeline. I called Palm Springs City Hall and left a message in hopes of finding out what I might be able to do to make sure we declare ourselves a sanctuary city. On the way home from Ralph’s before dark I start singing, “Give Peace a Chance.” I want to be able to stand up for what is right, but I don’t want to have to die for it. I’ve heard people are being “planted” to stir up trouble where the intention is to practice nonviolent resistance. The only thing I can think of in my head if I am there when this happens is to just start singing. So today I sing all the way home from the grocery store. It’s a warm evening. People look at me through the open windows of their cars. No one waves or gives me any indication of being with me, but it is my hope a happy sense of that comes to them moments later, after I pass by. When I walk through the trailer park, I imagine my song touching people through the open sliding glass doors. I know some people might think I’m crazy or even wrong. But I don’t stop. In between, I laugh. I am all welled up with the love of it. The waxing moon is rising in the east. It will be full here on Friday afternoon. I sing to the moon as I walk. And I get good chills along my arms, my legs. I am embarrassed and joyful, both. I wonder what my neighbors think as I get close to home. I hope some of the people who hear me, whether they know me or not, are touched by my heartfelt song. “All we are saying,” I sing, “is give peace a chance.”