neither snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness ...

What about sleet and hail? Nah, we'll get there.

"We" is me and Esther Friedmann, who I met at a reading last year. She helped make happen the reading at Foulkeways Retirement Community down in Philly that we have to get to in between snowstorms this week. Esther offers her four-wheel drive Subaru, and her audacity. I guess she doesn't want to miss it, or her good friend Freddy.

Neither do I. We'll watch the weather. It's been below zero most mornings but clear and dry. Right now, late AM, sunlight laminates the tines of the Yew bush by the window, and I find the Rumi poem I've been looking for. I may use it in the Pendle Hill Lecture tomorrow.

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.

The topic of the lecture series is faithfulness. My lecture may get into the lack thereof - and what brings us back.

doubts and barbs

Getting ready for a lecture at Pendle Hill's Tuesday Night Lecture Series, Finding the Way: Practical Choices that Support Faithful Living. I'm feeling discouraged about the reading tour, though two new readings have been arranged in the last week - in Cleveland and Worcester, Mass. I've been wanting to branch out into new regions, so that's good....but, what is the but? Tired of traveling. I only sold three books at the P-Flag reading, and lost the little slip of paper with the name on it of someone who works at Temple U and thinks the book would make a good one for their freshman class. Are you out there!

She talked about purposely driving her son past the public elementary school every day so he could see (on his way to the private school) how very poor it was - another planet really. The first time she saw that school, she said, she thought it a derelict building. The rusting sagging fences. The glass and trash in what must have been the playground.

Then a little girl stepped out of a huge steel door. A little black girl, of course (so much history, so many "refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness" (to quote Whitman) going into that "of course" of course). So she decided to re-route her son's way to school (but not to adulthood), and often she would say to him, of some little girl or boy his age, "Don't you forget, that little girl is just as good as you."

But that little girl or boy is not, really, not academically, not physically, because of the school he's in, the food she eats, the access he has to computers and quiet, health care, summer stimulation. I wish the mother had said that. And I wish she had said not "she's just as good as you are," but "you're just as good as she is."

See the difference? But the well-off son is not, not really--not in terms of resilience, cultural competenence, maybe even spiritual depth. Because of the school he's in, his surround-sound privilege; because his mother drives him past the poor school and doesn't stop, doesn't explain about Brown vs. Board of Education, and white flight, and how our ideals tend to take flight when our children are concerned. Oh, we would have stayed, I've often heard, except for our children, you know. No I don't know. Stay because of your children.

And this was one of the more awake people, a good woman clearly and very enthusiastic about the book. They were all good people, solid middle and upper class educated people with bi, gay and transgendered sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. People who want to make a difference, and are. Yet loving oppressed people doesn't seem to have compelled them to work on their racism. It's not automatic; it's a process.

I need more patience and love. Usually when I'm ranting like this it's because the mote in my own eye is irrtating me so much!

But I worry my book only adds to the problem, let's white people see themselves/us as helpers, charity-givers, judgers, benificent in our pronouncement: You are just as good as me (or, as they would probably say it, grammatically, smugly, "as I"). And not, I hope to become as strong and hopeful as you, as skilled at community, despite my upbringing.

Well I better quit, better get ready for the two readings next week. Part of that getting ready will be to look that question in the face - does the book make things worse? Can I change the way I present it, the excerpts I choose?

Inaugural symbol #3 - the sky

The CNN camera person must have seen it too. When speeches and benedictions, song and poem were done and the dignitaries had filed back indoors, the camera shot lingered . . . on sky.

It was a cold day, we knew that, a gray day. But through the clouds could be seen banners of blue sky.

A few minutes before I would had to have called the weather partly cloudy. But at the stroke of twelve it suddenly seemed partly sunny.

Inaugural Symbol #1 - the safe landing

A plane that should have crashed – killing hundreds and re-traumatizing New York City – instead floating like a big blowup beach toy in the Hudson River. No fatalities, just some cold, stunned travelers arriving a lot sooner than expected at a place they never dreamed of: a deepened appreciation of their lives.

What made the difference? A great pilot and a brave crew.

The week before the inauguration could have been filled with images of fire and death, of torn families stumbling through interviews horrible in their homoginization of grief. Instead we have this serenely surreal image of people waiting on the wings of a floating airliner as calmly as office workers in front of a lunchtruck. Instead we have awe, relief and exaltation.

Our economy’s just ripped through a flock of ill-fated geese. The engines are ruined. Can our pilot land us? Can his crew get us safely off? If symbols could speak, this symbol would say yes,(sorry, can’t help myself) Yes he can.

Inaugural symbol #2 - the Wii game

I watched the inauguration from the livingroom of the North Philly house where Walk with Us takes place. Kaki rents it now to six New Jerusalem graduates in advanced recovery (meaning they are solid in their sobriety). There are four men and two women, all African-American.

When we’re in Philly we sleep on the sofas, wait on line for the bathroom (bring your own tp). We slept there Sunday night after the P-Flag reading and decided to stay to watch the inauguration. (We live North of Scranton now, in Biden country, but come down to Philly often.)

As Kaki and I watched the pre-inaugural coverage, one of the men in the house, call him Larry, turned on a small portable TV behind the big one and started playing Wii baseball. He plays under doctor’s orders: rehab for recent hip surgery.

So as Obama is placing his hand on the Bible of the president who proclaimed emancipation, Larry is twitching his arm in a simulated swing, the Wii crowd in the Wii stadium roaring. Larry peeks around between pitches to see Obama finish taking the oath, then goes back to the game.

Larry’s in his fifties, on SSI, with a deformed hand and two club feet - from a very premature birth. He hasn't the money or the coverage to buy the prosthetic shoes that would let him walk somewhat normally. Most of his family won’t have anything to do with him, from his years of using. When he talks I have a hard time understanding because of what seems a speech impediment. Kaki says it’s just dentures he hasn’t gotten used to yet. She also says she couldn't run the house without him. Honest as the day is long, and steady.

It strikes me - a crippled black man with so little going for him focusing on his healing instead of on the brilliant black man with so much going for him becoming the most powerful man in the world. I guess Larry knows what's best for himself, but I wonder - is he afraid to hope? Is he acclimated to the thin air of hopelessness? Am I?

Tahija bragged to me later that she didn't even turn her TV on (I sure hope the boys' school had one to turn on.) "He’s got to show me something first," she said. Not just afraid of hope but dead set against it. What made her that way? All those times her dad didn't show up when he'd promised to? Does Obama look to her like just another crushing disappointment? Or -- more troubling -- like a chance to prove fully and finally that the world really is hopeless?

I guess that's her choice. Larry's choice is to focus on his healing--with a little break for history. Mine is to hold hope in safe keeping. In this box of words, these plain or jewelled cases.

PFLAG Philly

Well I'm off to West Philly for a Sunday reading at a P-FLAG meeting. (That's Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.) Starts at 2:30. The Eagles game starts at 3:00. Oh the sacrifices we make! I guess the P-FLAGE people will not be there. (That's Parents and Friends of Lesbians, Gays and the Eagles.)

I've started posting passages that I use at readings, over in "Excerpts from the book."

make a safety zone

If you read my book and were moved to make the world better for the triplets, here's an organization that can help you do that: The Harlem Children's Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada, who grew up on a tough block in the South Bronx and authored Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun and Reaching up for Manhood. I wish I'd read him before I'd moved to North Philly. I would have better understood the way the kids acted, would have known that Tahija's seeming paranoia was really just plain knowledge of the streets, her and Lamarr's scorn for authority based on a lifetime, a terrible childhood, of authority looking the other way as children were killed. 5000 a week in the late 80's, Canada writes. Imagine, he says, an enemy from outside our borders killing 5000 children a week. What would we do?

A lot. A lot more than we have done. What will you do? Be guided not by guilt but by your inner lights: what are you moved to do, moved by what is best in you?

Some adults help by creating corridors of safety to and from schools. The children walk between. The children see every day that we care. We put ourselves on the line.

Not in a neighborhood where violence is a problem? Consider moving there. Buy a house, pay your taxes, keep your yard or front steps clean, stand beside the children. It's what Kaki and I did and we don't regret it.

Or maybe sometimes we do regret it. Sometimes I do, a little, lying awake, praying for 16 year old Kanisha to recover form her gunshot to the stomach. Let her not follow the road of this pain, I prayed. Sometimes I want to go back to not knowing, even to not knowing what I don't know. But I'm following the road of compassion, of an opening heart, and it goes inevitably through pain. Or runs parallel to it.

Canada says kids surrounded by drugs and violence desperately need heroes if they are to resist getting sucked under. A hero can be a tall man who kneels down to help you fix your zipper. And he's a hero even if he can't fix the zipper, because he knelt down. Because he's there.

Fist Stick Knife Gun

I’m almost through Geoffrey Canada’s Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. He describes growing up in the South Bronx and learning the intricate codes of violence starting at about age 7, with the (slightly) older kids on the block as morality teachers and fighting coaches. It all made a kind of terrible sense, and insured a kind of safety or at least stability within danger in a place and time when adults and all manner of authority – police especially – had abandoned the children to a violence so systematic and unremitting it can only be called war. Made sense that is until handguns and crack. Then, Canada says, the code of fair fighting went out the window. And the only thing that made sense then was to carry a gun yourself, if you could get one. And you usually could. In fact, he documents how gun manufacturers, having by the mid-80's saturated the white male market, turned to black and Latino/a youth in the cities. They even gave their new cheaper guns cool new names that would appeal to kids.

Canada was amazed to find that even young children knew not only the names of many handguns but their caliber, type of ammo and so on. As I was amazed (and at first doubtful) of 16 year old Lamarr's knowledge.

Lamarr grew up at the height of the crack epidemic. By the age of eight he was making decisions that would send a middle-class adult into therapy for months. “They wore their lack of fear,” Canada writes, “as a badge of honor” (61).

We left a generation of children alone in a war zone. We gave them boot camps instead of police protection. We gave them the Rockefeller Laws instead of afterschool programs. We gave them metal detectors at the entrance to every school instead of adults willing to brave the streets they walked everyday to and from school. He quotes this stat from a 1994 Children's Defense Fund Report: every two hours a child dies from gunshot wounds, while a police officer dies every five days. We ought at least to have given them flak jackets.

That swagger we see on TV, the tough guy bop; that coldness in the face of violence; that disdain for authority – they come from kids who found their own way to survive terrible odds and never had any reason to trust adults.

I’ll never fully understand Lamarr. I’m amazed he’s let me and Kaki in as much as he has, given us the gift of trying to explain what he lived through. He must often have thought we were stupid. We are stupid, in his world. To not even know what eye contact means, or a slouching posture in certain situations. To believe phoning the police ends violence, or walking alone to the corner store is easy.

Canada writes: “Adults standing side by side with children in the war zones of America is the only way to turn this thing around” (109). Because we see then the complexity of the problems. This can be overwhelming. But standing side by side with the children and teens we also can’t help but see their strength and courage, and their intelligence: they have ideas, they can envision peace, they are willing to work for it.

Are we?

no trip to hope

Well we won't be going to the inaugural. Mom won't say why but she changed her mind. I'm trying not to assume things, like I did when we were all living together, to the general detriment of the situation.

It is a long way to let them go without her, and she doesn't want to go . . . plus, if they become rife with hope how will they fit in anymore where they are? I guess that's an assumption, about motives - hidden motives. An ungenerous assumption.

I'll try to see her this weekend and talk about it. I said I would take her driving. She has her learner's permit but Lamarr's not a very patient teacher and she wants to practice for the test.

So many tests in life. My cousin Maureen up in British Columbia is going to be mad. She made me promise even before Obama won the nomination to take them to the inauguration. I know she'd find a way if she were closer--to D.C. and to Tahija. I can't find a way.

Triplicate Gifts

The boys gave me a set of glass coasters for Kawnzaa - four coasters, in each a photo of them picked out by them. They chose three I love plus one I hadn't seen--from a zoo trip with mom and dad when the boys were about four. I don't have that one in e-form, but here are three others - babies, first day first grade (white shirts), and first day 2nd grade. (They're in fourth now.)

"We don’t give nobody up."

Which way to walk down these tree streets
and find home cooking, boundless love?
Double-dutching on front porches,

men in sleeveless undershirts.
I’m listening for the Philly sound—
Brother brother brotherly love.

--from "Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia" by inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander

non-alcoholic champagne

Tahija called at midnight to wish me Happy New Year’s (computer trouble kept me from posting). I could hear revellers in the background and thought of the non-alcoholic champagne I gave Lamarr at Kawnzaa. He joked it wasn’t going to stay non-alcoholic long. I said he could keep it to offer friends who don’t drink.

He looked at me like that was a novel idea. They’re on the 30 side of 25. They do what they want. I only hope it is what they want and not a deep groove worn by generations before them.

I hope one friend strolled in last night and said, oh, cool, non-alcoholic champagne! Because I have to drive later. Because I have alcoholism in my family and I mean to triumph and transcend. Because I’m revelling in the clear focus of a sober mind. Because I mean to write a song/poem/theorem/letter/acceptance speech before the end of ‘08. Because my body is a sacred vessel of the divine. Because I’m a good Muslim. Because I want to be different. Because I am.

Happy New Year Tahija. Enjoy your youth. I’m serious.

The two images are details from Meg Saligman's Common Threads, the largest mural on the east coast. It's in Philly, at 15th and Spring Garden. When I first saw it I pulled over and just gazed. For a long time. These two teens, details from the mural, seem to me to capture the spirit of Tahija and Lamarr when I first met them.

what are you writing now?

Someone who just finished Walk with Us asked me – what are you writing now? I gave the laugh and the answer I’ve given before: With a toddler in the house, who has time for a new baby?

But that’s just when people do have a new baby, isn’t it?

Time for a new answer – a real answer. Which is to say, time to go within. Am I using Walk with Us promotion to avoid new writing?

If you read the book you know about my habit of opening a book at random and putting my finger down, again at random, eyes closed: a sort of drivethru Oracle, but with faith that a) we already know the answer and b) what we don’t know/don’t know we know the universe wants us to know, and will find a way to tell us.

Better to journey to the center of the silence. But that “What are you writing now?” and the illogic of my answer happened as I was walking into an auditorium spottily filled with people – Quakers convened for a business meeting.

We were half way through Budget when I reached into my bag and opened the only book in it – the very same alleged toddler in question, Walk with Us. Am I, I asked, done with – released from – this book? Then I put my finger down, asking-hoping-praying for a word. A word of guidance.

The word was “baby.”

Oh. Walk with Us isn’t a toddler, not yet. It’s an infant. That’s why I wake mornings with its needs pressing on me like a full bladder. That’s why I don’t have time for a new baby. And what it needs, its milk, is readers.

So, the walk takes me here. I guess this is what I’m writing now. I guess you are who I’m writing to. For.

angels with skills

Stacey Sherill was assigned Walk with Us in the freshman comp class she's taking nights at Albert Einstein Hospital, where she works full time as a Videographer. When we visited the class with the triplets she offered her skills. An offer we couldn't refuse. We now have a professional-quality 18 minute DVD for the academic market.

Stacey grew up in West Philly and went to the same magnet high school Lamarr and Tahija did. She's done camera work for feature films and will be moving up and out in that field, I know. She says she wants to get her degree first, to have a solid foundation. She's faced sexism and racism and knows she needs to know more than the rest just to be let in the door.

Let her in let her in! I want to see what she makes!

We're at the Aramingo diner here celebrating completion of the DVD. Lamarr and his brothers did the music for it, by the way--some very original R&B-rap blend stuff composed by Lamarr and performed with incredible heart by his twin brothers Donshay and Dominique (in the book, Donovan and Dante).

about that curse....

Kaki and I stopped on the way home from Quaker meeting to watch the 4th quarter of the Eagles game. After Westbrook took a screen from a resurgent Donovan McNabb and ran it 80-something yards for a touchdown I called big Lamarr. Some game, huh?

Yeah, some game, he said, and reminded me that there'd been talk of trading away McNabb. No such talk now.

If they make it to the superbowl, if they win, I guess Mahd and I will owe William Penn a thank you. I’m not eager to ride up to the top of city hall on that rickety elevator again, but it sure does seem as if the curse we asked Penn to lift has been lifted. I mean everything’s going the Eagles’s way. Sorry for your leg wound, Plaxido Burress. (what Mahd and me did about the curse)

Have I taken this magical thinking thing too far? Maybe. Ask me again if the Eagles do win the superbowl, in the same season that the Phillies won that crazy rainy piecemeal world series.

Hey, it’s something to celebrate. If you lived there you’d know what that’s worth. As I wrote in the book, Philly can do cold and overcast like no city I’ve seen. But it can do happy pretty well too. When it gets the chance.


Lamarr and Tahija took us out for Kwanzaa. Tahija said we're always taking them out and they wanted to take us out this time. That seemed fitting on the fourth night of this "celebration of family, culture and community." The fourth day is Ujamaa (Swahili for cooperative economics).

Of course the culture and community celebrated in Kwanzaa is African-American, but few economies are insular, and we had moved into the village when Tahija moved in with us. We weren't African-American, but we were family.

That night we heard the whole story of their first dog Spike, who died during a frantic day of seizures. Tahija's mom drove them from vet to vet but no vet would treat him because they said Tahija wouldn't be able to afford the anti-seizure medications anyway.

Finally one vet did help but by then it was too late. (She keeps that vet's number in her phone. She gave it to us in case we wanted to switch.)

"I still miss Spike," said little Lamarr, pausing over his steak. They have Tank now and Kayla, a cat and assorted reptiles, but Spike was the first. Big-headed Spike, beloved. I had heard about him and his death, but not in such detail. Good thing Applebees wasn't too crowded that night.

Dad has a new (used) station wagon, the old sort with wood-like panels running down the sides. When the boys were rowed up in the back seat about to drive away I remembered the National Geographic with the story about elephant populations increasing that I wanted to give Mahad. He'd been so bothered by a zoo display that graphically showed their steep drop over the last century. I want him to have hope, and to see that people with hope, and hard work, can make a difference.