Learning to listen.

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Part 1.

I’ve been trying to write this post since I first read the about the tragic killing of Jemel Robersen. I think it hit me hard because of my naive believe that as soon as people learned about police brutality toward black Americans, it would stop. But it hasn’t stopped, and at the same time as seeing our awareness build, there is also a sort of defeat. How will it end?

I went searching for some statistics on mass shootings. Not my normal afternoon exercise, but it seemed important. Specifically I wanted to know how many mass shooters end up in custody rather than dying during the attack. 

Here’s what I have read in these statistics.**

First, police do extraordinary work in subduing and arresting mass shooters—people with weapons who have already used those weapons to kill and injure multiple people. And still somehow, in 90% of cases where the shooter does not kill himself, police manage to take the shooter into custody. Without killing him. In cases where the suspect has a gun, has proven he will use it, and has already taken lives. These are truly difficult situations of high danger, and they have the skills to take people in alive.

But then we have someone like 26-year-old Jemel Robersen, who was killed on duty as a security guard, doing his job as he apprehended a (white) shooter who opened fire in a bar in Chicago. Jemel did his work well, disarming and holding the shooter until police could arrive. He did what he was supposed to do. 

Doing what he was supposed to do didn’t help him be any safer. When police arrived, they saw a black man with a gun and shot him, ignoring the shouts of people around who said, “he’s one of us!” or “he saved us!” He died. The original gunman was taken into custody.

Like many other horrified people, I shared the article on Jemel Roberson on Facebook, and my brother-in-law commented, “The sad part is the culture has always been in the shadows. Now it's in the light. They always have been killing us. It's just on camera now. And they still won't stop.”

They have always been killing us. Here is the hard truth. Even though many police have the skill to de-escalate, black lives are simply worth less than white lives in America. 

White people have always been killing black people. 2 million deaths in the middle passage (slave ships from Africa to enslaving countries). 2 million more African deaths attributed to slavery, a system of profit for white people. It’s how America started. It is poison, and the poison has not been eradicated. 

From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States.  Of these people that were lynched 3,446, 72.7% were black. Other people who were lynched included people who smuggled runaway slaves or were caught helping black people. It was a form of execution without trial. Police shootings are also a form of execution without trial. Young black men are 9 times more likely than any other kind of people to be killed by officers.

They have always been killing us. We have to get rid of this poison. We must. It is poisoning all of us.

Part 2.

Here’s how it goes with black men. A young black man looks “dangerous.” He’s standing around. Sitting at a cafe, doing his job, walking down the street, and someone calls the police. The police come, and don’t use their extraordinary skills of disarming dangerous people with guns. They shoot first.

Here’s how it starts: We (white people) start it by labeling a normal situation dangerous. We call in the authorities for no reason. (He looks suspicious. I don’t think he lives in this neighborhood.) Those men laughing and talking on the corner? Hanging out? Why do we call the police on them? At best it’s harassment. At worst it costs people their lives. 

Our family has not had a visit back to the US in the last five years without some sort of interaction with the police. 

One scary moment happened when we visited a friend. We had gone to a nearby park because the friend’s father and brother-in-law were arguing and he felt it would be better if we left them alone. (Our friend and his father are Asian-American. His brother-in-law is white.) After a while, the brother-in-law ran out of the house shouting, “Call 911, he has a gun!” 

Someone did call 911. We walked to the other side of the park to get far away from the house. But when the officers arrived, they spotted Chinua, and charged out of the car toward him, aiming their guns at him, while he held his hands up, despite the fact that we were nowhere near the house. His friend beside him called and gestured to show the house that the gunman actually was in. The kids and I were only a few feet away. There was a two-second pause while the police considered this, and then they changed course and went to the house where the man was. (It turned out to be a pellet gun.)

We were in the wrong place at the wrong time- the incident had nothing to do with us. But why did they run toward Chinua, despite the many, many people standing around in that park? He was the only black man.


Chinua has been pulled over for nothing more than driving an expensive car. (It was the car he was borrowing from a friend while he spent a month with Ian in the hospital, at the end of Ian’s life.)

He has had special services swarm him for exiting his vehicle during a motorcade. 

When he was a boy, he was surrounded by several police cars and told to get down on the ground because he was running down a sidewalk with his brother. 

Part 3. 


I want to learn to listen well.

I have been on my own journey with race. From my youth in Canada, to meeting and falling in love with Chinua, learning about historical racism on a different level, hearing his stories of his mother’s investigations into police brutality in Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s, to current day issues. I know that I have listened as though I was listening to a story that has nothing to do with me. I know that I have refused to acknowledge the reality of racism at times, as though my own sheer optimism (that came from growing up believing that people would listen to me and fight for justice for me) could cover everyone around me. Or have not wanted to acknowledge that I have benefited from a system where white people have the most power. And I am slowly starting to see that not having to think about race is a privilege for white people, how race effects nearly everything in our world and political systems for anyone of color, especially black people in America. 

The other day I sat and listened as a couple of white friends kept brushing off what Chinua said about racism. 

Chinua was talking about cultural misunderstanding as a piece of the problem, an fixable piece. “People see black people talking loudly and think that they are angry, when it’s just the way they talk.” 


“There are differences between everyone,” one said shrugging. “There are differences in cultures between the different regions of my country.”


“But we can learn about cultural differences, rather than calling the police,” Chinua responded.


“What, then we have to learn every culture in the world?” (That would be ridiculous, is the implication.)


White friends, we sometimes respond to the reality serious and tragic injustice toward black people in unkind and disempowering ways. Maybe we’ve tried to say that the problem can’t be as bad as they are making it. Maybe we try to act as though the same kind of thing has happened to us. Sometimes we try to show how much better we are than those other white people. “I have a black friend…”

I have done all of those things, not even realizing just how dangerous it is. Because actually what we need to do is stop talking over black people, stop saying it is all the same, stop saying All Lives Matter (everyone already knows this), stop distracting from the conversation about the dangers that black men and women (and children) face. 


Chinua, my kindhearted, right-living husband, has faced these dangers his whole life. As have his family. As have his people. He has skills in how to diffuse a situation, how to not appear threatening, how to assure white people of their worth even while trying to talk about the real race issues of a people who have historically been enslaved and killed, en masse, by white people. 


Clinging to our sense of the world as a right and good place, where people get ahead because of their worth, or fail because they haven’t tried hard enough, makes us bad at listening. But we have to listen.

Part 4.


So let’s listen. Here are some gentle suggestions from someone who has got it wrong many many times. The next time you’re in a conversation about race, and a black person speaks about how hard things are for them, don’t invalidate, brush off, or diminish what they are saying. Just listen, and then say, “I’m sorry. I haven’t heard about that.” Assume there is a lot you don’t know. Learn to be okay with being uncomfortable. (It’s the least we can do for our friends.) Let’s sit uncomfortably with our race (and its history of oppression) without twitching it off by saying “All lives matter,” or “black people enslaved each other too,” or “there’s such a thing as reverse racism.” Let’s not divert the topic to something more comfortable. Let’s admit to not being able to understand what it feels like to know that you are the most targeted type of person in America. We don’t have to understand. We just have to listen and we have to care.


Race is not all we are. Chinua reminds me that there are many ways to slice the pie. I don’t particularly like being in a slice that is away from my entire immediate family and all my in laws, but I am. I can’t pretend away my privilege because I don’t want to be different. It’s dangerous for my family if I keep insisting the difference doesn’t exist. It’s dangerous for my sons, who are in the 99th percentile of height and weight for their age, and about to become large mixed-race (black) men. In one configuration of our family, I am different. I am not in danger in a way that they are. I am the one who gets out and checks for a camping spot at a KOA in Kansas, because I am less likely to be turned away.

I also have great power to be a good listener, friend and ally. We get to decide who we want to be. Do we want to get rid of this poison? One way to keep it around is to keep it hidden, pretend it isn’t there. 

Let’s be okay with being uncomfortable. The last thing I’ll say to my fellow white followers of Jesus is that this is the kind of thing our faith prepares us for. Repentance, discomfort and pain, weeping with those who weep, remaining quiet in order for others to have a chance to speak at the table—these are all earmarks of our faith, and every one of them ends in what we always have, the mercy and grace of God. Our fairytale kingdoms may fall. Our image of ourselves and our countries or heritage as “completely” good may fall. But nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is safe for false constructions to fall. God will remain, and his love and mercy are for all of us.

Here are some resources: 

The current season of Serial. They did some amazing work of spending time and reporting in one courtroom in Cleveland, and what emerges shows how biased things can be in the judicial system.

 The New Jim Crow and The Color of Law explain a lot about the systemization of oppression and segregation in America. (Disclaimer, I haven’t read them. They’re on my list.)

13th, a Netflix documentary about unpaid inmate labor in America.

**Of the 107 shooting sprees that Mother Jones records between 1982 and 2018, 61 were carried out by white people. 17 by black people. (The rest were a mixture of Latino, Asian, Native American, and Unclear.) 

Of those 61 white people, 32 died by suicide. Of those who didn’t shoot themselves, 21 were taken into custody, 8 killed by police. 

Of the 11 black shooters who didn’t kill themselves, 5 were taken in, 6 killed by police. 

(Mother Jones marks shootings that are spree-like, have 3 or more fatalities and often many more injuries.) 

Life is so interesting.

The weather is growing cooler and the nights are lovely. I’ve started lighting a candle by my bed in the evenings, so I can sit and journal in a tiny pool of light. I’m trying to be kind and hopeful. I’m trying to learn to rest. 

Today there is an unseasonal rain, which is annoying and beautiful. Annoying because we have just come out of the rainy season and were excited about the sun, beautiful because no rain is wasted on this earth, especially if the river is not too full. A few more rains in the garden are more effective than our pitiful hoses can ever be. 

My heart is full. There is so much fear and worry, so much happiness and excitement about the future. So much love I can barely stand it. So much sorrow for the world and all our old systems and institutions that are steeped in selfishness and fear. I think it’s okay to walk through the world with a heart that is full like this. It is not comfortable, but in a way I don’t have to change anything. I can feel all those feelings, one after another, all day long. (“No feeling is final,” as Rilke says.) 

I offer them to God like stones, as I come across them. “Here,” I say, holding my hand out. “I found another one.”

We’re back at school and I have new kids coming to read and write together. They are welcome. To have the peers we need for our kids, we basically just have to throw our doors open. Right now we’re doing a workshop, writing a story together. It’s so fun. These kids are creative and quirky, so brainstorming sessions are the absolute best. 

I’m busy, so these quiet moments in the morning and night are the most important ones. Soon Isaac will trip into my studio and ask me to make him a cup of tea. I’ll get up and do it, and then I’ll find that the kitchen is messier than I like and I’ll clean up. I’ll make a smoothie and remember that I need to make the kids’ homeschool charts. Then I’ll think about dinner and what to buy for that. And we’ll roll into the day and a thousand conversations. Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Somewhere right now, the city of the Living God, thousands of angels in joyful gathering. A consuming fire.

And a bowl of cereal, little boy, cup of tea, dog who needs to be fed. Life is so interesting.

*

Have you checked out the Shekina blog and podcast? I have a post up there today. And the podcast is buzzing along.

Demon’s Arrow is coming out on Thursday! 

Some patrons (Narwhals and Blue Whales) on Patreon already have their advanced copies, and Dolphins will get their copies on launch day. I ordered the print copies to send to the Narwhal patrons today. I’m so excited to share this book with you.

***

Now you can support my writing on Patreon. Patrons can give as little as $1 a month, and get extra vlogs and posts. I really really appreciate your support, it helps me to keep going with writing and publishing my work. Thank you to this month’s new patrons, Jemma Allen and Julie Wells. The patron extras from last month are up. Here are last month’s extra blog post, Thoughts after 17 years of marriage, and the September Creative Update Video.

Links to here.

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Morning is light and cool air, cup of coffee, more edits. When I walk into the studio I light some incense and pray for God’s words and thoughts in me and through me all day long. The studio is messier than it should be. I am a messy artist, not a neat one, my mind is not tidy and neither is my workspace. I wish it was, but even if the space is not beautiful, beautiful things happen here.

We had an amazing conference last week. Introvert and sensory person that I am, I have needed some recuperation time, even though the conversations were lovely and the thoughts were deep. We were at a resort in Chiang Mai, which is a sort of floating space, not real life. Taking food from trays, not washing dishes. 

Back at home I drove to the market yesterday and on the way I saw an old friend who has moved to Australia. She used to work with her sister and mother at the noodle shop that is my second home. She waved me down and I hopped off the motorbike and hugged her. Her sister, whom I see several times a week, came and slipped her hand into mine and said “Rachel is my little sister now.” We clucked over one another, me over how big her little boy is, what Australia is like, and her over how tall my children are. (None of us can believe it, I hardly go out without someone remarking that they saw my son or daughter and couldn’t believe their eyes.) 

At the market, there were more friends. We talked and squeezed hands and touched each others arms. I bought things for salad (these greens are so beautiful, my friend said) and many bananas. I went to the laundry place later (I came home to find that my washer is broken) and told the lady that I had been away for a week and that was why I had enormous bags of laundry. “I know,” she told me. “Brendan has already been here to pick up his laundry and Christy has not come yet.” We talked about the best repair person in town. 

All of these things are links to here. Each neighbor, each smile. In this place there are one hundred kinds of smiles. Kind ones, cheeky ones from the motorbike, apologetic ones, ones that relieve tension. 

My landlords brought Wookie back after watching her for the week and she tore around in circles, yipping. My househelper brings her daughter over every day because it is term break for school. Yupa is four years old and a delight. Whenever Isaac comes to tell me something, she is right behind him, telling me a story in Thai, so that I have two kids talking to me at once in two different languages. 

Sometimes being a mother feels like being a nucleus, with different people whirling around with positive and negative charges of different intensity. Joe came over as well yesterday, a twelve-year-old friend. Later another friend, Siam came. And then our Japanese friends. And my landlord. So there they all were, each coming to talk for a few moments at a time. The teenagers. The dog. The little kids who spoke with words tumbling over one another. All linking me to the world, keeping me from floating off. God hemming me in behind and before.

Later I bought a canvas at an art store, ready to paint during my friend Leaf’s beautiful Devotion Circle. I found some white orchids and bought them too. Small conversations in each place. I went to get petrol and found the basket men sitting at the petrol station. One of them saw me and his eyes lit up. He walked toward me with his basket while I was taking the lid off the chariot’s petrol tank. He held a beautiful type of basket, hard to find around here, so when people come selling them, I usually buy one. (They’re nice and large and I use them for hampers—they slowly fall apart over time.) We chatted about price and I talked him down a bit. We joked back and forth. He went to get change for me, and I talked with the gas station attendants. “How much would you pay?” I asked. “You got a good price,” they told me. “Those are rattan, and handmade.” 

When he came back I gave him his original price. He ginned, the gas station attendants smiled, and he gave a little skip as he walked off. The light was very beautiful, then, making the trees glow as I drove over the bridge and up the hill in the chariot, my side-car holding one canvas, one basket, and dozens of small, shining moments. 

***

Now you can support my writing on Patreon. Patrons can give as little as $1 a month, and get extra vlogs and posts. I really really appreciate your support, it helps me to keep going with writing and publishing my work. Thank you to this month’s new patrons, Jemma Allen and Julie Wells. The patron extras from last month are up. Here are last month’s extra blog post, Thoughts after 17 years of marriage, and the September Creative Update Video.

Lots of hugs.

 Isaac and Jazzy helped me push the chariot down to the bike mechanic when it wouldn’t start, then sat back and had an old man chat.

Isaac and Jazzy helped me push the chariot down to the bike mechanic when it wouldn’t start, then sat back and had an old man chat.

The past week has been very full. Full of tears and hugs, much joy, many friends.

(Also a lot of news. I follow it, I weep for it, my heart goes out to victims of sexual harassment. There is so much brokenness in this world, so many sins against the body, the spirit of our most vulnerable people. God help us to change, to show compassion and understanding.)

First, we successfully surprised Chinua on his birthday. It was worth every moment of preparation to see the look on his face. After Devotion Circle, we managed to get everyone back from the garden and gathered at our house, and it was Ro’s job to somehow get him to come back. After some moments of trying to figure out what they were going to do, Chinua suggested coming back to our house to drop instruments off. 

Because it was his suggestion, he was floored when he arrived and out of the dark came a little Happy birthday composition, featuring a few guitars, the piano and a clarinet.

I’ll remember the look on his face forever.

At the moment we have a gathering of communities from around this part of the world; mainly the other Shekina communities in India and a community from Israel. We’ve been praying, singing, and eating together. Yesterday we had a circle on the theme of friendship with God and friendship with each other. 

I’m a strong believer of friendship first, a belief I have come to after a lot of trial and error. You know that thing where you look at your spouse as a person to blame because they are like a business partner in the business of your home and family and they have not met your expectations? Yes, I know that thing. In hardship I have a tendency for flipping between outward blame and self loathing. Neither are necessary. Blame and self loathing are both tactics to try to get the bad feelings away. 

You can just feel them. The sadness, the grief, the fear. And put friendship first, learn to go through things together. People in the circle shared about their experiences with friendship, and it was inspiring.

Next week we go down to Chiang Mai for a bigger gathering of communities from around the world. I’m also going to be hard at work on the final edit of Demon’s arrow, which comes out in less than three weeks! I’m very happy to share it with you.

Also, here’s a post that I wrote on the Shekina blog this week: Holy and Dearly Loved.

***

Now you can support my writing on Patreon. Patrons can give as little as $1 a month, and get extra vlogs and posts. I really really appreciate your support, it helps me to keep going with writing and publishing my work. The patron extras from last month are up. Here are last month’s extra blog post, Thoughts after 17 years of marriage, and the September Creative Update Video.

Wet Season

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The air is wet and old and full of life. It feels ancient even though it must be brand new, though maybe it has wound its way through ancient places, into the caverns, deep crevices of the earth that hold memories that go way, way back. 

It helps me to think of the air like this.

This morning Isaac woke up in a mood. Anything I asked him to do, he couldn’t do, because he was too tired. Getting dressed? Too tired. Using the front bathroom instead of the back bathroom (because it was occupied by a teenage sister who wasn’t delighted by his loud demands that she get out)? Too tired, and plus he doesn’t like that bathroom, not even a little. I was in a bit of a hurry, needing to drive for three hours for a morning appointment, so I had to turn over his small grumpy self to his aforementioned, long-suffering sister.

Our friend Claudia is visiting. She has appeared in these pages before, our dear friend Claudia who lived with us for a month in Nepal, dealing with children all little and amazing. She held Solomon a lot when he was a baby, played with him when he was three, ran down to the lake when he got lost, to look for him and now she gets to see him as a lanky almost-ten-year-old. “I love Solomon,” she told me. “He told me stories for an hour on Sunday, in the kitchen. About bears and America.” 

I know the stories. They are the same stories Solo often tells when he meets someone he hasn’t seen in a while, or someone new. He opens up by telling stories. And he loves hearing stories. I love this about him. It’s like he’s saying, “This is me and these are some things that have happened to me.” I remember when he was a little guy and he didn’t really know how to join in with family stories around the table, so he would say, “When I was on the mountain…” and launch into a long-winded imaginary happening. Yesterday, we were sitting around the table with Olga and Vrinda, and we somehow got into talking about toilets. Solo told us a bit about how he hates the loud toilet sound, so he gets up from the automatic ones and just runs out the door! But then sometimes it is hard to get the door open. It’s difficult, getting out the door ahead of the loud toilet sound.

Everything grows in this season. Things feel perpetually wet. The air is full of life: spores and molds, living things that land and grow and spread new life in new places. On walls, under cars, in the sponge of my motorbike seat. You have to admire it. It doesn’t stop.

When the rain pours hard, it feels cozy in the house, but not the kind of cozy where you are warm and insulated. It’s in the house (not well sealed) with us, fresh rainy air that isn’t enough to get us wet, but has us breathing in the mountains, the season. We are not insulated. We are in it, all the struggle of living things, the streams rushing down steep hills.  We are in the wet. And once you are wet in living things, it is hard not to be.

Like the heart. Like living where you allow difficult things to touch you and change you. Where you live among the stories that people tell you and the hurt or excitement of those stories come wafting to you on spore-filled air. You sit in the midst of joy and pain and feel what God always feels. And sometimes this is the air and the season of your work. It’s wet season.

And then sometimes, even in wet season, there is the clearest light that comes at the end of a soggy day. It turns all the water into diamonds, every tree is edged in light. You take a breath and feel the love of ancient things, the cloud of witnesses, the Eternal Love that remains throughout all the stories. Ancient and brand new, all at once. You can remain here in all this teeming life, because he is here as well. Transforming and making all things new. There is mold, yes, but also  there are flowers.

***

Now you can support my writing on Patreon. Patrons can give as little as $1 a month, and get extra vlogs and posts. A special thanks to new patron, Karen Engel. I really really appreciate your support, it helps me to keep going with writing and publishing my work. A new patron-only post went up today: Things I Collect (A Reminder).