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A Muslim’s Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day


by: on April 16th, 2015 | 2 Comments »

Grand Mosque of Paris.

Shalom and Peace! Today on Holocaust Remembrance Day I would like to share a recent experience that changed my perspective in an unexpected way. My perspective about Jews, about the Holocaust, about myself. Sounds mysterious? I didn’t mean it to be. Let me go back a couple of weeks and start again.


My English Teacher’s Son Won the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award


by: on April 16th, 2015 | Comments Off

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish won the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award this week. I have nothing to say about the book, since I haven’t yet read it. The writer’s name gave rise to my subject. Reading it released a memory rush that’s been cycling just behind my eyes ever since.

The author’s father, Gordon Lish, trails a huge reputation for his days as a fiction editor at magazines and publishing houses, for his own writing, and for his teaching at Yale and Columbia- as this Guardian piece attests. He’s also famous for flat-out pronouncements and slash-and-burn editing (most cited: excising half the words from Raymond Carver’s early stories, bringing Carver both success and ambivalence, as detailed in this 2007 New Yorker article.

I met Lish half a century ago in a high school classroom in Millbrae, California. He was one of two teachers whose kindness helped me survive four years as a strange, arty, activist teenager in a suburban world I found entirely incomprehensible. Both teachers are inscribed in my memory because they were the first adults I met who looked at me and saw something other than an annoyance or a perpetual misfit.


Class Suicide and Radical Empathy


by: on April 10th, 2015 | Comments Off

Last Friday, on the first night of Passover, I was asked to share a teaching on Moses, who led our people out of slavery in Egypt. A friend suggested I share it with you:

The idea that always arises for me when I think of Moses and many other leaders of spiritual or political revolutions is Amilcar Cabral’s concept of “class suicide.”

Cabral was the revolutionary socialist leader of the national liberation movement that freed the Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau. “Class suicide” describes the act of dying to the privileged class of one’s birth – for instance, by taking a step with no return – and thus sacrificing one’s own privileged position and power in favor of full identification with the oppressed.

In either political or spiritual history, a large proportion of such trailblazers were born into privilege. Siddhartha was the son of chieftain; Mao Zedong was the son of a wealthy farmer; Ho Chi Minh was the son of a Confucian scholar and magistrate; Gandhi’s father was the chief minister of a princely state and Gandhi himself received law training in London. And Moses was raised as a prince of Egypt in Pharaoh’s house.

Clicking my way through a Google search for Cabral’s term, I happened on the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a freeborn African-American abolitionist and author born in 1825. Her life story is pretty remarkable. One of her books was Moses: A Story of the Nile.


A Story of My Heart


by: on February 10th, 2015 | Comments Off

Let us forge a state of union
A place where every child is
A child
Where you see me and I see you
I mean really see each other as extensions
one of one another

—From People’s State of the Union commentary by
Makani Themba, Minister of Revolutionary Imagination,
U.S. Department of Arts and Culture National Cabinet.

I haven’t the faintest idea how to sum up the more than 500 stories uploaded to the People’s State of the Union website since late January. They came from story circles – a hundred people in a church basement or a handful in someone’s kitchen – organized in more than 150 places around the U.S. They came because people resonated with the USDAC’s assertion that “democracy is a conversation, not a monologue.” Because they know the stories that reveal the state of our union. Because – despite falling through the many rips in our social fabric – they believe in democracy and they want a say in how it unfolds.

I could say that a huge chunk of stories are about yearning for our stated ideals to be true, true enough to live into all day, every day. I could say that another huge chunk is about standing together despite the many discouragements unchecked power and privilege have put in our path. I could say that they speak of hearts broken by disappointment, and hearts remade by beauty and the hope of resilience. I could say that they demonstrate a powerful desire to share truth, risking vulnerability to find common ground.

I could say that the stories taken together prove that the quintessential act of art – turning one’s experience into something shapely that can be shared – is also the quintessential act of healing, the medicine we need. But I think I’ll let Luis J. Rodriguez say it with a few lines from the sonnet he wrote for another part of the People’s State of the Union, the Poetic Address to the Nation:


TV Family Values


by: on February 4th, 2015 | Comments Off

My big TV-watching time is in the mornings while I exercise. I save up episodes of series I’d never give 100 percent of my attention, usually detective shows (and never medical ones). But there is one family drama in my queue: Parenthood. Yesterday morning I caught up with the final episode. As the characters’ lives fast-forwarded through the finale, my tears started to fall.

A week or two ago, my husband sat beside me for a few minutes of the show and found it dismissible – a gaggle of entitled, self-involved, affluent, and attractive parents and siblings: who cares? I could quibble, arguing that it’s not plain vanilla. Two of the three adult children have mixed-race families, and the other one has bootstrapped her life as a single mother with two kids after leaving the spineless, addicted rock’n'roll wash-up she married. One grandchild has Asperger’s, another was adopted after his imprisoned mother gave him up, a third is a lesbian, a fourth has just become a single mother, pregnant by her PTSD-addled boyfriend.

But I know what he meant: they all somehow manage to be perfectly dressed and groomed in their perfect houses.They talk mostly in Hollywood quips, arch and clever. The family name – Braverman – sounds Jewish, but they have been entirely purged of ethnic identity and for that matter, of much personal history predating the show. They are in each other’s lives constantly, exhaustingly, and all of them love each other in a fierce unconditional mob-sized revel that I’ve only experienced in drama. No matter what the trial, no matter how halting the lead-in, every challenge culminates in a heart-to-heart that heals all wounds.


Another Kind of Spiritual Practice


by: on January 30th, 2015 | Comments Off

It’s easy to think of spiritual practice as something separate from ordinary life: the time one spends on a meditation cushion or chanting prayers or sending praise songs into the world. But for me these days, the most powerful spiritual practices are things I seldom put in that category. Is facilitating a discussion a spiritual practice?

Last weekend I was the lead presenter in a series for public artists working in community offered by the city of Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta. I gave a talk and led a couple of workshops for an engaged group of artists, students, administrators, and educators. I like the way Dawn Ford, the Public Art Program Coordinator, has gone about helping local artists become more engaged in public practice.

At day’s end, a number of participants came forward to thank me, which always feels good. Several of them paid me a compliment I am often privileged to hear: “I learned something,” one woman told me, “from the way you called on people and responded to their comments during the discussions. Your face stayed the same no matter what they said.”

I discovered I had a knack for this a few centuries ago as a young arts activist in San Francisco. Things would get contentious, people would take polar positions, and somehow it fell to me to try to create the container that could hold opposing sides and find some resolution that respected them all. It was an epiphany festival. I could see that I liked some people and disliked others, agreed with some assertions and rejected others. I had just as many personal preferences as everyone else in the room. Inside my head and body, the jostle of winners and losers kept right on making a commotion, but a different inner voice rang louder and truer.

Now I think of that voice as godlike.You know what I mean: not omnipotent and patriarchal, but regarding every person as beloved, the way a good parent loves her children. I could hear what each person was saying – the specific content of each message, including the edges that invited conflict. But I could also sense something of the joy or pain, the yearning or striving that colored each attempt to communicate, regardless of message. That voice told me to hold each person’s words in the same light, as part of a brave and beautiful persistence to care and connect despite all the rejections we may have experienced, all that may have been done to us. At first I thought of it as a game I played with myself: could I root myself in a position of fairness and enabling, of respect and mutuality?

But then something magical happened. I fell in love with that voice. I started genuinely wanting each person to speak his or her truth and the love infused my gaze and my capacity to listen. Now, so many years later, I’m not consciously doing anything when I facilitate a meeting. It reminds me of many years ago, when painting rather than writing was my medium as an artist. I painted a great many portraits, and when someone sat for me, my former feelings about that person fell away. Spending hour after hour sitting close, gazing at another’s face, breathing the same air, letting the stories flow: the word for the feeling generated by that experience was the same: love.

No matter what the context, this unbidden love – this grace – is a form of spiritual practice. I only have one endorsement, but I think it’s pretty compelling: if it works for someone as full of opinions and preferences as I am, it can work for anyone.


Fighting to Abolish Unjust Debts: Check Out Tikkun’s Winter 2015 Issue


by: Tikkun on January 29th, 2015 | Comments Off

Jubilee and Debt Abolition

It’s the Jubilee Year according to the Jewish Calendar – the year when all debts are to be forgiven and all land redistributed in equal parcels. In a time when debts have reached unprecedented levels and people are suffering under this burden, how can people of all faiths – as well as our contemporary secular societies – be inspired by this radical biblical vision? The Winter 2015 issue of Tikkun features people putting the concept of Jubilee into action in the fight for debt abolition.

Don’t miss out on this important discussion. You can get a taste of it by clicking on each article and reading the first few paragraphs. Then, if you are not yet a subscriber or member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, you’ll be asked to subscribe or join (after which you will get the print and/or online version of the magazine). If you are already a paid-up subscriber or member, you should be able to read the full article online and be getting the print version in the mail. Many of us forget how to log in to read subscriber-only content online; please don’t hesitate to seek guidance on how to register to read the online version of the print magazine. Just email leila@tikkun.org or call 510-644-1200 for help. If you are a subscriber or member of the NSP and haven’t received the print magazine in the mail yet, please email leila@tikkun.org. We want to fix the problem as soon as we know about it!

Now, for your taste of the magazine…


Broken Words


by: on December 4th, 2014 | Comments Off

I fear a new racial climate change and global warming. There are no more poems left for me to write. Every word is now broken in my hand.

E. Ethelbert Miller

I’ve been a fan of the proposal to make police wear body cameras, but yesterday’s decision not to charge New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner has reminded me to question my own confidence in documentary truth.

Since the decision came down, protesters gathered in Times Square, Columbus Circle, and other locations, often chanting Garner’s last words – “I can’t breathe.” People staged a die-in in Grand Central Station. New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio talked about educating his black son about the dangers he faces at the hands of police, and told constituents that Attorney General Eric Holder had assured him that the federal government would investigate the violation of Garner’s rights. At the Ferguson Response site, you can find demonstrations planned across the country under the banner #ThisStopsToday. Color of Change is calling for federal intervention, and many others are taking action.

You see, even without body-cams, there is video of Eric Garner’s arrest and killing that provides better information about what actually happened than a body-cam could. And still, the Grand Jury on Staten Island (the only Republican-dominated borough, two-thirds white) failed to indict.

I should have recognized the flaw in my own thinking, as I’ve pointed out similar lapses so many times. We sometimes fall into the trap of believing that if people only knew how bad things were, they’d support necessary change. But in these times, many people know and act as if they don’t.


Smash Hit Gone Girl Just Reinforces Rape Stereotypes


by: Jessica Renae Buxbaum on November 19th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

Gone Girl

Credit: Creative Commons/lajmi.net

Since the film’s release on October 3, Gone Girl still remains number three at the box office, has garnered $300 million worldwide making it almost the biggest money-making film yet, has a rating of 88 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and is even in the running for the Oscars. With its critical acclaim, fan buzz, and record-breaking consistency, the movie is a smash hit and already on the IMDb’s user-generated Top 250 movies of all time. But amidst the praise is a lack of consideration for what Gone Girl is really depicting and reinforcing: rape culture.


Inauguration Celebration Oration


by: on November 18th, 2014 | Comments Off

NOTE TO READERS: My essay “Living Into The Questions,” leads off the Americans for The Arts’ blog salon about “The Beauty in Change: Considering Aesthetics in Creative Social Change Work.” Please read it and let me know what you think!

This is the talk I delivered last night at Bowery Poetry in New York City, on the occasion of the inauguration of the first twenty-two members of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture‘s National Cabinet.

It is my honor and privilege tonight to welcome and inaugurate the first twenty-two members of the National Cabinet of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC), a citizen-led, policy-oriented leadership group whose members have made themselves experts not just by studying, but also by living the relevant knowledge.

We’re still building the Cabinet. Unlike typical presidential cabinets, we don’t ask one member to represent the entirety of an interest or issue – a secretary of defense, a secretary of state. We recognize that it takes the awareness and wisdom of people from many parts of the nation, many types of work, many cultural backgrounds, to bring the necessary knowledge to a subject as complex and encompassing as the public interest in culture. And it will take even more of us to activate the shift that needs to happen now, from a consumer culture to a creator culture, from a society swamped by fear, isolation, and competition to one based in equity, empathy, and interconnectedness.

Let me start by telling you a little bit about the Cabinet’s work, then introduce you to these remarkable individuals, some of whom are here tonight.