A Meditation on What My Grandmother Taught Me
18 November, 2020
James Ishmael Ford
My father was a will-o’-the-wisp with more than a passing affection for the drink. In his life he never held steady employment. As a consequence, we were poor, sometimes desperately poor. And we moved a lot. Usually avoiding some trouble he’d fallen into. My small not exactly “joke” was that I was an adult before I knew most people moved during the day. The joke sours when I have to add that move included no more than what fits into a car.
On occasion as I think about from where I’ve come and where I’ve arrived. I find I feel like a survivor from some catastrophe. Given my background the directions my life could have gone are mostly bleak. There’s so much randomness involved, I look at the course of my life and just think, “Oh, my! How lucky. How absolutely amazingly lucky!”
I mentioned this once in a sermon, how I see so much of my success in life determined by the luck of the draw. This includes some harsh truths. Among those totally out of my control factors was being born male. And, let’s face it, being born what we call white. Two big advantages. After delivering that sermon friends from the congregation came to me and insisted, some with a hint of ferocity in their voices, “No, no, you succeeded by being smart, and because you pulled up your socks, and you worked very hard.” With what I thought was more than a hint of desperation in their voices, they’d say, “You earned it all.”
As I think about those conversations, I find my heart going to the ongoing civil unrest raging across Mr Trump’s America. On the 25th of May, this year, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was murdered by a white police officer by putting his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. All of it videotaped and all of it watched by the world.
A moment in a long history of racial violence. Black Lives Matter as a slogan and movement emerged seven years earlier, in 2013, with the murder of Trayvon Martin. The harsh facts of our various injustices cannot be laid at any single person’s feet. But perhaps because it is Mr Trump’s America, and Mr Trump is America’s Id on full, embarrassing, humiliating display, we can no longer pretend these things are not so.
And America has erupted. Not for the first time. However, this moment comes with a ferocity ranking in my memory only with the eruptions against the Vietnam War and the violence of the Civil Rights movement. Tipping points in our American history. Following George Floyd’s death two hundred cities have been affected. Several are still simmering hot spots. And at the same time the deaths continue. By my best count one hundred and sixty-two African Americans have died at the hands of police this calendar year. Which, you may notice, is not yet over. And let’s not miss how Breana Taylor’s murder shows dramatically that while it is most dangerous to be a black man, just being black can be enough.
In a number of these events the person who ended up dead was no angel. And some focus on that fact. Some wish to look at anything but the underlying reality that in our culture some lives in fact do matter more than others. No matter how hard you work, sometimes that is not enough. Think of it as the luck of the draw.
Add in Coronavirus. Add in what people are calling a Recession, but which seems to have a lot of characteristics I think belong to Depression, where just about anyone earning an hourly wage is in serious, serious trouble. Add in a world on fire as climate change plays out in natural catastrophes. Add in malign players on the world’s stage.
As I said, Mr Trump didn’t invent this. He has merely poured gasoline on it. As a culture we’re just not as socially mobile as we like to tell ourselves. Our collective story of pull yourself up by your own bootstraps doesn’t actually work that way. Mr Trump’s life is pretty much a case history of how it mostly works. You inherit the hand up. Much of the truth of it, a great deal of it, is how in this life you need someone to give you a hand up.
Now, at some level, we all have had that hand extended, or, more properly those hands. At some level, to some degree. And this is important. Our human societies are based upon relationships. And in our multiethnic culture, we need particularly to pay attention. When we don’t notice those hands, we also don’t notice how if you are in some way not like the person with the hand to pull you up, that hand is much less likely to be extended. It’s how things tend to work.
And that, dear ones, is privilege. Privilege is about that hand up. And who gets. And who does not. It can take the shape of who reaches a hand out, and to whom. And, there are other angles on this. So, right up there with that reaching a hand out, if you’re a policeman in a confrontation, it can in the beat of a heart become a decision about whether or not to pull a trigger.
This year a lot of Unitarian Universalist congregations and symbolic of UUs in general, our ministers, have made public stands casting light on the matter of race within our culture. If you look hard, it turns out it isn’t a pretty picture.
And there’s been a backlash. Black Lives Matter banners continue to be defaced. The word “black” has been marked out or cut out or replaced with the word “all” as in “all lives matter.” And of course, yes, yes: all lives do matter. And I would add, of course blue lives matter. I can’t help but think of 9/11 and those images of those who rushed into the Twin towers when everyone else was fleeing, to feel how deeply blue lives matter. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to specifically attend to the issue that gave rise to the original slogan, Black Lives Matter. And, perhaps, to look a little into why so many resist that slogan, and the others that accompany it, Brown lives, Native American lives matter, Trans lives, and the yearning behind it.
And one more thing. More than one UU minister has experienced pushback within their congregation for holding this issue up. I know one or two who think it may cost them their parish ministries. Maybe not in the moment. But down the line. Me, I hear this, and I think of that old saying attributed to Mohammed, that if you want to speak truth, you should have one foot in your horses’ stirrup when you speak.
The engine on my Prius is not running. But, here’s a truth. For many of us a hard truth to hear. Most of us in this gathering, not all of us, but most, are where we are in significant part because of the conditions of our birth. And with those conditions, the various hands that have been extended out to us, that in part, in part, have gotten us to where we are.
Now, I’m not asking anyone to feel guilty about this. It’s just a fact on the ground. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the water within which we swim.
What I am asking is that we notice. Noticing is the magic elixir. It allows us to wake from dream worlds, and to see what is.
And, if we see a problem, then we’re well on our way to doing something about it. And it turns out it really isn’t rocket science. A lot of our grandmothers have told us what needs to be done. Even when they weren’t quite able to do it themselves, they spoke deep truths we just need to actually hear.
An illustration. I was thirteen when my father went to jail. It wasn’t the first time he saw the inside of a prison. But it was the first time I knew about it. He’d been the manager of a liquor store in Hemet, California, when a friend of his said, “I just need to borrow some money ‘till Monday.” Today, I’d say my fathe’rs need to be one of the gang, just to be approved of, overcame his common sense. In this case my dad spent a year incarcerated because he agreed to that “loan.”
I took it all hard. And so my mother sent me up to Oakland to live with my grandmother and auntie. As soon as I arrived, they enrolled me at the local junior high school. If there was another white kid in that school, I have no memory of it. What I do remember was being beaten up that first day. And again on the second day. The third day I learned how to hide, to make myself invisible. Of course, not always successfully. It was a hard year. It would not be the hardest year of my life. But it was very hard.
The only thing that saved me from imprinting some pretty awful things was my grandmother. She’d been poor her whole life. And she was not well-educated. She had no idea there might be alternatives to my going to that school. And if there were, she had no idea how to manipulate the system to move me. We were poor people. We didn’t get the system. But poor and lacking a formal education does not mean without wisdom.
She taught me whether we had any power over those things happening to us or not, we could control how we reacted to those things that happened to us. Our actions were in our hands.
Of course, getting a handle on what was going on, getting the space and perspective that allowed wise actions is easier said than done. For my grandma prayer was the major tool in her kit for how to deal with life. And so, we prayed together. A lot. We prayed for things to get better. But that wasn’t the all of it. We prayed for my father who I was just learning to hate. We prayed for my mother who was having a hard time supporting herself and my younger brother. We prayed for each other. And we prayed for those kids at school. Most of whom my grandma told me had it harder than we did. As unlikely as that seemed to me.
On my social media there’s a lot of derision about the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” And when it comes as a substitute for action, especially from those who have power, it has the taste of dirt. But there is more to thoughts and prayers than meaningless platitude.
These days I don’t believe in a deity somewhere in the sky who takes messages and fixes things. So, I look at what prayer might actually be beyond platitudes for those who want to not look at what is going on, and to move as quickly as possible to other things.
That first part about praying to change things, I think it is mainly useful in reminding us to get up and do some changing. Although I’m not closing any doors on what other possibilities it taps into. We are bound up together in some great mystery. I don’t disdain the power of the longing heart addressed into the depths.
Mainly, however, I think about prayer as opening ourselves up. I find myself thinking about that a lot. Leonard Cohen sings to us how there is “a crack in everything,” and “that’s how the light gets in.” Well, prayers can push that crack ever bigger, allowing ever more light; allowing the critical view that includes all of us, that notices the connections. And that insight opens a way of wisdom.
That kind of prayer.
These days I continue that practice, although I call it meditation. And it is a bit more clearly focused on the part that is opening up, being as wide as possible, noticing, letting everything rise as if it were reflected in a mirror. Just seeing. Just noticing. And what is wonderful is how from that seeing, things begin to happen. We begin to see how we can act. Grandma’s prayer for others started it all for me. Today, as prayer or meditation, this means being consciously and radically open for some time every day. Bringing a little intentionality to the matter. Taking a little time not to impose my thoughts or opinions. But instead to just notice is a practice I commend to everyone. Maybe you?
And here I find myself thinking of the range of social unrest in Mr Trump’s America. I think about the fear that drives those who listen to his blandishments, his whispers of the others who are at fault. Often these are people with very little and they see what little they have slipping away. They are not some other. Their hurts and fears are ours. They are part of us, too.
We need to notice. We need to notice as the fires that continue to rage. To this moment. This moment where you and I are gathered together. And I think about the upcoming election, sixteen days from now. And specifically I think of that hard and persistent truth: in our culture black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. And the doors of my heart open. I think of brown lives. And Native American lives. And Trans lives. I think of the undocumented. I think about the rich and the poor. I think about men and women and children. I think about who counts, and who does not count.
I think about this poor and torn world.
I think about the consequences of elections.
So, our call, ours here in this community of challenge and dreams of the possible, is to notice.
For the sake of the lost and left behind, for all our sakes. Look around and within. Look with your heart’s eye, look through the mysteries of our connections.
This is so important. Let me summarize. Let me emphasize.
Paying attention doesn’t fix everything. Of course not. I know I continue to carry wounds and prejudices and hesitations despite my years of practice. But giving some time to that open and mirror-like place regularly, allows me to see bigger, and to become ever more integrated with my own heart, and with the world beyond my skin.
Here we see that all across this planet, across our ideas of class and race, of who is in and who is out, there’s a secret. We are intimates. Each of us with the other. And all of us with the world.
Prayer as meditation as noticing, shows us what our hearts truly are. And who we truly are.
It worked for my grandmother as she applied it in her own way. And it has worked for me as I’ve applied it in mine. It has even allowed me to be open to challenge what I think is, and what I think is always going to be.
I think of those who never had a hand held out for them.
I think of luck. And I think of choice, and of action.
And I think of voting. I think of voting as reaching a hand out.
I think of casting ballots as prayer. Or, maybe, you know, maybe, it’s the amen at the end of a prayer.