Rules of Engagement

This morning I read a powerful article in the New York Times. The author, Phil Kay, is a young marine writing about the complicated world of war, moral choice, and how we as Americans treat our “enemies” in context of combat. He writes about America as an idea as much as a place and argues that how we engage with the enemy is all the more important when the big, beautiful, audacious idea that is America is at stake versus a nation/state alone. His writing is luminous and my purpose here is neither to re-write his piece nor to talk about the ethics of military battle. But in our current cultural moment, I feel under siege in a way that I never have before and vacilate between the desire to retreat and imperative to engage.

For instance, last week, I found myself curious about a university position in New Zealand, entranced by the idea of moving to Portugal, and wondering how to focus on my day to day work as the world seems to be unraveling. Yet, this weekend I was strategizing about how allies could band together to make ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) road blocks obsolete while feeling guilty that I opted out of the latest protest march. To date, I’ve loved the Saturday Night Live political skits. But two out of the three skits I watched today seemed closer to cruelty than satire. I’m on a seesaw and I want to get off. Phil Kay’s article helped me by putting talking about engaging honorably in a difficult fight. Focusing on honor has given me a benchmark by which to gauge the choices I am making each day.

So as of this morning, I’ve made some decisions that I’ll share here.

1. First, I will not disengage. It is tempting to say that things have gotten too negative. Let’s all talk about something else, post pictures of the soccer game instead of information related to policy or politics. I don’t disagree that it is good to focus on things that unite us. But too much is at stake, particularly for those who do not enjoy the power and privilege that I do. For me to disengage would be to say that my comfort is more important than others safety. It is not. To disengage is dishonorable.

2. Second, I will be judicious in the sources of information I quote, share, post, etc. Until I have seen it reported in one of the following sources, I will not talk about it, post it or recommend it for your consideration. It is dishonorable to share information that has not been well-vetted, well-sourced, or taken out of context.  My go-to sources will be:
– The New York Times
– The New Yorker
– The Atlantic
– The Washington Post
– The Wall Street Journal

If it is real, it will show up in these journalistic venues that have stood the test of time. They provide context and have the highest journalistic standards.

3. I will not share memes, inflammatory videos, or the like. Some are funny and some hit the nail straight on the head. But they provide no real information, no context, and they alienate people. Be-littling others, no matter how wittily it is done, is dishonorable.

4.  My focus will be immigrants, refugees, and health care. My work in these areas is long-standing and has been recognized and honored by others. Focusing on what I really know something about means I can make real contributions. I care about the environment, foreign policy, education, and many other issues. But others of you are better equipped to carry those batons. You lead I will follow.

5. I will be at protest marches but not every one. They are important tools in the democratic arsenal. So is less visible and dramatic engagement. It is important to keep stead-fastly doing work that is out front and behind the scenes. Both are honorable.

Thank you to Phil Kay for your writing that has helped me focus on what it means to live honorably right now.

These are my rules of engagement. What are yours?

Pandora and that Box

Somewhat paradoxically, social media keeps me from living in echo chambers in which the only people I engage with are people that think pretty much like I do. Through these platforms, I’ve learned about news sources I’d never heard of, seen views expressed that shock and surprise me, and I’m sure have expressed views that might shock and surprise others. So I was worried about the election until just before when I became completely convinced that HRC would be elected as our first woman president. And I was excited. She has 30 plus years in public service, has worked for kids and families her whole career, and has raised a family while doing demanding work outside of the home. I guess, although I’m not nearly as accomplished as she, I identified with her. And her loss, accordingly, has felt very personal.

At first, my immediate concern was my children, how to keep them from getting mired in cynicism, fear, and negativity. That effort kept me distanced from my own emotions for a day or so. And then the news reports and personal anecdotes began. The KKK will have a victory celebration for the president elect in North Carolina. A friend witnessed a pick up truck full of young men at a gas station harassing a young woman – telling her they were going to “grab her by the p___y,“ quoting the president elect. A former student described a note left on a neighbor’s door signed “Trump Train” telling a gay couple they were “sick” and should “get out” of the neighborhood. The couple has lived there for years.

My colleagues who I work with on behalf of new immigrant kids and families are getting desperate calls from students in local community colleges most of whom are participants in the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program seeking information and support, some feeling suicidal, and some acting on those feelings. These incidents are not in some far away place. They are not third hand reports. They are happening to people I know in my community. I am heartsick.

Likewise, old friends who I rarely see but who have meant a lot to me at different times in my life feel targeted for their political choices, labeled bigots, etc. Most of the people I know that voted for Trump or a third party candidate are not bigots. They may not be well-versed in power and privilege. But they do not want to persecute others based on race, creed, or sexuality. They voted their financial interests. Or they are deeply anti-abortion. Or they have hated the Clintons for decades and could not move beyond that. I also doubt they think there will be steel mills again in Ohio or textile manufacturing in North Carolina given a Trump presidency. They voted based on one or two issues personally important to them and they are angry that they are being labeled. As I read their posts, silence seems to be the best option but also a betrayal of my own principles and of those people made so vulnerable by the outcome of this election.

This is the state in which we find ourselves when a candidate makes a deal with the devil like Donald Trump has made. Perhaps his ultimate goal is to support business interests in ways that democrats disagree with. Given that he’s never governed we have no idea what he real motives are. Like past conservative nominees he has used social issues like abortion to stir up his base. As the LA Times reported this week, the chances of the Supreme Court reversing itself on Roe v. Wade are quite slim no matter who is president. But, the great departure, that threatens the reputations of many that voted for him, is his deliberate, undisguised, and consistent appeal to race-baiting combined with disdain for women, people with disabilities, among many others. A friend working the polls in a small town in North Carolina affirmed this and described people coming to the polls saying, “I haven’t voted in years. But I’m coming out to vote for Trump. He says what I think.”

Some thoughts are best left unspoken. Now that they’ve been spoken by an elected leader, Pandora’s box has flown open and the poisonous special sauce that got Trump elected has spilled onto everyone who has helped him along the way. Do I blame my Trump-supporting friends for the KKK rallies, for children being harassed in school because of their religion or skin color, for women being told in Starbucks, “Smile honey. We beat the c_ _t.?” How do I answer such a question? I am furious with them and I love them still.

The election is over. A choice has been made which can’t be undone at least for four years. But we can unify around a message to the new president and send it clearly whether we supported him or did not. This demon that makes neighbors into hated “others” has no place in American democracy. Job one for him is to use his bully pulpit to put that demon back in the box and throw away the key. It is his first test as president and we cannot wait until January for him to undertake it.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum
Epimetheus opening Pandora’s Box.
Giulio Bonasone (Italian, active Rome and Bologna, 1531–after 1576)


Between the World and Me ( is described by Toni Morrison among others as “required reading.” I read it this week, almost in one sitting, as way to break through my own numbness surrounding the seemingly endless chain of lost and shattered black lives at the hands of police. A group among our faculty has been discussing the book and yesterday I attended for the first time. In the group, one white participant, described a feeling of being let in on “secrets” of black life in America. I know what she means. There have been moments in my adulthood, never in my childhood, where I encountered those “secrets.” They were and are shocking and let me know how much has been kept from me to keep systems of racism in place.

As I’ve written before, my first real social work jobs, post MSW, were in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Ta-Nahesi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, lived not far away and the experiences of his early life were similar to others I saw played out for young black men and women there. I was well-intended and had an African-American supervisor. Only because of her did my “well-intended” begin to change to “well-informed” which kept my complete naiveté and stupidity in check. Here are things I learned. Like most major teaching hospitals, Hopkins is physically located in the midst of a primarily black, impoverished neighborhood because this gave the hospital access to unusual diseases and people that had no other way to get treatment making for easier development of new treatments. This is a sanitized way of saying what a mother once said to me, “I don’t like coming here. They experiment on poor black kids.” At first I thought she was “paranoid” or “psychotic.” My supervisor told me, “You understand that she is correct, don’t you?” No I did not. I could not have imagined that such a thing would be true. How did I not know this? Because it’s a secret. Next, as a doctoral student at age 29, I took a class at UNC’s law school: Constitutional Issues of Race and Poverty. I sat spell-bound learning how the African-American population functioned as this country’s sacrificial lamb over and over again, the crucible on which the country was forged. I had never learned this in a history class or a civics lesson. I was almost 30 years old before I learned even a bit of this history. It was a secret history only unveiled to those that for whatever reason stumbled upon it or sought it out.

You might say, that was a long time ago. What about all the great equalizers like the GI bill that created a solid American middle class? After all, many people of many backgrounds suffered mean fates prior to WWII because of poverty and exploitation. Indeed. But here’s the secret that I learned a year or so ago through a training given by the Racial Equity Institute (REI). The GI bill was extended to many returning veterans following WWII. My dad was one of them. What I didn’t know was that most African-Americans occupied military jobs that were ineligible for the GI bill. Further, for those that did have access to GI bill funding, there was the subsequent hurdle of trying to find a college or University that would accept African-Americans. Even those eligible could not always find a place at the educational table. These are systemic injustices and secrets that ripple out over generations. Combined with red-lining, neighborhoods systematically dismantled by highway placement, and other systemic discrimination policies, the ability to create the intergenerational wealth and stability that has served white America quite well, has not been present for very long in African-American life. These realities have been invisible to me and to most white people because no one or nothing makes us think about them. Why would I wonder about why highways are where they are or consider how they have impacted particular neighborhoods? I don’t have to because they never come through my neighborhood. I’ve heard about the GI bill my whole life as great policy decision that changed America. It did change white America and in so doing left black America further behind. It’s the second half of that sentence that is the toxic secret that keeps me, as a white person, essentially estranged from black people, no matter how “well-intended” I am. My faith doesn’t save me either because “I see through a mirror darkly.” I live in a veiled world in which I think I know the facts. But it’s the secrets I don’t know that are the important bits. Such secrets are legion in our national life. Like all secrets we are ashamed of, they damage our relationships, our thinking, and our collective decision-making.

One day in the teen clinic a young mom brought her beautiful little boy in to be seen. There was concern that he had been sexually abused in day care situation. He was pre-verbal and gave no indication that anything was wrong. The mother came because someone had seen a worrisome interaction and she had been referred for a physical exam. I had noticed this young woman and her child before because they were a stylish, good-looking pair. He had the cute, little boy plats that were common to boys under the age of two. She was well put together in boots and a jacket in the latest style. She was a bit stand-offish toward me and, before this, we had no real reason to interact; she was my supervisor’s client. But that day, I was with her through this experience. When the physician told her that her child looked fine, no lasting harm had come to him, that she had done the right thing bringing him in and keeping him out of the setting where the concern arose, she began to weep deep, grief-like sobs. At first, I thought it was simple relief, an outpouring of the worry and fear she had been holding inside. But my heart felt something different, something I couldn’t quite name. The memory came to me this past week, so many years later, as I read Between the World and Me. Her tears, I now realize, told a terrible secret; she could not be a good-enough mother in America to keep her beautiful black son safe. Even though he had dodged that particular bullet, there were too many others waiting that might take her by surprise. I wonder where he is now.

Calling Out

Not surprisingly an immigrant family is calling us back to the truth of the American experiment, to E Pluribus Unum, from many, one. Perhaps immigrant families understand best because they’ve often lived without opportunity or liberty and can recognize threats to which those of us not recently immigrated, are blind.

Also unsurprisingly, the military features in this call. The military as a social institution has long brought people from all backgrounds and social strata together for common purpose – not perfectly, not easily, but steadfastly nonetheless. My father fought in World War 2 and several years ago, after a lifetime of silence, he told me the stories of his service in the Pacific. The story began with this vignette. From his home on a farm in Missouri, he was sent to mid-shipman’s school in New York City. There, for six months, he trained to be a Navy navigator with other young men from across the country. He recounted being invited to the home of a classmate who lived in Brooklyn in an Italian-Catholic family. At that point, my father had never been to a Catholic church or known a person of Italian descent. His life would take him many places but it is that cross-cultural moment that he has remembered all of his long life. He spoke of how welcoming the family was, the delicious, traditional Italian meal, how good it felt be in someone’s home, and how much the kindness extended to him meant. It was a small moment in a momentous time that speaks volumes.

Mrs. Kahn writing of her son in the Washington Post, described a young man about the same age as my father when he went to war. Like many before him, her son wanted to do his duty and serve his country. Hear that again: his country, his chosen country. He made that choice with other young people from all walks of life. Surely there were many soldiers he fought beside who did not share his ethnic and religious heritage. Yet, they worked together, earning each other’s respect and loyalty. That common purpose and willingness to embrace difference is the core of the American experiment. The choice for president has become a referendum on that experiment. Can we still be out of many, one?

We dishonor all those who have defended this nation when we degrade those among us who are labeled “outsiders” because of their skin color, their religion, their traditions, or their heritage. The Kahns have called out to us in powerful voice and with great love, to stand up and be counted. If America is exceptional, it is because we are one out of many. To be one out of many means to disagree, to compromise, to let the majority rule, to speak out, and to listen to many voices. It is to see common humanity in those that our sons and daughters fight beside and, indeed, even against. At a recent visit to Pearl Harbor, our tour guide told us that the commanding officer on the good ship Missouri required a military burial for a kamikaze pilot who had crashed into the ship threatening all on board. That commander told his troops that, although the dead pilot was their enemy, like them he was doing a job his country had asked him to do and deserved a dignified burial. Leadership that calls each of us to do our best by our fellows not our worst is what we must seek, leadership that calls us back from the current abyss to be one out of many.

Shanghai Mornings

Early mornings are where it’s at here in Shanghai, a good thing if you are an international traveller who never knows when you might wake up. This time of year, it is also cool in the early morning, at least relative to the 100 degrees in the shade that it will be by 10 a.m. But besides beating the heat and having something to do at 5 a.m. an early morning walk or run in Shanghai teaches the westerner what a communal versus an individualistic society looks like.

By way of contrast, consider early mornings in Chapel Hill. Not naturally a morning person, I’ve become one because of motherhood, time constraints, and my dog. For a while I was driving to the gym very early and now I run with my beast most days. When I head out, the streets are empty except for the street cleaning truck. It is beautiful and quiet. We will see deer, sometimes an owl, and always the beauty of the changing seasons. By the time I’ve returned home, not much has changed, perhaps a few more cars come and go, and a few dog walkers and joggers have ventured out. Not so in Shanghai. By 5 in the morning, at least an hour earlier than when I head out at home,IMG_1792 bicyclists and walkers are heading to open-air markets to buy vegetables, chicken, fish, or ducks. Folks from the countryside are unloading huge mounds of fruit. Grandparents are pushing grand children in strollers or supervising them on tricycles.
Shops are opening; people are waiting to buy steamed buns for breakfast. Women or men alike may be wasIMG_1794hing clothes in a basin on the street or hanging up laundry to dry. Any open space from a park to a parking lot becomes a gathering space where people of all ages are coming together sometimes for commerce and often in play.

IMG_1762As I keep walking I might see people line dancing to traditional Chinese music or perhaps U.S. country pop favorites, friends playing badminton, and adults of all ages practicing Tai Chi.

On other trips I’ve seen men wielding swords wearing beautiful velvet robes, women in shorts moving gracefully with fans to Chinese music on a boom box. Fathers and sons might kick around a soccer ball. And I’m never surprised but always delighted to hear men singing Puccini to greet the day. Would I ever tire of watching these scenes? I don’t think so.

Somehow all of life combines of a Chinese morning to dispel the dualities I so often live in: work or play, elders or youth, indoor or outdoor, song or dance, waste or creation, old or new.  These separations are illusions. Chinese mornings change those “ors” to “ands.” As the duality disappears, the communal emerges and I find myself grateful for the chance to learn such a lesson.IMG_1730

No Bad Days

This morning, I started writing sitting on a seawall where my young son was fishing. Computer out, glasses on, skin tan, and my hair a little blonder because of sand and sea, I was reveling in my son’s fun, the beautiful water, enjoying a peaceful moment. A man came by and asked the following question: “What do you call a smart, beautiful, blonde?” Although I didn’t ask, he gave me an answer. “A golden retriever!” When I looked perplexed, he asked if I didn’t like jokes. I smiled and went back to my writing. He then asked if I wanted to hear something “a little bit dirty.” I declined and bid him adieu. Sexism at its finest. Yet, it always takes me off guard and I can never respond in the moment with the quick comeback that will put the offender in his place. The incident was all the more jarring sitting in such an idyllic spot.

Of course, not nearly as jarring than the day’s news. When we’re on vacation, my husband deletes Twitter from his phone and strongly requests that I not bring work along. I like to post pictures to Facebook mainly so our extended families can follow along on our adventures, a habit that keeps me connected to the strife that never seems to stop including this morning’s reports from Baton Rouge. Self-doubt floods in as I post pictures of stunning scenery and family fun while colleagues and friends are trying to help others understand why #all lives matter is an easy out from acknowledging systemic racism and its ever-spinning sequelae. I find myself asking is it okay to disengage for a while? Is it even possible?

“Self-care” is a term that was unknown to me when I was in my masters program; now, my students talk about it all the time. There is more recognition that social work and other helping professions takes a toll on our well-being and our effectiveness, a concern shared by colleagues in medicine, occupational therapy, and nursing among other disciplines. But the term, “self-care” doesn’t sit well with me. It conjures a box to be checked, an appointment on the calendar, something that happens a few weeks a year or for an hour a day, too discrete, too time-limited. Maybe this term is more about a longing for a way of being, a way to stay moored when the waves, whether small swells that throw us off-balance like the one I experienced this morning, or overwhelming seismic sea waves, that occur because of deep ruptures– think Baton-Rouge, Dallas, Baltimore, Stanford, Orlando, Nice — threaten to capsize our sense of purpose and meaning.

Two days ago I saw a window decal that said, “no bad days.” There is something about that simple statement that has been working on me and is teaching me something about weathering and, better yet, thriving in the ever-pounding surf. Perhaps it is a kind of mantra that might encourage me to stay engaged with the suffering of the world, denounce its savage idiocy when I must, and still celebrate its beauty and joy. Individuals who have confronted life-threatening illness often seem to understand that there are truly “no bad days.” They seem to know that as long as we live and breathe and have the great good fortune to work to make the “earth as it is in heaven,” then there are really no bad days. There are moments we may regret, lives lost that we mourn, changes to make, causes to champion, and always work to do. There will also be moments to cherish, wonder to find, and love to give. No bad days? No bad days.

Wings of Desire

As we collectively process the latest carnage, a comment from my husband sums up the situation: “Now, it’s time for 8 weeks of anguished conversation. Then everything will stay exactly the same.” If my Facebook feed is any indication, he’s right; it is filled with anguish: “Prayers for Orlando,” “We are Orlando,” and “Enough Praying, Do Something.” With rare exceptions, these calls force us to a dichotomous choice: Side A. advocate for gun policy reform Side B. send your thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Camp A “politicizes tragedy” by asking politicians to do what they can to prevent future horrors. Camp B, the prayers, are labeled delusional and discounted. As we throw labels at one another the status quo is maintained.

So far, I’ve not responded. Not for a good reason but because I feel numb. I don’t feel shock or disbelief. The same script plays out with such freakish regularity that it’s no longer shocking. I don’t feel fear or worry for my family. If I did, how would I live? Stop working? Keep my children home from school? Move to Wyoming and live off the grid? Truthfully, I hardly generate a tear as I read the stories of children at Pulse texting their mothers before dying. I recognize these situations as horrible but with detachment now that we relive these awful scenarios almost every other month.

As a social worker, I recognize my numbness for what it is: a symptom, a way of coping with traumatizing experiences that are not going away and that I believe I am powerless to stop. I don’t like it and I tried to engage my older son to pull me out. He is into photography and I asked him if he wanted to attend a vigil in our town for the Orlando victims. I asked because I thought going would break through my numbness and I thought he’d like the idea of documenting the event. He said no telling me that he’d spent the day making a rock sculpture of “49 cairns” near our home. It was two hours before I realized the symbolism of what he’d done. That is numbness. How to break through it…

I’ve found myself thinking about the 1987 movie, “Wings of Desire.” Not the Nicolas Cage version, which I think, was called City of Angels, but rather the original, this one. In it, angels watch and comfort from a distance but cannot intervene to change events in human lives. They stand beside and make sure no event goes without witness, but cannot articulate all that they see and know. Eventually, one of the angels longs to become human, give up his all-knowingness, give up his distance and remove, because he has fallen in love with someone who does not recognize her own beauty. The angel is willing to give up immortality to be able to love, to suffer, and in so doing to feel joy. Before I had seen the movie, the story I heard about it was a little bit different. In that version the angel wanted to become human because he thought he could do more good as a mere mortal than as a divine being. I was told as much once by a client and her words have stayed with me for years.

We were in my office off the emergency room. I don’t remember why. She was telling me about her difficulties as a parent and of her faith that God was with her and would take care of her. I was probably 23 years old and completely shocked by the abject poverty in which the people I worked with lived. As I listened, I struggled to find a hopeful word and truthfully wondered about the utility of her faith at that moment. But I did my best to be encouraging and to validate her statements. “Yes ma’am. Of course He will. I know you are right.” She stopped abruptly, seeing my doubt, and said, “He will help me but He needs your hands. Don’t you forget that…” That indictment was at least 25 years ago and, in my recent numbness, I had almost forgotten, forgotten the difference that raised voice, an anguished prayer, a call to a legislator, or a work of art can make. I had become like the angels in the movie, willing to bear witness but seeing myself as unable to do much else. But I’m no angel and neither are you. We are all too human – broken, suffering, mired in the mundane, and yet extraordinary. It is not worth giving up no matter how frustrating or hopeless we feel. We must be Orlando. We must pray for Orlando. We must change our laws to prevent such horror. We must do all of it.

Photo Credit:

Mimi Chapman blogging on moments large and small in our common life.

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