The extraordinary bravery of Antoinette Tuff intersects with an interesting time for America. As we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s tempting to list our many national political failures and the continuing systemic discrimination and endemic poverty that undermine our founding principles. But then a woman like Antoinette Tuff steps into the shadow of Rosa Parks and rocks our perception. Just as Parks was not the first black person who refused to move on a bus in Montgomery, Tuff is not the first person to ever avert a shooting. But many are cheering how Tuff responded to the dangerous, gun-toting man in front of her with a patience and compassion born of faith. Parks was also a woman of faith, though hers was more stubborn and impatient to achieve justice. Her faith led her to challenge an unfair system of discrimination. As Jeanne Theoharis reports in her fabulous biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks:
…When the driver ordered them to give up their seats, no one moved. Getting agitated, the bus driver said, “You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”
Parks reflected to herself on how giving up her seat “wasn’t making it light on ourselves as a people.” She thought about her grandfather keeping a gun to protect their family. She thought about Emmitt Till. And she decided to stand fast. “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Though she had been an activist for years, Parks had no idea or plan that her resistance would lead to a 382 day boycott that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. to worldwide attention and ended legal segregation. Likewise, Antoinette Tuff could not have anticipated a media whirlwind or a call from President Obama, but what would our world be like if we all followed her example and became “doers of the word and not just hearers?”
It’s been quite a week. Much has been written about the tragedy of the Boston Marathon and the drama of pursuing the suspects, with great reporting and commentary by fine writers such as Amy Davidson, Emily Bazelon and Megan Garber. Boston College grad Amy Poehler turned her advice vlog post into a reflection that sometimes it’s ok not to follow the media storm; sometimes we have to find the balance between following current events and giving our eyes and hearts a rest.
There is wisdom in that advice. We can choose what we read and watch, our sources and our depth of engagement. But it’s almost impossible not to stumble into this story right now and not be moved by the heroism and the tragedy. I’d like to take a moment and highlight some perhaps lesser known voices who brought their unique perspectives to us:
Terrorism is only effective if we let it freight everyday choices with debilitating significance. And so, the best way for those preserved by luck to honor the deaths and injuries of those whose choices led them to that one cruel spot is to keep living as if there is nothing to fear.
But in a grieving city, a city full of second thoughts, that seems like too much to ask right now.
And finally, on a much lighter note, there’s Boston’s own Annie Cardi, who paid tribute to writers from the Boston area in her weekly feature Friday Fifteen. Every week I’m astounded by her book reviews in fifteen words or less. They are concise and witty and marvelous. This week she posted while under municipal lock down. While her reviews aren’t specific to current events, her humor and commitment are a fine example of Boston Strong.
Kudos to Ms. Cardi and all these fine writers. Thank you for your words.
When I moved to Virginia, I left behind a job as communications director for the Sisters of Notre Dame in California. Fortunately technology keeps their spirituality nearby. I’ve been following their Lenten Reflections via email and blog and just had to share this reflection by Sr. Mary Regina Robbins about Palm Sunday. Both she and Pope Francis explore the tension between the joyful, triumphant entrance of Jesus through the gates of Jerusalem and his ultimate destination, the Cross.
Sr. Regina writes:
Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ consistent Yes to the Father; going into Jerusalem which represents all of us who too often reject God’s outpouring love. Our response this Palm Sunday is to go up to Jerusalem with Jesus in love and to imitate his unconditional response of love in obedience.
Christ’s obedience led him to the Cross, the dark, terrible, painful conflict with evil that led to his death and resurrection, that final and most sorrowful mystery that saved us. But as Pope Francis told the thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square:
Christ’s Cross embraced with love never leads to sadness, but to joy, to the joy of having been saved and of doing a little of what he did on the day of his death.
What I find most interesting about both reflections is how we are encouraged to imitate Jesus, doing a little of what he did… we are to live our faith with joy and with love, knowing the risks but following his example of serving, helping, healing others. All we need to do is say Yes.
When pursuing victory, one of the most counter-instinctual things to do is to retreat. It goes against our nature to step back when momentum seems to be carrying us forward. Yet there are many examples of this strategy working. During Sunday’s Super Bowl, with their team on the edge of victory, the Ravens special teams unit was told to prepare to take a safety and thus give the 49ers two unearned points. Given the competitive nature of professional athletes, that had to be a bitter pill to swallow. Punter Sam Koch has never been charged with a safety — it’s the sort of thing a good punter generally avoids — but he followed orders and danced in the end zone for eight precious seconds before the 49ers caught on and forced him out of bounds. The result was that the 49ers did not have time to score and the Ravens won the championship.
Sometimes retreating to win plays out in the realm of business, like when a conglomerate spins off various brands that no longer relate to its core mission. Or when the post office decides not to deliver bills (or anything other than packages) on Saturdays. Unlike most businesses, the U.S. Postal Service is subject to the capricious whims of Congress, which has created requirements that make it hard for that amazing national system of sorting and delivery to adjust to competition from the Internet, FedEx and UPS. Naturally there’s a lot of debate about whether the Postal Service has the authority to change its hours and whether or not this move will damage its network irreparably. It’s possible that canceling Saturday service is a ploy to force Congress to pass a reform package. But for now, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says that such a retreat is the responsible thing to do to preserve the future of the postal service.
I don’t know the exact number of States we shall have to have…. but I do know that there will come a day when that number will automatically and resistlessly act on the Congress of the United States to compel the submission of a federal suffrage amendment. And we shall recognize that day when it comes.
— Susan B. Anthony
For examples in popular culture, check out Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who seems to know exactly which battles are worth fighting, which must be conceded and which must simply be ignored.
Ever since Roberto started working at Seasons 52, I’ve been leaving the living room light on for him when he works the dinner shift. That usually means I’m at least in bed trying to sleep if not completely zonked out when he gets home, often after midnight. Last week, however, I went to the Charles King concert at Artomatic and I was the one coming home late. Ever thoughtful, Roberto left the big kitchen light on for me. He’s usually hungry when he gets home, so I took that as a hint and I’ve been making sure the kitchen is stocked.
What struck me tonight is that the very act of leaving the light on is a lonely, expectant one. It says “please come home, I’m waiting, I love you.” Filling the fridge means the same thing, especially when I’m filling it with spaghetti and meatballs. Interestingly, however, I’m not unhappy in this loneliness because I know it’s temporary. It will be over in just a few hours, sometimes sooner than expected.
And then I realized that is exactly how God feels about us. We wander away from Him, or even ignore Him, and yet there’s always a light on in Heaven, a place with our name on it. It’s not quite the same as leaving the door open, not as expectant or demanding as saying Call Me, Maybe, but rather the quiet, patient, constant love displayed as a twinkle in the sky or the blink of a firefly. “I made that, and I made you, and I hold you in the palm of My hand,” to paraphrase the prophet.
So why do we so often choose darkness over light? For me, the root of sin is often about fear. I lie, or fail to act, or break a commandment because I’m afraid of the consequences. The light comes with a price that I’m not always ready to pay. Hiding our lamps under a bushel is so easy. We can just sit on the bushel and stay put. No walking, growing or moving necessary. Lighting a lamp for others, being a beacon of hope, that’s work. It doesn’t just happen. But a major portion of it involves waiting.
This weekend, I attended the retirement Mass of a priest who has served the Church for 47 years. He spoke about the great gift of forgiveness, and his joy of sharing God’s forgiveness through the sacrament of Confession. Sometimes, he would sit in the confessional and no one would come. But he was there, waiting.
Many dioceses call their Lenten outreach program some variation of “The Light is On,” a weekly evening when every church offers the sacrament of Confession. The first time I saw a sign for a “Light is On” program was on the Metro in the spring of 2007. I had come to Washington DC to campaign for the passage of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program as part of my work with LA Voice PICO. It was an empowering experience to put my faith in action on Capitol Hill and then step into a public transit system and see the Catholic Church inviting people to come by. I found it very counter-cultural. I still do.
Much more common is the practice of leaving on nightlights for children. My dad always made sure we had nightlights. I don’t remember the nightmares or bedtime monsters that must have provoked this practice, but I do remember the little white bulbs they used and how they plugged straight into the wall. They weren’t strong enough to read by (I was reading at four so I hadn’t quite outgrown monsters), but they were bright enough to walk by. And the light meant someone was waiting for us, there if we needed them. It was a sign of total safety.
Maybe within each of us there’s still a three-year old with a nightlight. And that’s ok, because we are Loved.
It’s often been said that that definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We all do this to some degree, partly because we’re wired for it. Our bodies like to eat and sleep at the same time every day. Most of us have a morning routine like coffee in bed, an hour of reading, a leisurely breakfast… oh wait, that’s just my fantasy. Reality includes coffee in bed, but the rest of the timetable speeds up a bit.
Patterns can help us get through our lives, but I know they sometimes get disruptive and disconnect me from my best self and those I love. For instance, I am a homebody who loves to read, which is a nice way to live occasionally but a constant pattern of it eventually leads to isolation or depression.
So what do I do? I try to start a new pattern, a healthier one, because ironically the cure for an unhealthy pattern is the deliberate, repetitive practice of a better one.
Repetition is a driving factor in nature and art. Look at fractals, those beautiful pictures of nature repeating its patterns over and over to achieve something even more beautiful. Listen to a piece of music that builds on a theme and you will hear the same notes over and over again. Now notice that what makes a flower or a song really interesting is not perfect repetition, the same thing over and over, but variations. The variations may be a deliberate choice, or a random accident but either way the result is beautiful.
As a recovering perfectionist control freak, it’s a relief to see that even randomness can become beautiful. What’s interesting is the effect a variation has on the structure around it. Whether the variation emerges from a mistake or a deliberate choice, strong, repetitive patterns either amplify the shift into something more amazing and powerful, or sweep it into the whole, letting the change occur without destroying everything. We don’t have to get it right every time, we just have to know the ideal that we’re aiming for and eventually we overcome our unfortunate mistakes to create either a beautiful new variation or an even better pattern.
Recently I played Game On, a diet contest that focuses on breaking bad patterns and starting good ones through a very rigid structure of eating times, meal composition and other factors. What I noticed was that the structure made me more attentive to what I do over and over and the positive or negative effects of those choices. When I don’t drink tons of water and exercise every day, I don’t feel as well. Change is hard but there’s something about friendly competition and encouragement that helps this contest work. Everyone comes out a winner because we’re all working to change habits, to create new, beautiful and powerful variations in our personal patterns.
The same thing happens on a spiritual level during Lent. We deny our usual patterns, we say no to coffee or cigarettes or our favorite websites and advice columnists. All the readings, the fasting, the fish on Fridays, the small sacrifices and generous alms are designed to make us break a pattern of complacency and grow closer to God.
And this is where the big ‘NO’ comes in.
God loves us so much that He says NO. Not in the same sense that a parent warns a toddler about touching something hot but in an even deeper manner. God tells us no in order to make us say yes to Him. The Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the crucifixion itself are all one big plea from God: “I love YOU. Choose Me.”
NO, I will not spare my only Son from the Cross because His sacrifice redeems YOU.
NO, I will not accept mere politeness between people because YOU deserve a deep, abiding true love, the kind YOU must share to receive.
NO, I will not tolerate lying, stealing, murder, jealousy or adultery because those things hurt YOU.
NO, I will not abide disrespect for your parents because whatever they may do wrong, they did one great thing right and that’s YOU.
NO, I will not allow you to work constantly without rest because I want to spend quality time with YOU.
NO, I will not share you with Mammon or Gaga or whatever other idols your world invents because I want all of YOU.
NO, I will not accept any substitutes because I made YOU.
Basically God is breaking the pattern of a society that says ‘yes’ to virtually everything and inviting us to say ‘yes’ to Him by saying ‘no’ to those things that harm us and separate us from Him and those who love us. Our small ‘no’ can change a pattern and lead to an ever greater yes.
Yesterday afternoon, news broke that songstress supreme Whitney Houston had been found dead in her Beverly Hills hotel room. All day today, I’ve been flooded with memories of listening to her music, dancing to it, pretending I could sing it, but really, no one sings like her.
Freedom bells are ringing today, and not just because it’s the end of the normal work week.
This Sunday is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. This Wednesday was the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman sold into slavery, brought to Italy and eventually freed by the Italian courts when she refused to leave the convent where her owners had left her during their trip overseas. Unfortunately, slavery still exists but organizations like CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) and CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) are winning the battle, person by person and company by company. Today Trader Joe’s joined the Fair Food Program, which improves the working conditions and protects the human rights of workers who put food on our tables by picking it from the fields. One small step for a popular grocery store, one big step towards a more just world.
One small change in a proposed HHS mandate was also a big victory for religious liberty. The First Amendment enshrines a founding principle of our country: that government cannot tell us what to believe or how to live according to those beliefs. I’m not sure whether it was the 200,000 letters and signatures, or all the mainstream editorials that ran heavily against the mandate, but today the mandate was adjusted in favor of religiously affiliated organizations.
And on a more personal level, freedom reigns in my home again. Earlier this week, my husband fired his boss. Walking away from an abusive relationship is hard and leaving a paycheck behind is scary, but he has courageously done both these things because he knows his rights and values his dignity. Ultimately, that’s what the Fair Food Program and religious liberty are also all about.
It’s been quite a week, so raise your glass and celebrate. Ring some bells while you’re at it!
There’s some debate in my house about what it means to be a morning person. I contend that rising easily at an early hour – like seven a.m. – qualifies one for the club. To me, it’s about whether you like getting up and function well before the necessities of the day take over.
My husband, on the other hand, believes morning people watch the sunrise with their coffee already made and most of the daily news consumed. He likes to rise around 5:30 and considers me a sloth.
There’s definitely a different quality to the hour before dawn than the one that follows. The stillness envelopes you with peace, the darkness reminds you of the night that just passed, the solitude embraces you like a dear friend that doesn’t need to say a word.
In the twenty-first century, ordering our day by the sun seems almost as archaic as arranging our urban school year to accommodate the needs of farmers. Yet our circadian rhythms seem to be hardwired; many people who work nights have to counteract their reverse schedules with sun lamps and white noise. They have trick their bodies into thinking everything is fine when they rise in the afternoon or early evening and head to work while most of us are heading to bed. Their shift ends as the sun rises and they sleep in broad daylight. And then there are the times we party until the sun comes up. Exuberant and often drunk, we celebrate the sunrise with an entirely different perspective than the runner or the morning shift worker who anticipate the new day.
Sunrise may be one of the most photographed, reported, analyzed daily phenomenons. Poets have filled pages of pronouncements upon the new day, photographers have filmed countless daybreaks and in our electronic age every sunrise gets a daily timestamp from meteorologists. We expect it, need it, even if we sleep through it. Even our endless postindustrial twenty-four hour day has to start somewhere, so why not the quiet moments of darkness giving way to light?