on heatstroke and how our storied children grow on beyond us

80005799Writing a book, I have learned, is akin to having a child. It is important to begin to let go from the moment of birth, because stories and children have their own lives to lead, and they do it better without parental/authorial interference. Since two of my books have now been adapted for films, I’ve had the great fun of watching this happen twice. At first, of course, it’s hard not to want to get in and fix things, offer ‘notes’ and suggestions, but the creative synergy of film is a great deal more like a combustion chamber engine than an echo chamber of one kingly queen and no more. Learning to trust that, participating when asked but staying well back otherwise? Is far more satisfying to me.

The first Tally Nowata novel, Leave No Trace, has been released as a feature film (titled Heatstroke) this summer, and I watched it again this afternoon with friends who hadn’t yet seen it. At first I missed the deep textures of how a person survives when suddenly adrift in a place for which she has no skills. I missed the struggle between a younger child and tormented woman. I missed the ways that violence haunts the book. I missed the visceral death-grip that the desert itself has on a soul when survival is no longer guaranteed. I missed the person learning at last to work with the environment, not against it, to come alongside instead of control. I reacted with considerable angst at the weirdest things: the IPad (for very personal reasons) and Jo and Tally’s clothes, because they are, indeed, death-dealers for any real survival situation. I very nearly got grumpy at Tally’s skirt fabric, too, because it is gorgeous for wearing but far too thin and unsuitable for the bushveld. The camp, as well, was far too sumptuous for most ecological field camps. And I reacted with particular vehemence to the Paul character’s characterization of wild animals as likely to ‘rip your throat out,’ for that is 180 degrees off my own experiences with such beings. But, of course, I only know these things because I’ve done long months of desert fieldwork or wilderness travel and have actually had to take shelter from a sand storm for a whole afternoon under nothing more substantial than my skirt (which means its warp and woof mattered enormously to me!). No one who hasn’t done that is likely to notice such details. I have also done a great deal of work on desert survival, so I missed all the parts of the book that were about that, coming to terms with that, figuring out how to make it in a hostile land without skills or knowledge for it. Again, though, no one who hasn’t done this would likely notice. It’s hellaciously hard to film a book with characters as interior and reflective as I wrote in Leave No Trace, so the fact that someone had the passion and vision to try? Is worth more from me than a quick look-see. So I have settled in to watch the film with friends or kin three times, and today I liked it better than ever.

The movie deepens each time I watch it (which is no longer common for me with films), and I find more resonances with the book and also more ways to learn from an adaptation that, at first glance anyway, is very different from my original vision. Leave No Trace was set in the Tanami Desert of Australia, the child Jo was younger, the key wild animal was a white dingo, and the way out was dicey not just due to hostile men but because neither food nor water were secured and Tally knew nothing of desert survival skills when she started. Evelyn Purcell, the director of Heatstroke, took Tally to the Karoo in South Africa, turned her into a Russian, gave her more skills and a child that was older and tuned into an IPad, and the dingo became a male spotted hyena named Violet. The time frame was cut down, and the challenges were paired with what someone might run into in southern Africa instead. More importantly, though, Evelyn and Anne Brookbank (co-writer of the script) and the producers at Bold Films did a beautiful job of keeping the core relationships intact, of using in some cases language straight from the book or close to it, and of re-envisioning this tale for a screen. They made the story their own, exactly as I hoped they would do, and that makes for a better tale. Always.

And now I’m beginning to see more of the resonances. Anne and Evelyn asked for my notes on the script as it was taking shape, my ideas for transforming the main characters and dilemmas, and my take on the language, and I can see places where some of our conversations came through. Watching the film now is like looking at a great sea of humanity and understanding that the drop of water that I was upon falling into it? Has become an undistinguishable part of the whole. I treasure that connection and would never wish to have made a sea that looked exactly only like my own personal vision or mirrored only me. The world is too wide for that. We need other storytellers to help us along.

Maisie Williams, Svetlana Metkina, Steven Dorff, and Peter Stormare played the leads beautifully, striking just the right cadences for the characters I was haunted so by in the writing, and I would only have liked to have seen them get deeper into the mix and become more of these remixed versions, carry the film on longer, not reach so quickly the release. Each one, though, brings a certain unique magic to the tale and breaks out of the book’s boundaries to become something else, something more. (Which is precisely why I would be curious to go on alongside them for a longer spell!) The men who did Foy and Bodley, intriguingly enough, were dead ringers for how I saw them in my head. Since I played no role whatsoever in casting, it is fascinating and a bit unsettling to see both these men—secondary, in some ways, to the others—come so fully to life. The dark sides of survival and loss, too, come roaring through this film, and when I sit back and just take it all in, I’m surprised by what we have all wrought together. Now it goes on its little way through the world, touching some lives and not others. Just like a child. Grown up and moving on beyond us, as ever.cvr9781451685602_9781451685602_lg


For a review of Leave No Trace from a reader that ‘gets’ it, see this one at RT Book Reviews.

Trailer of Heatstroke

Netflix DVD of Heatstroke

on summer’s end and the ragged dog days of a soul

IMG_0821 Click. That’s the sound of the gas burner being shut off for the last time on this year’s round of food preservation. And then come the palatal clicks on the last batch of peaches—these will go on all evening. Tomorrow, when the jars are fully cool, I’ll wipe any water residues off and label them. And then the ones reserved to us and not gifts for others (which have already started to leave!) will join their peers in a cupboard and sit until the cold weather arrives and we have forgotten summer in our bones, and then they will emerge one at a time to feed us.

I began this day before the light joined us, swimming in a soupy fog for two hours, walking hills for another two—persevering to burn off the excess weight I carry from several years of eating low-quality foods to keep me awake nights for work and days for work and worry—and then turned to my big old six-burner gas stove. She has been my taskmaster lately, and I have turned to and marched steady, week after week, ensuring that we will eat well and gift well in the coming year: to wit, I have canned the following: 24 quarts of tomatoes, 8 quarts of peaches, 4 pints of peach juice, 6 pints of nubbly peach syrup, 4 quarts of apricots, 6 pints of raspberry currant jam, and 19 quarts of Mama’s lime pickles (4 gone already to friends, 8 more spoken for). The freezers, too, are filled to the brim: 8 quarts of bell peppers, 10 quarts of onions, 10 quarts each of Bing and Rainier cherries, 8 quarts of peaches, 20 gallons of whole-kernel corn, 20 gallons of English peas, 12 gallons of blueberries, and 6 gallons of strawberries.

How I wish it were possible for all who hunger to have access to such inexpensive and good food! Every jar I lifted into the canner, every freezer bag I filled, every onion I braided to hang, I thought of this: how I get to eat so well now and how so many others do not. It hasn’t always been this way for me. I even spent one six-week period thirty years ago in the dead of a Teton winter surviving on nothing but one 10-pound bag of Idaho potatoes (with no stove for cooking them on, either). That marked me for good where food is concerned (society, too, for that matter), and has played a not-inconsiderable role in why I now have to walk and swim so hard every day to regain my own health. But that short stint was nothing compared to so many millions of my fellow human beings—so, so many of whom have far less than me (ever, and most definitively including that long cold winter). Even though I give a great deal away (in food and clothes and money and some time) and always have, I don’t do nearly enough for the people who now have less than I do. It is a constant chafing at my doings, burning right through the little pleasures of having done all this work and thus being able to know what is in many of our meals. If only there were a way to organize resources—of every sort—so that all could be fed so well! Why is it that we can organize so many other things in this world and still not be able to distribute every last thing more equitably?

IMG_0817There are fireworks in our little village tonight, and a rock band and a slew of folks partying hard for a good cause. With every BOOM! my dog conveys his certainties that my species has lost what little was left of our minds. On this point I cannot disagree. We do so much to serve ourselves. I wonder what would happen if we gave without needing to be entertained or acknowledged? If we said, All must be fed, all must be cared for, all must be housed, and we will not rest until it is done? If we said and meant it, We simply refuse to accept the strange and alien notion that it is fine and good to have when others still have not? If we pared our lives down to the bone on essentials and determinedly moved the additional resources that came our way to someone else who needed them more?

Raw ragged idealism, that. No hope of flying in a world whose economies seemed trapped where they’ve been for so long. Impertinent and unfair, some might say, and be not far off the mark. It is impertinent to say that the way we’ve always done things isn’t working. It is unfair to hound a woman simply preserving a small store of foods for winter for not giving them all away. Who the hell are you? one acquaintance once asked me when I said I asked myself these questions all the time. Playing god feel good?! I couldn’t even answer. What do you say to that? I don’t know how to respond to people who get angry when I ask why we do these things or what we hope to accomplish. I don’t know what makes them tick. I always go off and mull some more and come away no better edified.

We’re all born into someone else’s story, a dear friend (Jeanne Boydston) once told me. Part of what she meant, I believe, is that none of us get to pick all our conditions. What I hear when I say it to myself now is, Nobody can fix the whole world.

IMG_0815But everybody together? Saying and doing what each needs to say and do—including, by god, making a small report here to the ether on how sad it is to come to the end of a task like this one, well done and deserved and yet knowing to the very last cell that so many go hungry tonight and tomorrow night and all the long winters ahead? This is what we each must do, in our own ways and places. Observe the voices that come alongside us in the course of a day, and find a way to bear witness to them in the real world. Only then might we come up with the collective gumption to transform the whole shebang, for peace and a place to thrive and enough good food and clean water and clothing and shelter to feel nourished while making our contributions while here. As these dog days of summer wind down, I wish you all of that and more.


on the light in the darkness

When the light appears to be leaving the sky, and the long hot night spreads over us, washing griefs and anguish and joys ashore on the rocks that patrol being here? We can always close our eyes and remember the light: shining broadly on the other side of the earth. It has not forsaken us at all. It is leaving us to learn to trust that we can walk through the dark. That is more easily done together, reaching for someone else’s hand, pulling through the hard struggles as one and not apart. But the night is walkable, if we remember and hold the light within.

light leaves Mojave



on each of us in this mighty river

I love how we each come at things in our very own ways. This used to worry me some, which was part of why I was such a great proponent of education–so that people could ‘learn’ and then be less problematic. But as a teacher that didn’t fly so well, for co-learning seemed far more effective, and now I’m beginning to see that every single person here—every single one, bar none ever–is participating in making us who we are.

What we respond with, what we offer up ourselves in every situation? Is our contribution to the mix. What we give expands. What we focus on grows. If we want compassion and love and peace in this world, we have to let it come from us even when we’re disagreeing with someone else who’s different than we are. By genuinely valuing them, we gain insights on how our own notions may be skewed, may not serve, may need shifting. By reckoning with how thoroughly we are entwined with all that is, we cannot easily retreat to the soul-killing fortresses of judgment, condescension, and anger, knowing full well that if we demean or belittle another being—even those whom we might consider our greatest foes? We demean ourselves. By resisting the urge to force them to knuckle under to the approved program, we become more trusting of serendipity, of how things can turn on a dime when people are showing up to work for their visions of what is good and beneficent. We hear their concerns and fears without slapping them away. We genuinely listen. We consider that, in precisely their shoes? We might do or say the same. We know without any shadow of a doubt, however, that these, too, are of us, and therefore deserve our respect.

To do this is to surrender fully to the mighty Oneness that we are, not accepting social ills as the norm, no, but not demeaning those who have come to a different understanding. Not withdrawing from the fray, no, but when we speak up, we do so while holding only love for those with whom we might presently disagree. To do this is to merge with the almighty river of life, taking our place in the whole as we stream flowing into and through all beings here to the seas of our time-drenched days.

So I thank goodness for all the hundreds and hundreds of millions of people who have different views and approaches than I do. With the tiller divvied up amongst us all? Surely we can transform our nows so that they serve to lessen suffering, to value each being (of any ilk), and to hold us all in grace and healing through the daily goings on of here.



on learning and forgetting and walking paths not chosen

Do you ever learn something important—I mean, really learn it, enough that you say it out loud and build it into your days and switch directions, if needed, to head toward its wisdom—and then forget it whole-cloth? Clean, brain as clear of the info as if somebody had set to with a power washer inside your skull, somebody with strong intentions and high-level skills in the wielding of a power-washing wand? (The latter will strip not just paint but dig gouges in wood siding, by the way, but please, don’t ask how I know this!) Have you ever done that? Known something, lived by it, taught it even, and then forgot it clean? I have. Today I bumped noses with such a creature.

In Point Last Seen, my first book, on page 2 no less, I wrote

Seldom do humans actually sit on something as memorable as a scorpion. We are far more likely to settle ourselves down on much tinier, less potent creatures, who cannot retaliate enough to break into our oblivion with a sting. Then we get up and go on our way, never having noticed them or the tracks that could have led us into a larger world. Trapped by our concepts and our languages and the utter predictability of our five senses, we often forget to wonder what we’re missing as we hurry along toward goals we may not even have chosen. [Emphasis added today, excerpt available at this link.]

So there it was, plain as day, and I knew it then, precisely as I was working toward a big ol’ goal that I believed I had chosen . . . but actually had not. Or rather, I had chosen but without attending to all the relevant details thoroughly enough: my skills, background, passions, yearnings, loves, and available resources. How do we manage such stunning feats? Lay out all the pros and cons, conduct research up the wazoo, try it on for size, match aptitudes with goals and effort with multi-staged plans and snatch the closed envelope from the vendor’s hands and Voilà! Thou art thus embarked?!


Really. Well, for me anyway, this is so. Maybe you are not as hardheaded and blindered as I can be. All I know is that 23 years ago I decided to get a Ph.D. and build a strong skill set so that I could make a reliable, secure living in academia—in effect, taking a safe route to undergird the writing that I have known for 30 years is my primary purpose for being here. So I tramped along at that effort until May of 2012, knocking my head determinedly against a hard set of walls erected about me—a prison entirely of my own making—and only slowly, after reaching the big ol’ goal itself, did I begin to reckon well with how un-hannah my path had become. Yes, I became an accomplished teacher (I’m actually really good at that, given the time and resources, good enough that serving as an adjunct makes me perpetually sad because I cannot do all I know needs to be done). I love learning and research and scholarship, adore ideas and collegial but lively and spirited debates, and I’ve cobbled together enough tools to enrich my writing across all genres, too. None of the time was wasted (though the economic costs were immense and have lain a certain swathe of my life wholly to waste as a result). The degree matters to me, my yes it does, because it says I finished this valuable project I started, so that’s all cool. The dissertation is going to make an awesome book, too, just as soon as I throw the lot out the window and completely, utterly, totally—every single word—rewrite it (quite likely now as historical fiction). So there’s all that. The pro side of the totted columns of decision-making long ago.

But the reality? Ah, there’s the nibbly rub. I was just miserable in academia, just miserable, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. I have a creative streak a mile wide, I’ve been an autodidact from the time I could walk and string words together, and I have an unbudging unwillingness to compete with anyone on anything or to feel good about myself when someone else is struggling alongside. I also am not fond of beer. Or parties. Both of which are probably important tools for the milieu. The hierarchies of modern academia, however—especially in grad school, but also in the industrialized settings that so many institutions have now become for undergraduates as well—broke my heart every day. I envision students and teachers being genuine colleagues, working together toward learning, rather than being separated by notions of ‘expertise’ and status based on roles and desperation for grades. I believe that teaching assistants and adjuncts should be remunerated much more appropriately than is common at present for their work and that having a salary myself twice that of someone else doing a harder job (or even an equally hard one) would just drive me around the last bend. I believe that professional conferences should be held in affordable places ($180/night hotel rooms are on the moon for grad students without trust funds) or—if suitable venues (e.g. on college campuses) truly can no longer be found? That professional organizations and scholars of means (established, protected by regular salaries and benefits) should find ways to cover the costs for all who do not share their privileges and thus cannot go (or must do so on borrowed funds). I also believe that administrative and coaching salaries and business school and sciences salaries should be directly in line with the lowest paid faculty or staff member (and in this I would include the people who clean the buildings and shovel the snow and mow the lawns): no exceptions. In short, academia as it exists in the U.S. today is deeply, fundamentally out of touch with a working single mother’s reality and hard-won values and insights on how this could all be so much better for all, if we would just turn those directions . . . and I did not fit well into a structure that sees today’s practices as normal or, worse yet, necessary and good. I hasten here to say this: Some of my dearest, most beloved friends and colleagues have made their peace with what is afoot and can handle all of these things in ways I cannot, and I’m deeply grateful for that and for them. But academia as presently structured was a scalding place for someone like me, destined never to really belong.

But I put myself into that gaol. That’s the nose-to-pavement truth. I alone held the key and set the conditions and determined the times of my ‘feedings’ and so on, even as I paced its ever-compressing inner walls . . . until sometime in 2013, when I began to heed the nigglings of my poor little thrashed soul. Fate intervened, too, kindly at all times (including a three-week bout of laryngitis, which I’ve never had before or since, which knocked me out of a job interview for which I was well qualified and could’ve possibly gotten), and set me on a very different path. Sans security, yes, but I’m even learning to be okay with that now, and I no longer grieve for academia or even the parts of it that I adored and did fit well within. I’ve grown wiser now, too, and have been looking lately at the institutions who approach learning in ways more close to my own, and there are a lot of them. The little person within, who clearly hasn’t totally loosed her hold on that goal, whispers sometimes that I should keep the faith, that I may find a place to belong anyway. Or, perchance, the place may find me?

This morning, I studded my walk with ‘light pole affirmations’ as I’ve been doing lately: repeating, either in a whisper or silence, sentences affirming existence and love and compassion and contributing to the end of suffering for all. The one that came to me on waking this morning was “It is well with my soul,” a point on which I have been downright unclear for whole decades of my life, and the hymn rolled forth complete with heart-stirring melodies. Near the top of a hill, with every cell singing to me, I began to smile and then to chuckle and then, finally, to laugh out loud. Merry, unfazed, delighted. The big ol’ goal in itself—that degree I earned—was fine, better than fine, good and worthy and very much me. Expecting it to provide security in this world, though? That’s the scorpion I sat myself upon and got stung with, over and over and over again, until I finally gathered the gumption to arise and go on my derrière-informed way. And then I remembered that, once upon a time, just a few years back? I already knew about the scorpion and the “hurrying along toward goals we may not even have chosen.” What a strange and beautiful trip, no, this thing we call life on earth?! If you have forgotten something, I wish you joy on the re-findings that being here so readily provides. Joy, merry laughter, and a spring in your step for going on with.



on waking and being alive

I overslept this morning, sort of on purpose, and on waking had a single pressing thought (which is unusual, because I normally have at least five): I am so lucky—fortunate, blessed, even—to be alive. Just that, which feels like almost everything today. I’ve been having to winnow through more of the things that happened to me as a young and middling woman and mother (battered, left for dead, so tormented that for years I couldn’t speak to anyone, friends or strangers, without shaking like a leaf in a straight-line wind, then leaving and being stalked by men with weapons and ready cash and the will to force me back to the marriage). I have to clean this up for my memoirs and do, sharing only snippets of the not-worst parts to provide readers brief glimpses that can be passed through without visiting my whole story of terror and grief upon their unwary heads and hearts. The goal, after all, is to wrest from the hell something of value that can help other people—women and children especially—not have to go through it or, if they already are, to know it’s survivable and that they have a real chance to get through and to help more people understand this so that they, too, can help increase those odds.

I also write so that people who work the frontlines of this war (and, make no mistake about it, these are wars, but there’s usually a single adult soul and possibly children in the trench on the worst days)—people like Kathleen Higgins of Rainbow House in Chicago or the professionals on the Teton County Task Force on Domestic Violence and so many other organizations who do their deadlevel best to get into the trenches—I write for them, too, in hopes of getting other people who know nothing of this to stick with the story to the end, so that they can be more effective neighbors to anyone caught in the maw of family violence.

So many woman are still being battered daily, shot, stabbed, left not just for dead, but actually dead. This is so exceedingly normal among us, that at times I scarcely can breathe. I am humbled to see that I am not dead, though left for it multiple times; not dead, though for almost 20 years I missed being so by a hair’s breadth of timing or sheer flukes (which happened often enough that I no longer consider them coincidences) or being able to have the assistance of courageous people (strangers, mostly, like the cops who organized themselves during off-duty hours to protect us in some of the first, worst months). I write to ask of you one thing:

Please, please, if you can bear to do so, pay attention to those around you. Without question, if you know more than two or three people, you know someone who is being abused now, you know someone who is doing the abusing, you know their children. It is easy to miss when people are motivated to keep the shame secret. (And there are good reasons for this, because sometimes folks just simply cannot take the reality, so they tell themselves it cannot be true, cannot be that bad, and they disconnect, which makes people in the throes of this more likely to die.) They are people like me, with jobs or without, with fine homes or without, with food or without, adults and children alike. The abuse takes many forms, all of it equally harmful (for verbal and psychological battering may even do more damage than physical attacks; for at least with the latter you have evidence that it happened).

Please, if nothing else, find a way to hold love in your heart for them all–even the abuser, who, as in my case, came from a home where he was battered by his father, and thus is doing what he knows: if you will demonstrate a strong resistance to violence, but not demean him in the process, that can help, for isolated men are more dangerous to the ones who have loved them. Hold him in the community instead, accountable, yes, but a whole person and therefore deserving of our compassion. If you do not get stopped by seeing what he has done and you persist in knowing for sure there is more to him than that and you stay focused until it can be seen? Then there is a chance he can learn how to see it himself enough to change the fear and rage that underlies his actions. Be careful, yes, get help from the police, yes, for abusers can be violent in a heartbeat, and so you may have to deal with them only from a distance yourself. That’s fine, even good. Just do it all with love, let it be strong and even fierce–as true love ever is–but hold that person in the light even as you work to hold him accountable. As a society, we need these men to remember who they really are; we need them to help us stop this terrible plague of harming those closest to us; we need them, if we ever hope to heal, for if any one of us remains in pain? All of us pay some price for that.

And please help the women and children, too, in any way you can. Give to shelters like Rainbow House, if nothing else, but it’s also helpful to live aware that there are women in the spaces you cross every day who are being battered by the ones they have loved. They come in all shapes, all sizes, all ethnicities, all careers, from all socioeconomic brackets bar none. If you are human, they are among you. When they try to leave, they’re in the most dangerous time of it (which is saying something, believe you me), and it is not at all uncommon for them to be made homeless, jobless, and running for their lives and their children’s with no resources to hand whatsoever. Please consider this as you go on your way every day and, if you can give nothing else at all, please feel love for them and not disdain. People like me never get completely out of such hells: they mark our lives going forward in ways unconceivable to any who have not been there. Debts, burdens, illnesses, exhaustion inconceivable. What that does to a regular day? Equally inconceivable, until you have walked the path through it to the next one, equally so marked.

I am so lucky—fortunate, blessed beyond measure—to be alive this morning, my yes. But every breath, every effort is weighed heavily down by all I have to carry still from those years. This is no complaint and I hate to have to say it so bluntly. I do so *not* so you will feel sorry for me or even cheer me on per se (though I have been greatly buoyed by such things during all these years past, and so deeply grateful that there are no words for it). I am cheered of my own accord this morning, so am not writing for succor. I am writing because I have survived to this point, I am *still here*, and I know for a fact that there are women still here this morning who will be gone by this evening. Or tomorrow. Or the next day. Most often through no fault whatsoever of their own, for all the survivors I have ever known have loved without measure through the very worst of times, giving of themselves to serve a relationship so that it can still have a chance to be healing and good. (And all who go through this, in my book, are survivors: bar none. If they die? They still survived right to the very last breath, usually stronger of any given day than any of the rest of us who are not actively being beaten.)

This is a problem spanning all boundaries of every kind, it happens in every society on this planet (with specific cultural buttresses, yes, but deep similarities in how women’s and children’s and even men’s lives are shaped). So I have to write this today: my waking thought demands it. Family violence, intimate violence, domestic violence, violence against one’s nearest and dearest: call it what you will, but never forget that it is close to you every day, and you can make the difference between life and death for people. You really can. I’m writing for that. I’m also writing to say I am so eternally grateful to still be alive to ask you this thing, pressing through the terrible shame still in the hopes that all of this? Won’t have been in vain. Then one of these days I won’t die having just been lucky, but of some use, some service. And if it turns out that I go too soon due to this particular unending train of relations in my life? Then I will not have gone having left this unsaid. Let us love one another, please. Let us find it in ourselves to truly love one another. Thank you for your time.



on the ions and love on the ground

The Ills of Now have weighed heavily on me these last days, torment coming from all angles but most particularly the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, in broad daylight in Ferguson, Missouri last Saturday. (Links to articles with information.) It just keeps happening.

Mike Brown is not the only one gunned down this week, no, but he is the one we heard about and the one that people got into the streets for in droves. And my, what we heard: black people in Ferguson and elsewhere, whose lives and children’s lives are strung in the balance every day, pleading for peace and nonviolence and demanding answers in the midst of an explosive police- and society-created powder keg; white liberals, ever surprised and aghast, wringing our hands yet again and unclear on how to proceed (though many of us tried to share information and provide moral support to protesters and put pressure on the government to stop responding with amped-up violence and threats); white conservatives, ever cheered by evidence that their version of end times (and for-profit incarceration schemes) has come to pass and good riddance, gloating and calling for more law and order and campaign contributions; white radicals (namely, the Missouri branch of the KKK), driven by hatred and rage and self-interest, conducting a fund-raising drive for what was (as of yesterday) the as yet unnamed officer, replete with language that reeks of the Third Reich and the lynch-mob’s noose and hanging trees.

Much is at stake and far more thorough commentators are afoot. I have no standing to say one word and yet I cannot remain silent because it keeps happening. Here’s the thing: a lot of white people who are afraid of diversity and difference simply do not know how complicit they are in all of this, and those of us who do know and try? Are often still complicit, way more than we would like to be. It’s clear that Ferguson’s leadership prior to yesterday was utterly out of touch with their own roles in setting up such a death and response on their streets. The state of history education in this nation is so bloody ineffective anymore that many people spend their whole lives in utter historical illiteracy: so clueless that they don’t even know they are clueless. Protected by stereotypes and jokes and consumer culture and fear—and the limiting perspective of personal interactions bathed in this brew and not tempered by wider knowledge—many white people just don’t ever get how multivalent and deadly the racial and ethnic patterns are or how much they themselves are contributing to the mix. I understand this unbudging factor on some level and try my best to engage people who share my skin color about these issues, and to remain compassionate toward them even as I resist their certainties (in no small part because I understand to the bone how problematic am, too, with the privileges of white skin and the inabilities to ‘get’ how much a part of the problem I am).

The vileness of racist language and actions horrifies me, though, no matter how Zen and loving I am trying to be (or even in the middle of a silent retreat, as I was this week), because it drives me straight back to the 1960s and early-70s fights for civil rights in this country. Many of my fellow citizens who do not have my skin color have never had the few years of reprieve that I used to believe we managed to wrest from all that. They’re on the front lines of the war this society has waged upon them, paying the ultimate price for even the smallest error or none at all, and have no cause for the illusions I held prior to the early 1990s. I and my kind far too easily miss the point. All of ’em.

I was ages one through ten in the sixties, a child of southern Mississippi and never very far out of it through my early teens. Our schools were forcibly integrated in the middle of fifth grade, and I know first-hand what that hell looked and felt and tasted like. My parents, however, were in the minority at that time, for white people anyway, because they belonged to a fundamentalist sect called the Church of God that I disagreed with on just about every single possible line of doctrine, faith, and daily actions . . . except this one: God was no “respecter of persons,” meaning he held no soul of higher value than any other, so neither did we. That means all people—no matter what their skin color or gender—were welcomed to worship and even to preach in our congregation.

To ensure that this happened reliably and we learned it well, Mama and Daddy drove us 60 miles one way three times a week, across the state line into Louisiana, for church. We did not partake whatsoever in demeaning actions or language (the N-word was forbidden in our house), and my mother made a point of helping to care for black elders in our community who didn’t have family help: we took food and clothes and helped mow their yards, whatever needed doing, just as we did for white elders, kin and rank strangers alike. It was a family rule, come straight down from the Almighty himself, and I agreed with it down to the last jot of every letter.

When hell broke loose, however, it swept us up into it, too, and the coming years were a crucible for all of us in my age brackets, and fires felt and were deeply personal. Most white people didn’t agree with my parents and that could get ugly; some black people didn’t like me any more than if I’d been an outright racist (one black teacher was so cruel he wound up getting fired), so I got my first experience of being scared at school; things were terrifyingly complex and shifting moment to moment, and no succor could be found: it was a lonely, bitter road in lots of ways, perfect for developing what my mother’s mother called “a backbone of steel and a heart to match,” valuable organs to possess in such climes (or any other, come to think of it).

No matter what came my direction, I made up my mind early on a single truth and held to it without deviation: that all human beings are equal to one another and that none is higher or deserves more praise than anyone else, and therefore none—not one soul ever—can be considered lower than another. I rigorously applied this personal law from then to now (and took the often not-fun consequences, for authorities nearly always detest such a stance and do their best to deconstruct it using whatever means they have at hand and can get away with), and I am thus a fierce, highly skilled foe of inequalities of any kind and especially racist behaviors and habits of thought. I study history, I teach the history of racial and ethnic groups in the United States, I know the hard, ugly truths of what this nation is to its core and then some, and I care so much about what we are that I dig in and learn even when it hurts my feelings or causes me shame.

But until the Occupy movement, where people began to be attacked by our own government just for exercising constitutional rights to protest and hold authorities to account? And then when the Walker regime started coming down hard on nonviolent protesters in Madison? And then when Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood and his killer walked free, but the police showed up in full riot get-up when we gathered in horror to protest such a shambles of justice? Whew. I never was one for getting into the streets before. I was in Namibia when the L.A. Riots happened in 1992, however, and that news convinced me that I could not become an ex-pat as I wished to do, but instead had to return here, to do whatever I could to contribute to the end of racism and unfairly distributed resources, and I’ve done that ever since. But I just wasn’t a take-the-streets person. Something started shifting in me since 2010, though, as I understood more and more how much I need my fellow citizens and how many of them face death on a daily basis in their own communities, and as of yesterday morning the shift’s permanent.

When a nation does as ours is now—gunning down some of our own citizens in the street, with little or no accountability, militarizing to the teeth, and then repressing all responsesas the authorities in Ferguson, Missouri did, starting on Saturday of last week? It is rolling hard down the tracks to all-out trouble. I am a fervent proponent of non-violence, have lived it at great personal cost all of my adult life. I am not a joiner, and I distrust crowds even if they’re just out to have a little fun because, in my experience anyway, you never can tell what a passel of people’s liable to do, and I typically would never get into the streets to fight my own government. I’ve even been working hard to study A Course in Miracles lately, and to deepen my longstanding commitments to peace, nonviolence, compassion, and love, and that’s not a skin-deep or Jilly-come-lately effort.

But as I heard the news coming in from Ferguson yesterday morning—still irretrievably threatening and 1600 PA providing no reassurance whatsoever that the ham-handed deadly approaches would be halted? I geared up to go to Missouri. Literally. Had the leadership not changed its approach drastically yesterday evening? I would’ve been in Missouri today, unarmed and as peaceful as I could be, but standing with those who were being attacked. Finally (and most fortunately for all of us), however, the state chose a representative of the law and order community to take charge, and this humble man (black, I must say, so that the racists among us have to reckon with this repeating truth) walked with protesters.

Ron Johnson, a captain in the Missouri State History Patrol, showed up with wisdom: “We are going to have a different approach and have the approach that we’re in this together.” And then he walked among the people in their anguish and their perfectly justifiable anger and desperation, he hugged them, heard them, stood with them, and made it clear that their concerns will be addressed. And the leader of the demonstrators was heard to say, “They respect us, let’s respect them.” And it was done. The protests since Capt. Johnson arrived have been peaceful, opening a road to healing and binding up wounds and redressing injuries, which is how we should and must respond to our neighbors. All of them.

So this morning, after checking in to see it was still so? I stood down. Watchful and alert, but staying home, going on with my life, doing what I can to spread awareness of who we really are as a people, trying to be a decent citizen and neighbor. As I see it, this is what a citizen owes the world. It’s the price of being human. But here’s the shift: I am done, so eternally done, with any of my fellow citizens being assailed and killed by our government in our streets and me sitting safe in my privilege and bemoaning what’s afoot. Done.

This is the key truth that oppressive regimes never figure out. You can beat people down only so long until eventually there is nothing to be gained by not standing up. I am a most ordinary person, utterly unlikely by temperament or preference to ever be caught anywhere near a protest. But when you (my government) come down this hard on our heads and never, ever listen or learn? Well then, you’ve widened the field of your endeavor. Vastly. For you’ve guaranteed that people like me are now in your mix, standing up with all we have in us for peace, nonviolence, love, compassion, and equal justice before the law and the tattered and thoroughly plundered till of economic resources for all, not just a favored few. If you’re going to turn loose a domestic army on my fellow citizens and ignore all our pleas to stop and reconsider and find a better way? I’m going to be there. And here’s the bottom line: no matter how many tanks you have, no matter how well-shod your boots and well-heeled your materiel? You can’t kill us all. That is the raw gut truth. You can never kill us all.

And the more of us innocents you do kill? The more of us that’ll find a backbone, deploy it, and show up: that’s a promise. If I were in a position of leadership in this nation now, I would do my dead-level best to start listening and working hard alongside citizens to shift these patterns that have brought us all to such un-pretty, deadly passes. Elected officials too often seem to zing from one crisis to another, though, and lord knows they and their predecessors have created a slew of them to confront. But if the manhandling—the violent repression of our rights to assemble and express grievances to this government, to investigate and report on what is happening, to be full citizens—keeps up? You (present authorities) leave those of us who still have any smidgens of ethics or common decency remaining? No choice. It’s show up or else time now.

The United States of America is waging multiple wars right now on its citizens and the constitution under which we operate. Our unending global wars on so-called terrorism and drugs are daily used as the excuse for government agencies and departments (like Ferguson’s police force) to wage open war on people just for existing with brown skin. There’s an awful lot of demonizing of the poor, homeless, and mentally ill, as well, of all skin tones. Domestic police forces have militarized to the teeth, with armored vehicles and the weapons of war in our streets and nowhere to turn but on us. All levels of government have been hostile to the few responsible journalists still left when any trouble breaks out (this has happened again and again since 2001); whistle-blowers are pursued with vengeance while the criminals and constitutional floutings they have exposed remain untouched; and corporate misdeeds flourish not just unimpeded but with, far too often, federal, state, and local governmental blessings and assistance. And that’s just for starters. Everybody oohs and aahs and wails every time another case of a merciless, unwarranted killing of innocents takes place—and most of us really mean it, we’re not pretending, we’re scalded and ashamed and know for sure we can do better—but then the whole boat moves on and nothing meaningful changes. This is not okay with me anymore.

So there it is. Y’all have finally done it, ye present authorities: and, if I do say so myself and I surely do, the feat is impressive. You’ve managed to turn a middle-fifties, white-skinned, reasonably privileged, capable-of-remaining-relatively-out-of-any-fray (due to habits, haunts, some means, and a whole life’s peck full of her own preferences) woman? Into an activist willing, if necessary, to die in these streets toward even the slightest whiff of a chance that doing so might give others better opportunities to live unassailed. We have had enough young people die for no good reason in this land. Way the hell more than enough. I will not stand by and watch them be gunned down anymore without trying my best to hold the gunners—and all the rest of us who sit silent and complicit—to full account. And if the authorities attack my fellow citizens for trying to communicate how unreasonable such things are? Then I will show up to whatever extent I possibly can. (And as I’ve looked for organizations to connect with toward this end? I am heartened beyond easy reckoning: there are millions of people in this world already doing this somewhere, leaving easy tracks for those of us who are slower to get on our feet!)

As hard a turn as this has been for me personally, I feel a great peace at last. I can’t do anything meaningful about nearly everything now: how our government is sponsoring oppression in so many places across the planet (e.g. the continuing destruction meted out on occupied Gaza), ignoring merciless oppression elsewhere (because it suits our economic and oil and geopolitical and rapine corporate interests), conducting drone attacks that have killed thousands of innocent people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives (handily creating far more terrorists than we could ever kill in an eternity of wars), harassing journalists and the few people who have enough courage to speak out, repressing dissent and even nonviolent protests. According to a new study, government doesn’t listen to people like me anyway. And so, unbeknownst to the powers that be but in no small part due to their increasingly uncivil actions over the last few years? I am now bestirred more than ever to show up for peace, for nonviolence, for love, for compassion, for justice and equality before not just the law but all our resources for all of us no exceptions . . . and not just to do so on the safety of a page or screen, but in the actual real world. I am just one, and there are many places I can never go, much that I can never help with. But I won’t sit out the world’s troubles just because they’re not on my immediate doorstep and I can. Won’t do that. Yon authorities have ensured that I cannot sit things out, if I wish to remain an ethical being.

Maybe it is all illusion, as ACIM and so many spiritual teachers of all the ages have suggested. Maybe so. I shall then stand in its teeth for as long as I exist in any form anywhere for love, for all. I shall live a death-embraced life, where the loss of any one is as personal as the loss of my dearest on earth ever, for it makes no sense for me to have, to do well, to thrive even, if people alongside me are suffering, doing without, being mown down. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote, “God is a verb.” This makes sense to me. I have to be the change—be the love—I want to see in this world (to paraphrase Gandhi there). Hold everyone in the light, hannah, I told my diary this morning. No exceptions. Hold everyone in the light.

This I purpose to do, whenever possible from my regular life’s haunts. When needed, though, and when I am able to do so, I will go from them to the fray. With enough of us holding the same purpose? There might be considerably fewer frays calling our names before we dis-embark this earth for parts unknown.


Written for the memory of Mike Brown, his family and friends and community. I am so sad that this young man had his life cut short, that his people have grief to carry every breath forward, that young black men in particular have to know that this is the way White America rolls and that change has been freakishly slow (as in never, thus far) in coming. I write also in deep gratitude to Capt. Ron Johnson and all the people of Ferguson for stepping up, for walking through those streets with far more wisdom and love and compassion than I could even know how to have, for braving the front lines of this war that lets people like me off so easy every day. Humans like you all could make the difference, were you ever allowed to lead.

Photographs are as attributed here; please do not re-use without attribution.


Mike Brown, like so, so many before you already, you have gone far too soon from this bitter and un-brave and un-free land. I am so sad that my generation has created the conditions that caused your untimely and brutal death. Please find now some rest and peace and safety and all the love that ever was or can be. We will not forget.

Mike Brown photo shared with the public on FB by Kim Katrin Milan with the following header: “RIP Mike Brown. His momma said she didn’t want anymore pics of him laying dead on the street so she shared pics of him as she knew him. This is one…”


Capt. Ron Johnson and all the many people of Ferguson who have stepped up there: from the bottom of my heart and the feet I have to put on the ground to carry it around, thank you so much for knowing how to hear and bear these gut-wrenching times, and yet still begin to help heal and transform these wrongs. Would God we had hundreds of thousands more of you now.

Image of Capt. Ron Johnson from the photo set provided on the Los Angeles Times live blog and captioned as follows:

Protests in Ferguson, Mo. 

David Carson / Associated Press


p.s. On easy outs: After I completed the full draft of this entry, police released several seconds of video of an apparent robbery in which Mike Brown is called a suspect. This is the place where even the most committed white people often drop off. A society without laws is frightening, and they do not want to undermine that. The problem, of course, is that the conditions for hopelessness and violence and, yes, strong-and other-armed robberies and the like are created by us, by what we allow, by what we are willing to have pass as our givens. We have organized ourselves and our resources in fundamentally unfair ways to this point, so we cannot afford to ‘drop off’ the conversation or efforts for changing this all.

I hope that people are not going to rip through to the old standby excuses for such things now that a few seconds of video have been released. There’s still a great deal unknown, but the militarization of domestic police forces, repression of public assemblies and protests, and the fact that some of our citizens–especially young black men–pay the deadliest price for Everything anymore? That’s all utterly to every last point. Plus the fact that nobody deserves to die even if they did try to steal a pack of cigars (or whatever)—if that even happened. The police have a duty to try to stop crime and apprehend actual criminals, but not to play judge, jury, and executioner in the street based on generalized information and no real threat. It is a hellacious job, and I bow to how hard it must be every day to walk into that zone, but a police department must serve the public, not function as an army.

At the base of this set of struggles lie generations of systematic racism, deliberate inequalities (applied with fervor not just where the law or justice is concerned, but economic resources as well), and lives that the rest of us either don’t know how to value or simply don’t. All of it needs to be addressed. Seriously. With compassion for every last person involved. And not. It is to that effort that I turn with all the hope in me and in the hopes of honoring Mike Brown and everyone in his community. And ours.

Another update from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, very important as the press in certain circles is quick to run with the guilt of any black man (and are doing the same now with Mike Brown, in effect sentencing him after the fact to what has already happened):

“The officer who shot Ferguson teen Michael Brown stopped Brown and another teen because they were walking in the street, not because of a robbery a few minutes earlier, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson said Friday afternoon.

Jackson said the officer was aware cigars had been taken in the robbery of a store nearby, but did not know when he encountered Brown and Dorian Johnson that they might be suspects. He stopped them because they were walking in the street, Jackson said.”