Friday, December 18, 2015

More light, more light

   In my last column, I mentioned that we need all the light we can get this holiday season.  This is the topic of my Claremont Courier column out today and which follows. 
   (I’ll be doing some traveling and resting in the next weeks.  I may or may not post in the next 3 or 4 weeks.  Here’s hoping for a new year full of light.)

   She said she had to buy more lights.  Her family had gotten their Christmas tree, and it turned out that one of their strands of lights was not working. So she had to go out and buy a new string of lights to put on the tree. 
   That’s what we always do.  Every year, it seems, we get out the Christmas lights and plug them in, excited to see them glow and sparkle, and at least one strand or part of a strand doesn’t go on.  It was working last year, but now, suddenly, for some reason that nobody knows, no glow, no sparkle, nothing.  There is usually a quick trip to the store to get more lights. 
   Because we can’t not have lights.  Because we need all the lights we can get.
   We need all the lights we can get when it has gotten dark and cold and when everything out there is not so far away. 
   We need all the lights we can get when Claremont is in the headlines and live on the 11:00 news because of unrest. The University of Missouri and Yale University and other colleges, most far away in other states, aren’t the only schools with student protests and furor over a lack of diversity on campus.  Racial strife isn’t just an issue in other cities and other states, out there, far away.  Not when students at Claremont McKenna College protest, with one going on a hunger strike, saying that black and other minority students don’t feel welcome and included on the campus and the dean of students resigns.  And not when the protesting students subsequently received threats and felt compelled to stay off campus, missing classes. 
   When the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and the deadliest mass shooting since the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago, has taken place, leaving 14 dead and 21 injured, half an hour away in San Bernardino, we certainly need all the lights we can get.  That the December 2 attack took place at a training and holiday potluck for county health workers in a rented room at a services center for the developmentally disabled and that the Muslim married couple who carried it out were part of the community – the husband was a county health worker - and were inspired by radical Islamic State extremists and turned out to have an arsenal of high-power gun, ammunition and bombs in their Redlands house and rented sports utility vehicle is the stuff of dark, chilling nightmares. 
   This was a most deadly attack that could have happened anywhere – not just in iconic or resonant big-city places like New York City and Paris – and it happened a short drive away, a dozen or two exits, down the freeway.  (Who knew that San Bernardino and Paris, not Perris, would constantly be mentioned in the same sentence – and for this reason!)
   As story after story comes out, revealing horrific details and also plenty of injustices and outrage, amid all the bright red and green and silver and gold ads for holiday gifts and accessories, we sure do all the lights we can get.
   In Claremont, there are lights, lights that we can see, shining in the dark and providing some warmth in the chill now closing in on us. 
   We see the lights shining in the way Claremont is taking in and embracing the Kanjou and the Wawieh families, who recently fled after their homes and lives were destroyed in war-ravaged Syria.  Both families have been enrolled in ESL classes at the Claremont Adult School, and the Wawieh children are attending Claremont High School and Mountain View Elementary School.  Fouad Wawieh and his family have been living at a motel in Pomona, as seen in a recent front-page feature in the Los Angeles Times, but will soon receive housing through the Claremont Interfaith Council (CIC).
   “This is really something we cherish a lot, as part of this community, to have the support and level of encouragement from all faiths in support of these families,” said CIC President Bassam Badwan at a meeting at the Islamic Center of Claremont in Pomona.  This sentiment was echoed by Congresswoman Norma Torres, noting that she was a “little girl that came to the U.S [who] would have never imagined herself as a member of the U.S House of Representatives.” As she said at the meeting, “This is...a community that embraces people when they want to come to the U.S.  They want to participate in our culture, and they want to live in peace like the rest of us.”
   The lights shine bright here when LaVerne Cox, speaks at C.M.C, closing out the Fall series of talks at the Athenaeum.  The actress, best known for her role on Orange is the New Black, spoke about the challenges of being black and a transgender woman.  There have been plenty of hardships in her life, being an outsider in her black community and in terms of gender, yes, but her confidence and flair made it clear that she is more than a survivor.
   Ms. Cox’s appearance two weeks ago was no doubt scheduled months in advance, but her message that anyone and everyone can thrive and be their true selves in community was all the more appropriate as the semester was ending. 
   The lights shining here were also seen as the fearless Krista Carson Elhai and her fearless Claremont High School theater students put on The Laramie Project this month.  The play by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project is based on interviews with the citizens of Laramie, Wyoming, where, in October, 1998, Mathew Shepard, an openly gay college student, was beaten and left for dead, tied up on a fence in the cold, isolated rural area. 
  No, this wasn’t a cheery holiday show, and it dealt with mature topics with mature language, but it showed the importance of understanding and compassion, of everyone being heard, of the notion of “live and let live” that the Laramie citizens take pride in. The students brought much feeling to this message, perhaps more so than in other productions I’ve seen of the play.  Even more remarkable is that this wasn’t the first time Ms.  Elhai directed the play at the high school; I saw it there not too long after it was first produced.
   We certainly see the lights in teachers like Ms. Elhai, who have brought out the best in us – teachers like Rosemary Adam, who taught English and creative writing at the high school and who died last month.  There has been a remarkable amount of remembrance of “Madam Adam” – she delighted in pointing out that this was a palindrome – in these pages, and I’ll just say they’re all true. 
   I knew I was in for a treat even before I was had her for both Manuscript Writing for Publication and Short Story and Poetry when I first went to the high school.  My sister talked about her standing in front of the class and declaring in that husky, boom-boom voice, “You will write!” I loved the way she trusted and pushed me, even though I was a mystery in my wheelchair and with my difficult speech, and I went on to take other classes from her, including creative writing through the adult school after graduating from college. Still later, she encouraged me to keep trying when I was in a rough patch. 
   That’s still good teaching today, as we keep our lights, all the lights we can get, shining in the dark. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Light and forgiveness

   I was at a retreat a couple weeks ago, and one of the facilitators mentioned an origin story or concept held by the native people of Hawaii.  I found it quite compelling and attractive. 
   According to this myth, we are all born with a bowl full of light, pure light. Over time, the bowl collects dirt and stones, sins and resentments, and, with this clutter, the light gets murky and dim. From time to time, we need to clean out the bowl, go at it with a hose so that the dirt and stones dislodge, getting rid of the clutter so that the bowl and its light are clear, pure once again.
   As simple and obvious as it is, reflecting what many of us have heard and have been taught in other more sophisticated, perhaps confusing, intimidating ways, I love the image of taking a hose, perhaps a water-pik, and cleaning our souls, cleaning out our souls, ever so thoroughly and carefully. I like to call it spiritual hygiene. 
   Much of the dirt that gets into our bowl and many of the stones that come to block the light are anger and resentments.  Being angry at others (and ourselves) and holding grudges and judgment really gets in the way of the light, leaving us in the dark.  Even before leading to violence and war, anger and resentments drains us of energy.  As Nelson Mandella said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
   A key to clearing this clutter is forgiving. When we forgive, when we let go of anger and judgment, when we are able to feel that someone isn’t bad – or that we aren’t bad – because of something they or we have done, we are able to be free, released in the light.  But this isn’t easy, because it means admitting that some part of our thinking – that he is completely evil because he robbed me, that I’m a hopeless case because I eat donuts when I shouldn’t – is wrong.  We don’t like being wrong, and to many, compromise is a dirty word. 
   One of my favorite things about the holidays is the display of lights.  This is often called the season of light, and we need all the light we can get in this time of mass shootings, police brutality, debate over refugees and an abundance of angry, fear-driven rhetoric.  We need our bowls of light, full of light, uncluttered and undimmed.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Taking a step back to see the steps forward

   This recent column of mine was published in the Claremont Courier days before Claremont McKenna College’s Dean of Students, Mary Spellman, resigned after students protested – complete with a hunger strike (albeit barely for 24 hours) - over the college not doing enough to make minority students, including gay and transgender students, feel welcome and at home.  The tipping point came when Ms. Spellman said, in response to a essay in the student newspaper, that she would work to serve those who “don’t fit the CMC mold.” Read this, and you’ll see that change does happen but slowly and often with stops or steps back. 

   Sonia Sotomayor wanted to get up close and personal.
   “I wish we could be closer to the audience,” the U.S Supreme Court Justice told Amanda Hollis-Brusky, assistant professor of politics at Pomona College, as they began their conversation in Bridges Auditorium a couple weeks ago.  “It feels so far away up here.”
   They did look quite isolated and small as they sat in their chairs on a small area rug with a Pomona College banner as a backdrop among the potted plants on the huge, otherwise empty stage.  It didn’t help that the orchestra pit separated them, like a mote, from the huge audience that had gathered there. 
   Justice Sotomayor got her wish.  After Professor Hollis-Brusky engaged with her on several questions, the Associate Justice, one of the most important, most influential people in the nation, was “released to the people.” She excitedly explained from the stage that she was doing something that her security people doubtlessly didn’t like, and then there she was, walking among the audience, not unlike Phil Donahue.  Except that she was answering questions. 
   The students and the questions they asked were pre-selected, so, yes, it was all a bit scripted and without surprise (no ranting and embarrassing, on-the-spot questions here). Nevertheless, there was something remarkable about this most powerful official who makes decisions that impact all of our lives, walking among us, shaking hands and touching shoulders, having her picture taken with those asking questions, like a dear, kind aunt, as she answered questions with patience and ease.  She could have called a student “mija,” and this would have been no surprise as Professor Hollis-Brusky looked on in wonder. 
   Which was exactly the point.  As she writes about in her memoir, My Beloved World, she comes from a very average background, which included everyday problems like poverty and diabetes.  She also writes about how her life has been far from average – one could say it has been extraordinary – with her being a Hispanic woman from a poor neighborhood ending up on the highest court of the land. It is important to her, no doubt, that she be seen as a person like any of us.  And that any of us can accomplish great things. 
   Sometimes, more often than not, accomplishing great things means simply doing one’s best, making the best of oneself, despite some or many ugly odds.  And this is even more evident in a more intimate setting than the imposing Big Bridges, where it’s a bit easier to get up close and personal. 
   Like the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College, which this Fall has continued to feature women who get a lot done, making life better for themselves and others, even though being told they can’t or shouldn’t.  That they’re sharing their stories and being cheered at what was once a men’s school, remembered if not still known as the more conservative, jock college in Claremont, is all the more remarkable. 
   I’m not just talking about women like Nina Tandon and Kris Perry and Sandy Stier. Ms.  Tandon is one of those rare women in a important, top role in science, as the CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, the world’s first company growing living human bone for skeletal reconstruction.  The other two, Ms.  Perry and Ms.  Stier, were plaintiffs, along with a gay couple, in the Proposition 8 case that wound up before the Supreme Court (a circle nicely coming to a close here in Claremont with Judge Sotomayor’s visit just over a week later). It could be argued that these women and their causes or paths are prestigious and not so surprising features at the Athenaeum. 
   I’m talking about women who are doing surprising, radical, perhaps uncomfortable work.  These women are the last to be expected to speak out at a formerly jock school and are doing everything they can to work against such institutions and thinking.   
   One was Toshia Shaw, who not only runs W.I.N.G.S (Women Inspiring Noble Girls Successfully) but grew up abused, a victim of human trafficking and sexual slavery, like the women and girls the organization assists.   She told her story, in very intimate and harrowing graphic terms – quite up close and personal, indeed - of being demeaned and harmed and repeatedly told that she was powerless and would come to nothing.  She talked about fighting her way out of this nightmare and getting the inspiration and courage to help others who find themselves in the same situation. 
   Speaking out and making a lot of noise, a lot of uncomfortable, challenging noise, is what Olivia Gatwood and Megan Falley are all about.  Performing as Speak Like a Girl, they unloaded an hour of sharp-edged, R-rated (some may say X-rated) poetry and rapping.  It definitely wasn’t the usual, after-dinner Athenaeum fare. 
   Ms.  Gatwood and Ms.  Falley didn’t hold back at all in reciting their poems, alternating with one another and also doing so in tandem.  Their in-your-face style mirrored their urgent, passionate lines about being judged on looks, about wanting and forever trying to be perfect or more perfect, about living in a culture in which rape is accepted as normal, even okay.  There was at least as much humor, along with plenty of f-bombs, as there was outrage and desperation. 
   Like I said, it wasn’t the standard after-dinner, Athenaeum fare, and some might not see it, still, as the standard C.M.C fare.  But sometimes it takes someone not being standard – a Supreme Court judge answering questions while walking among the audience, women telling stories and slamming about being raped and abused - to open our eyes and maybe make things better. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The more things change...

   “It’s appalling that in a city like Houston, right in the middle of the Bible belt, we have a homosexual mayor.”
   When I was in school, it was often noted in history and social science classes that, although there was still bigotry, it was not overt as it had been in past years.  It was more subtle; there was no longer slavery, lynching and colored drinking fountains. Things are even better now, it is no doubt noted, what with there being a black president – elected twice, to boot. 
   The same is true for the GLBT community. After all, same-sex marriage is now a right across the land. But, at least sometimes, it’s hard to see anti-gay bigotry, at least, as that much less overt and blatant than in the past. 
   Not when there are quotes like the one above. And not when it’s from the father of a leading presidential candidate and U.S Senator – the father being Rafael Cruz and the son being Texas Senator Ted Cruz. 
   Mr.  Cruz was speaking as one of the many people opposing Proposition 1, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, on the November 3 ballot.  The measure would have consolidated existing bans on discrimination based on race, sex, religion and other categories in employment, housing and public accommodations, extending protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.  It was championed by Mayor Annise Parker, who is a lesbian and the first such mayor of a major U.S city.  As she put it, “It is my life being discussed… The debate is about me.”
   Never mind that she has been a very popular mayor, elected to two terms.  Never mind that she was praised for taking on some of the city’s most basic municipal problems: the water system, street repairs, homelessness. People did and said everything to try to defeat the proposition, although it would no doubt mean the end of Ms.  Parker’s political career.     
   Out came all the all-too-familiar fear mongering and hate spewing, of which Mr.  Cruz’s rhetoric barely counts as an example.  One Baptist minister urged his huge congregation to vote against the proposition, proclaiming, “It will carry our city…further down the road of being totally, in my opinion, secular and godless.”
   In an extra ugly twist, opponents labeled the measure the “bathroom ordinance,” because it would allow transgender women to use women’s restrooms and transgender men to use men’s restrooms.  “Do you know what lurks behind this door?” asked one flier.  “If Houston Mayor Annise Parker has her way and her Proposition 1 passes, it could be a man dressed as a woman or worse.” Former Houston Astro star Lance Berkman appeared in a television commercial, saying he didn’t want his wife and four daughters to have to share restrooms with “troubled men.”
   Yes, this is nothing new.  Things like this have been said for a long time and are still being said.  Which is my point.  That and the fact that they can work, still. While same-sex marriage is the law of the land and although the Houston City Council is now mulling another go at the ordinance, perhaps in a more piecemeal fashion, Proposition 1 loss resoundingly, 61% to 39%.