For a few weeks now, I’ve been intending to write, wanting to share my reflections on our recent trip to Iceland. With school starting and other pressing issues, though, it hasn’t happened. But now the disturbing events in Charlottesville are forcing me to use my voice. As one of my personal heroes, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, put it, "We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
It’s hard to accept that hatred and fear of others resides here at home. We’ve been conditioned to believe that terrorism is bred only across the sea, that it’s not to be found in the heartland, and certainly not in Thomas Jefferson’s legacy to us, at the University of Virginia. Hatred and bigotry do exist there, just as they exist in our neighborhoods and yes, in our own hearts. This is difficult to stomach. It’s a challenge to accept this reflection of ourselves, to realize that there are still those among us who continue to view the world with a skewed and sick perspective. It breaks my heart. It makes me fearful for those I love who are very much an integral part of MLK’s vision of equality.
And so, while my heart was heavy when I awoke this morning, I urged myself to follow Anne Lamott’s steps for facing the horrors of this world, the first of which is radical self-care. Upon waking, I hugged my husband. I sipped the coffee he made for me slowly, savoring its gifts. I strapped on my hiking boots and ventured into the forest. It was a bit muddy from last night’s rain, but the flowers were open and buzzing with pollinators. The grasses were the shades of green they are only during our brief monsoon season. The little horned toad that scurried across the trail blended almost completely with the pink decomposed granite. And the cliff rose perfumed the air as if it had nothing but that to do all day. And as I walked, I felt myself filling with the light that comes from breathing deeply of clean, bright air. As Lamott says, there’s a reason why you are to put on your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency.
The second step of her radical self-care is to help the helpless. I was grateful today was Sunday and that my daughter and I had our weekly slot to volunteer at the Humane Society. We’ve been socializing cats there since January, which essentially means that we pet them, we hold them, and we play with them. It was a full house today. A tiny kitten shook with fear in my palm as I cradled it, whispering and stroking her. A chubby fifteen-year-old calico purred on my lap, rolling over to show me her ample belly. An energetic, lithe kitty pawed at us every time we passed by, in spite of the time that my daughter spent with him in the playroom. Before we started volunteering there, I worried that it would be depressing. What I’ve learned though, is that it is very centering to be there. All I have to do is comfort this one creature for the moment I am there. Everything else slips away – no future, no past – just me and this kitty in this moment now. And even the ones who are too depressed or anxious to show that they appreciate the attention still need it. These creatures are at the mercy of us humans and it is humbling to be responsible for that mercy.
After taking care of myself and helping some helpless creatures, I feel ready to raise my voice. I am tired, just like you are tired. I’m trying to raise a couple of daughters, to teach more than 150 kiddos, to make healthy choices, and to recycle, and even to save the bees. I get it. We have a lot on our plates. You don’t honestly believe that Rosa Parks had it any easier than you, do you? That she wasn’t exhausted by a million other things? And yet, she stood up. She resisted.
But this is not the time to be quiet. This is not the time to let someone else fight the fight. Many people have been fighting for a long, long time to be granted rights that automatically have been granted to me. I am an educated, financially secure white woman. I lead a comfortable life, but I cannot pretend that these privileges grant me silence. I would not expect a student in my hallway at school to stand up to a bully if I also witnessed an incident. I can stand up too. My privilege makes it easier, in fact, for me to stand up.
The Confederacy lost. The Nazis were defeated. And there have been countless other battles, large and small, in the interim since those victories in which love and light have continued to beat hate and bigotry. But this fight for equality, for freedom, for righting the wrongs is not yet over. As Maya Angelou wisely noted, “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world but it has not solved one yet.” We will still continue to pledge, as we do in the classroom every morning, until “liberty and justice for all” is no longer a vision, but a reality. Take some steps for radical self-care. Help someone. And then stand up.