Saturday, January 01, 2011

Speaking Truth to Power

According to the Roman calendar, this is the first day of a new year. A fresh start. A day to shake off the excesses of the night before and the successes or heartbreaks of the previous 365 days to move forward, hopefully upward, in the struggle to survive as individuals and as a human race. It is not a mistake that I am here at the computer at this moment on this morning. It is a commitment to myself. And to you. And to all those deep in the dungeons of the Powers-That-Be. Whether those dungeons be in buildings or camps, in our minds or in shallow mass graves.

I'll spend the rest of this week, I promise, writing about people who make a difference because they have decided to do what they can wherever they are with whatever they have. This is an unapologetic attempt to encourage, to inspire, and to strengthen as we face what lies ahead, I'll admit. God knows, I need it. And if you're reading this blog on a regular basis, I suspect you need it, as well. Not everybody finds what I write edifying.

Still, on Christmas eve, I looked into my bathroom mirror and said to myself out loud (hey, I live alone, I can do this stuff) "I am going to do whatever makes me happy every day for the rest of my life. And that's my Christmas present to me."

If this sounds Pollyanna to you or selfish or egomaniacal, you're missing some information.

I was born into a family shot through with so many centuries of oddity and ugliness, it's a wonder any of us is still functional at all. I was wounded -- badly -- by the time I reached adulthood and promptly proceeded to become my own worst abuser. I drifted in and out of relationships (if you could call them that) and jobs and communities like a wraith in search of hell, dragging in my wake two of the brightest and most beautiful young minds that will ever be born. But I did not die, though one of them did.

What sustained me during the years of my sojourn in the wilderness was an early recognition that arrogance is the mark of the beast and that anyone who feels more entitled than others to all that is good is dangerous to themselves and the rest of us. Over the years, this recognition has manifested itself in various ways and taken me down a number of paths of discovery.

It began when I realized that the unattractive, overweight, poverty-stricken girl in our cadre of 10-year-olds at the church my parents made sure we haunted had feelings, too. One Sunday, after a particularly virulent gossip session in the girls' bathroom, it dawned on me that the pot shots routinely taken at her by the other girls because her appearance and especially her clothing were not up their more middle-class standards were mean and most certainly lacking in any type of "Christian" spirit. More importantly, it simultaneously descended on me like a mantle that I must make a stand against that kind of social interaction. I made a public statement to the group in front of her and left the building.

My junior year in high school, I learned by doing an all interview term paper on racial discrimination that "Negroes" were being unjustly treated with malice aforethought in my community in northern Illinois and that, while everybody knew it, nobody wanted to talk about it in front of anybody else. This information was made far more meaningful when, a decade later, I spent several years actively involved in the prison abolition movement and came literally face to face with the fact that Black men make up a truly ghastly percentage of those incarcerated in our nation's prisons and are vastly differently handled by the U.S. criminal just-us system in general.

I spent half of my thirties on welfare, which gave me a whole new understanding of poverty in America, including both how and why it works in the way it does. When, toward the end of that decade, I started adding sociology to the mix, a lot of what I had learned experientially began to make sense in a whole new way. Seven years of grad school later, I had become something of a monster -- unfit, as it were, to live in our society with ease and committed, it seemed, to making sure others would find it difficult to live in it with ease either.

To be conscious is to be awake, that's all. To be aware. To know. To get it. To accept reality. Until we accept reality, we can't do anything to change it. And some realities need to be changed. Working toward this end makes me happy. I have been calling it "work." This was a mistake. Actually, it is my life blood, the breath in my body, my raison d'etre. And so, the doing of it makes me happy. The more I do it, the happier I am -- regardless of my exhaustion. It is an option to quit feeling "put upon" and relish the life I have been given for yet another day and hopefully another year.

To usher in the new year on this blog, I'm posting a poem written by an 11th grade student for a project entitled "Writing for Rights: Poems and Stories For Amnesty International by Students in Canadian Schools."* May her consciousness spark ours into fuller flame that those who struggle will not struggle alone, that those who suffer will not feel the need to despair, and that those who have died will not have died in vain.

by Andrea Palframan

It is ten o’clock and the streets of the City
are empty of people but flooded with fear.
The invisible battle is being fought
between the silent rage of the condemned
and the arrogant leers of the Dictators.
Somewhere a mother is losing all of her
son save the torn piece of cloth she ripped
from his shirt as the soldiers wrenched him
from her embrace. He had been
distributing pamphlets with the Truth
written on them with the ink of the
“disappeared.” Now he too will join their
invisible world, cease to officially exist.

We will pick up the pen that has fallen
from his hand. Our care is as fundamental
as the air we breathe, because we are
writing for humans: your son, my brother,
her mother. We are fighting for the
humanity that flows out of all our
fingertips. For the General cannot put the
noose around the neck of freedom. It
grows like a cathedral spire, rises like the
birds up towards a brighter sun.

*I came across this poem in Thoughts on Human Dignity and Freedom published by Amnesty International.

NOTE: The photo above is by Giangiorgio Crisponi

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