Monday, September 25, 2017

Brown Eyes

The teacher looked into the eyes of the little girl. They were brown, the color of the soil of the countryside around the city, the color of the weathered bark of the guava trees in the courtyards around the capital building. "Ah, these eyes could grow the humble, helpful beans that fill plates and bodies and help us live," she thought to herself. "These eyes could produce the beautiful, bountiful guavas that hang from the trees like tiny gifts from the servants who planted them." Yet she saw in those eyes a hurt and hopelessness that came from the underside of the great city, the place where the owner of a sugar plantation drove around the streets in a sparkling, new Chevrolet from el Norte and a worker on that plantation walked around on those same streets in broken sandals made from used tires from a broken down, old Chevrolet...at the same time, together...but as far apart as one world from another.

She listened to the stomach of the little girl. It was empty, the emptiness of the poverty of a family with seven children and low wages, the emptiness of one meal a day for days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime. "Ah, this grumbling stomach could be filled with beans and guava," she thought again to herself. "It could be filled with food and hope if only she had a chance to become a person instead of a thing, to become the owner of a small piece of land instead of the servant of a large landowner, to become all that she could become instead of all that could be used for by another...to become, to become."

She welcomed the child, kissed her softly and tenderly on one cheek and then another, and sent her into the classroom with 50 other children with the same eyes and the same stomachs.

She became a friend of the revolution on that day she looked into the eyes and listened to the stomachs of her students. She closed the door to her classroom in the late afternoon and walked the miles to her own apartment and her own family. Her children, eight-year-old Luis and four-year-old Ashley grabbed her legs and pressed their kisses into the flowers on her dress. Her Mother and Abuela greeted her from the kitchen, where they were cooking the beans and rice that would be their evening meal.

"Hola, mi corazons," she said. "How were your days?"

"Bueno, Mami! Bueno!" they answered.

"I made this picture at school," said Luis. He held up a picture of a lopsided cello with seven strings, drawn with a pencil and colored with bark from a tree outside of his classroom. Underneath the picture were the words - "I want to make an instrument. I need wood and wire to make an instrument like a cello. It might be small and broken looking but it would make beautiful music. I would play it for my friends. I would play it for my Mami."

She kissed Luis on top of the head.

"It is so beautiful, my hijo. The picture and the words are so beautiful. One day, I hope to buy a cello for you so you can play music as beautiful as your picture and your words."

"Look Mama! I made a picture, too!"

Ashley held up her picture. There was a trace of her little hand in the middle of the page. It was painted in blues and greens like the land and oceans on a map. Her name was written in large, leaning letters beneath her hand.
"Oh, mi Amor, it is marvelous...as marvelous as you. Perhaps one day you can take me by my hand and show me the wonderful world.

She dragged her children into the kitchen, each wrapped around a leg and standing on a foot.

"Hola," said her Mother and her Abuela in harmony. "How was school today?"

"Honestly," answered Maria, "It was a sad day for me."

She told them about the eyes and the stomach of the little girl and they lamented that there was so little for so many yet so much for so few.

"Here," spoke the Abuela. "Let me tell you a story."


When I was a little girl, a flower grew in the countryside.
We called it the flor hermosa y humilde, 
the beautiful, humble flower.
It was beautiful in it's brilliance and smallness,
and humble in the way it appeared in one place for a while
and then another place for a while,
almost dancing around to share it's beauty
with many people in many places
instead of with a few people in one place.
Now, it grows no more.
It's beauty and humility is gone from the earth,
for it grew only in Cuba.
"Why is such a flower gone from the earth?"
you might ask.
Seeds came down from el Norte.
These seeds grew a flower we named flor destructiva y arrogante,
the destructive, arrogant flower.
It was destructive in it's opaqueness and bigness,
and arrogant in the way it appeared in all places at all times,
almost marching around to take the nutrients of the land
from the beautiful, humble flower
and
the beauty of the land
from the people.

"Yes," said Maria. "What can we do for the beautiful, humble flower?"

"There are two minds," answered the Abuela. "Some of the people are of the mind to use fire, to burn the destructive, arrogant flowers into ash and use the ash to fertilize the land for the beautiful, humble flower again. Some of the people saved the seeds from the beautiful, humble flower, you know. And some of the people are of the mind to use hoes, to dig up the destructive, arrogant flowers and let them decompose until there is room to replant the seeds of the beautiful, humble flowers."

"Can there be three minds?" wondered Maria. "Is there another way?"

She looked down at the Havana Post on the table that the older women had retrieved from a trash pile as they were meandering around the market bartering for the beans and rice they were cooking for the evening meal. 

There, on an open page of the newspaper, was an advertisement by Simmons International Ltd., the sellers from el Norte of the Beautyrest mattress. The advertisement displayed a large drawing of José Martí, the great writer and icon of Cuban freedom. He was in a serious pose with a quill behind him and a book in front. Below the picture was the quote - "What is important is not that our cause should triumph, but rather that our motherland should be happy."

She sat in stunned silence.

Happiness was an expensive mattress? An expensive mattress was the purpose of life, when her own family slept on corn stalk mats on the floor and her students ate one meal a day?

Later that night, as she woke and thought about the question she asked to her Abuela, she remembered her husband Josef.

He was a person who could see clearly and feel deeply. That clear sight and deep feeling led him to join the Revolution, to leave his work as a teacher, to leave the city...to make his way to the mountains to join the Red Army and become a part of the vanguard that would give Cuba back to the people again.

Gone five months, she had not heard from him. This was the time she missed him most, the times she woke in the middle of the night with a question or a feeling to work out in her mind and heart.

She closed her eyes and remembered the night before he left for the mountains. She laid naked on her back and he laid between her knees. He kissed her softly on her thighs, his lips and breath brushing against her skin. With the kisses he recited a poem from Pablo Neruda. 

Amo el trozo de tierra que tú eres,
porque de las praderas planetarias
otro estrella no tengo tú repites
la multíplicación del universo.

I love the handful of the earth you are.
Because of it's meadows, vast as a planet,
I have no other star. You are my replica
of the multiplying universe.

She opened her eyes again and stared into the darkness and felt the emptiness around her. "Can there be three minds...is there another way?" 


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Beauty

'Beauty' is a word, a noun that is quality in a person, place or thing that makes people sigh a deep sigh and say, "Wow." Today, for me, beauty is a person - my son, Zeke. He is dancing in his tenth dance recital, for this year makes a decade of dance for him. He is in his thirteenth year of life, and for 10/13 of those years he has given his life to dance, and dance has given life to him.

When he was a baby, he wouldn't crawl. So many times, I would set him up on his hands and knees, get up on my own hands an knees beside him, and say, "Come on buddy, follow me!" I would take off across the floor, giggling and calling, hoping he would crawl after me. He didn't. I would turn around. He would smile at me. Then he would plop back down on his tummy, roll around onto his back, and reach up to the stars.

When he was a toddler, he wouldn't walk. So many times, I would set him up beside the table with his feet on the ground, and stand beside him with my own feet on the ground, and say, "Come on buddy, follow me!" I would take off across the floor, giggling and calling, hoping he would walk after me. He didn't. I would turn around. He would smile at me. Then he would plop back down on his hiney, and reach up to the stars.

One day, though, he took off across the floor, first at a crawl, then at a walk. As he was walking, the radio was on and music filled the room. He stopped. He looked at me. I didn't set him up. I didn't stand beside him. No, I simply watched in wonder. He twirled. He flowed. He danced. I was as surprised as if I were seeing a shooting star across the sky. He was the star.

Now, today, as I watch him twirl like a leaf in the wind, flow like a river, and dance like a star, with power and persistence, with greatness and grace, I am reminded of something Dostoyevsky said, "Beauty will save the world."

He must have been thinking of Zeke.



Monday, September 18, 2017

Superheroes

Superheroes

I have a coffee mug with the words "I write. What is your super power?" on it's side. I was thinking about those words as I was drinking my morning coffee at the kitchen table watching the sun rise out the kitchen window.

As a writer, I try to hold COMPASSION and JUSTICE in a kind of tension. I write of the world as it is, and as such I try to suffer with it, I try to climb into its skin and walk around in it, as Atticus Finch counseled us to do in To Kill A Mockingbird, I try to simply become more human. I also write of the world as it could be, and as such I try to bring justice to the world, I try to put myself in spaces of injustice and fight against it with stories, I try to simply build a more human world.

If I am a superhero, and if I have a super power, it is because I can walk around in other people's shoes, I can become their laughter, I can become their tears. I knew I had this gift from the time I began knowing, and I spend my days nurturing it. Maybe it is the greatest superpower in our time, for the greatest evil seems to be our inability to have empathy for each other. Tears drop from eyes and I tenderly kiss them and taste the salt in them, and in this moment I am me - who I am and who I want to be.

It is in the tenderness and tasting that I write - of the immigrant child, the homeless neighbor, the lonely migrant, the LGBTQ person, the frightened man, the human being. And in this moment I am me - who I am and who I want to be.

This is my super power. This is why I am a superhero.








Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Imagine...let it be

Brenda is a fourth-grader at my elementary school in South Carolina. Her father and mother moved here from Mexico, and Brenda speaks Spanish at home and English at school. Fluent in both languages, she is a quiet, thoughtful child with contemplative eyes and attentive ears. Like most other fourth-graders, Brenda laughs when a friend tickles her. She cries if she falls and scrapes her knee. And she has stories to tell if you will listen. She is also a scholar and a saint in the wonderful ways a 10-year-old can be scholarly and saintly. She reads anything about everything at every opportunity and volunteers her early mornings to read to struggling first-graders.

I took a few minutes to ask Brenda about her hopes and dreams.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked.

"I want to be a doctor," she answered.

When I talk with students, I often use the "5 Whys" strategy to get a better understanding of what they are thinking and feeling. For each answer a student gives, I ask why until I have five answers to the initial question.

“Why?”

"Because I think it would be a good job."

"Why?"

"Because I like to study and I want to help people."

"Why?"

"Because I want to help babies grow and experience more in the United States."

"Why?"

"Because I want them to live."

Brenda does not want power, prestige or position. She wants to help people...live. It is as simple and as complex as that.

Her answer helped me think about “Imagine a World Without Hate”™ a video the Anti-Defamation League created to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

As John Lennon's song “Imagine” plays in the background, people read, browse and watch news with such imagined headlines as:

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 84, Champions Immigration Reform

Anne Frank Wins Nobel Prize for her 12th Novel

Harvey Milk Expands LGBT Equality Globally

Daniel Pearl, 49, Journalist, wins Pulitzer for "Uncovering Al-Qaeda"

James Byrd, Jr., 63, Jasper, TX Resident Saves Young Girl From Burning Building

This video asks a simple question: "What could these people have continued to do for the world if bigotry, hate and extremism hadn't cut their lives so short?"

It's a great question.

But the question for me, as a teacher and a writer, is not so much: "What could have been?" It is: "What can be?"

What can be for Brenda? I hope she takes up the work these people started and carries it forward with her life. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people live. With that spirit, she will help these martyrs live, too.

It is my job as a teacher and a writer not only to help students imagine a world without hate, but also to help them find the tools and the heart to build it. That is how I can build a world without hate.

Imagine...and let it be.






Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Women and the Civil Rights Movement

I read and discussed the book "Women and the Civil Rights Movement: 1954-1965" by Davis W. Houck and David E. Dixon in a Civil Rights class while I was working on my Master of Arts in Teaching degree at Converse College. The women in this book show me that if I use my life to serve the lives of others, especially the lives of the poor, then I will become a seed in a fallow ground that is bringing life to those who believe that all people, regardless of color, nationality, socio-economic status, sex, ability, or sexual orientation, are human beings and of inestimable worth. They remind me of the women whose beautiful feet and strong hearts marched in the Women's March on Washington and around the world (or were in solidarity with them) this past weekend and who are the seeds of movements of civil rights, human rights and community building today. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Septima Poinsette Clark, who was one of the seeds which created the Citizenship Schools upon which the Civil Rights Movement was built, Modjeska Simkins, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, who was one of the seeds that grew into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Ella Baker, who was one of the seeds that grew into the SNCC, are people who planted themselves in places of white supremacy, despair, and hate and gave their lives in seemingly small ways to bring faith, hope, and love to the poor people around them. To use biblical language, they were like the tiny mustard seed that grows into the trees so tall they have room many birds. Look what they did! Look what the women women and their allies who marched this weekend are doing!

I think we live in a “celebrity culture” today, a culture that looks for a charismatic leader to help us know what to think and know what to do in all of the areas of our lives. I think this is dangerous, so I especially appreciate the thoughts on “group-centered leadership” in the chapter by Carol Mueller titled “Ella Baker and the Origins of ‘Participatory Democracy.’” Baker has become one of my heroes because she worked toward the idea that the Civil Rights Movement was about people struggling together in a democratic society to make American society a more human place for all people (and democratic work is indeed a struggle) rather than about Mosaic type leaders leading an oppressed people to a promised land. I found these words by Baker to be profound –

The inclination toward group-centered leadership, rather than toward a leader centered group pattern of organization, was refreshing indeed to those of the older group who bear the scars of battle, the frustrations and the disillusionment that come when the prophetic leader turns out to have heavy feet of clay.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Feet

I am one million with my feet on the ground.

I am one million with my fist in the air.

I am one million with my voice on the wind.

I am one million words for freedom.

I am one million.

I am one.

In my country.

My feet are the feet of the people.

My fist is the fists of the people.

My voice is the song of the people.

My words are the words of the people.

The poor people in my country.

I am the tear on the hungry child's cheek.

I am the callous on the old farmer's hand.

I am the wrinkle around the worried mother's eye.

I am the blister on the campesino's foot.

I am the yearning in the peoples hearts.

And yet...

I am the cloth that wipes away the tear.

I am the hand that joins the work.

I am the word that brings courage.

I am the feet that walk beside the poor.

I am the heart of the people.

In my country.

I am the freedom song.

I am the fist.

I am the feet.

I am.

I am their feet.

I am their fist.

I am their voice.

I am their song.

I am their words.

I am them, and they are me.

In my country.

- Trevor Scott Barton, Ordinary Time, 2017