Quarantine Diary Day 102: This Land

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A few weeks ago I met up with a few friends on Zoom, my mom friends. Technically, they were my book club friends, but then we all had babies and stopped going to book club and started getting together instead for noisy brunches during which we talked incessantly about cloth diapers and sleep schedules and baby led weaning, so they became my mom friends. These women also happen to be the most progressive and strident feminists I know. You might not think that’s what a person wants in a mom group, but trust me, it is. These are the people you want in your corner when your baby refuses to nurse or sleep or when your marriage is on the rocks or your career implodes or career precisely because, when it comes to women’s choices, it’s not possible to find a more thoughtful, less judgmental bunch.

Of course, they’re not entirely without judgment. When it comes to injustice, these ladies are righteously angry, and when it comes to politics, they don’t pull punches. This is why I was not surprised when, about an hour into our recent call, after we’d thoroughly trashed the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the institution of policing and the far right’s response to both, the subject of patriotic gestures–specifically, flying the flag–came up, and my friend J said, “Absolutely not, no way, not a chance.” I nodded emphatically, in wholehearted agreement. There aren’t a lot of American flags in my neighborhood, but one of the few that I walk by with regularity is flying upside down, consistent with U.S. law prohibiting the flag from being displayed union side down “except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” Truth be told, that’s the only way I’d display a flag today, and not because I don’t love America, but because I love it so much I want to save it from itself.

A few weeks ago, when the Black Lives Matter protests were raging in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a family member (whom I love) sent me a video of a sixty-something white man talking about how much he loves America, along with a note encouraging me to share it. I declined to pass the video along for reasons too numerous to delve into here, except for the main one, which is that it would be, in my view, racist to use an American Dream narrative to try to hijack a movement that was born out of the fact that Black people in this country have never, not for one moment in the last four hundred years, had even a fighting chance to experience the America that white people know and love. I knew where my family member was coming from, though. Like I said, I love America, too.

Last week, a neighbor sent an email to the community listserv inviting us join him in a national anthem sing-along in our common area. This neighbor is a professional musician and he offered to play the tune on his viola using an original arrangement and to make a video recording of the performance. My first reaction was delight. I remember tearing up over news reports earlier in the year about Italians under lockdown throwing open their windows to belt the national anthem while the virus ravaged their country. That was back in early March, when it still felt like we were watching the horror from afar, when we had no idea that lockdown was possible here, or that the death toll in the U.S would still eclipse that of every other country in the world. When I got my neighbor’s email, I thought about how lucky I am to live where I do, to be sheltering in place alongside so many good people. I thought about how much my daughter loves the national anthem, which she calls “The Banner.” I re-read the email for the time and place, all set hit reply to let my neighbor know he could count us in, and then stopped, my eyes snagging on the word video.

Did I really want to participate in a public display of patriotism for a country that has been and remains complicit in the daily death and terror of its citizens? Did I really want my participation to be recorded for posterity at the precise moment when so many (white) people are finally opening their eyes to the fact that this country was–is–built on white supremacy? Absolutely not. No way. Not a chance.

This morning, my neighbor emailed again. He’d be outside this afternoon to play some music for us in the common area. At 4:00, I put my work down and joined my family on the front porch. Neighbors slowly made their way outside, some setting up chairs in the common area, some sitting down in the grass, others standing way in the back. A few folks wore masks, though most didn’t. The kids all clustered together around the picnic table. There was one dog. For over forty minutes our neighbor played beautiful music for us. The adults were riveted. The kids danced. I stared at the sky and then closed my eyes and felt just so happy and lucky and grateful to be alive. As it drew close to five, my neighbor said that he was going to play the national anthem now, and that we could sing if we wanted to. He set up his phone to record. I stood up and joined everybody else on the lawn. He started playing, and I opened my mouth to sing.

Quarantine Diary Day 80: Every Black Life Matters

Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I dipped my toes into the murky pools of clicktavism, posting content and engaging people on social media as a means of showing that I support the Black Lives Matter movement and am anti-racist. Back in my progressive Mormon days, the internet was the primary locus of my activism, at least in regards to the church. As a woman, I didn’t have any real power to change the church, and as a feminist living far outside the Mormon corridor, the internet was critical to finding like-minded people. After leaving the church and especially after getting sober, I largely stopped acting like an activist online. I didn’t know how to engage political causes on social media without triggering a cascade of character defects–self-centeredness, self-importance, insincerity, intolerance, and anger–so I stopped, stayed silent, and told myself I was protecting my sobriety. Of course, my silence was ego-driven, too, insofar as it shielded me from guilt and criticism over saying the wrong thing, and served to calcify my perfectionism apathy.

Last week, like a lot of white people I know, I cracked. That’s when I did all the things I’d sworn off in sobriety. I shared articles on Facebook and got all lit up when I saw my notification count go up. I talked about race and politics with family. I debated and disagreed. It didn’t feel like an emotional relapse. It felt like freedom from the bondage of self, that thing I plead for every morning with the third-step prayer. I didn’t get sober that I could languish in the land of self-help and healing and surface-level spirituality. I got sober so I could suit up and show up and live life on life’s terms.

Living life on life’s terms is a messy business it turns out. The demonstration in Evanston this weekend wasn’t messy–it was as impressively-organized an event as I’ve ever been too–but the world is. When I was in law school, I participated in a clinic that represented juveniles–kids–facing criminal charges. Our first client was young–fifteen I think, with a bag of skittles in his pocket–and facing charges of assault and attempted homicide of a police officer, though nobody was hurt. It was a hard case, with no witnesses except the police, and no evidence except the gun that the police claimed to have recovered while chasing our client down. The charges were trumped up and there was heaps of reasonable doubt but I remember hating that there had been a gun. It would just be so much easier if there wasn’t a gun. My client went on to get a sentence that would see him turning sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one in detention. I went on to graduate from law school and accept an offer from a prestigious law firm, where I learned that all the cases–civil, criminal, family, immigration–are hard. The easy cases settle out, often before lawyers even get involved.

The reason I want my cases to be easy is not because I can’t handle the legal issues. I like the challenge of a complicated set of facts and a nuanced body of law. I want my cases to be straightforward because it’s easier to defend people that are above reproach. I don’t mean it’s easier to sleep at night; I sleep fine. I mean, literally, it’s easier to tell stories about perfect people than it is to tell stories about people who are flawed. It’s harder to talk about people who are real.

But we are not saints. I’ve been writing publicly about my mess for a decade and it only makes people love me more. Maybe that’s because I write about it in a way that makes me seem reformed. I’m not. I scream at my daughter. I seethe with jealousy at my neighbors and friends. The other white people I got sober with have been liars, cheats, thieves, abusers, manipulators, and criminals. Rapists and racists. White people did those things and no one thinks we deserve to die. Our lives matter, flawed and fucked up as they are.

Black lives matter, too. I’m talking about real Black lives and Black lives as they really are. Black people deserve to be as complicated and complicit and bad as your favorite white anti-hero and still be fundamentally worthy, valued, and good. They deserve to be seen as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, children, friends, neighbors, artists, leaders, business owners, enthusiasts, gardners, comedians, smart alecks, intellectuals, church goers, strivers, do-gooders, and change-makers. I believe, and some of the people who read by writing probably believe that Black people are children of God.

As the eminent Roxane Gay pleaded on Sunday, white people “demand perfection as the price for black existence while harboring no such standards for anyone else.”

Perfection doesn’t exist. Black people are flawed and fully human, just like you. Stop demanding perfection before they deserve your empathy and regard.