Finding Our Vocations

Class last week was about stepping back from the brink and regrouping — asking the questions, why are we doing this work? Can we be doing it better? How can we sustain ourselves as we do it? We also spent time acknowledging other voices we struggle with: Am I doing enough? Does what I do make a difference at all? How can I justify my choices, knowing what I know about how horrible the world is?

We have to step back and regroup like this in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We have come to know how hard this work is, how intractable and enormous and impossible to achieve it seems.  So we have to take breaks, to rest, and to gain new understanding and information about ourselves and our work.

I wrote back in May about vocation:  that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.   I asked Professor Jean Koh Peters ( about this idea of “deep gladness” and she explained that it is not happiness, exactly, but something like joy.  I was sitting next to my dear friend, colleague and co-author Professor Margaret Johnson ( at the time, and Jean said, “when you’re talking to Margaret, you’re in your deep gladness.” Margaret and I looked at each other and at exactly the same time said, “it’s true!” (To which the universal response is “awwww.”) But as lovely as my friendship with Margaret is for a million reasons, I think Jean was referring to the work Margaret and I do together – the narrative theory and critical reflection work. And she’s absolutely right: my deep gladness, when I feel most at home and alive and authentic and three dimensional, happens when I am deconstructing systems and relationships and examining them for a greater understanding of power dynamics.

Finding and identifying my deep gladness has allowed me to move more deeply and intentionally into my work for justice, which I believe is where that deep gladness starts to meet some of the world’s deep hunger.  My students and I explored these ideas as we talked in class about Bryan Stevenson’s vision for making the world a more just place (

1. Be proximate to what you care about:  This to me begs the question: what do you care about? What is your great joy, your deep gladness?
2. Change narratives:  This requires first identifying and deconstructing the existing (dominant) narratives:  the characters, events, causal connections, master plots, attempts at normalization, closure. And then working to construct new ones, with our power goggles on.
3. Protect our hope:  This to me is about staying connected to your deep gladness: find, honor and protect your passion, what moves you.
4. Choose to do uncomfortable things: Not everything that brings you deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger; and we all need to cherish and celebrate those many moments when you are not uncomfortable (that is part of #3).  But in order to meet the world’s great hunger, you must step into it.  Being uncomfortable lets you know that you are in your vocation.

My students’ task for next class is to figure out their deep gladness.  “How?” Some of them asked.  I thought back to Professor Peters’ guidance to me.  In the absence of a pair of collaborating best friends to point to, I suggested that students pay attention in the next week to what makes them cry — not in a bad way, but in that powerful, poignant way that usually happens for me when I’m driving. Pay attention to what makes you cry like that, I told them, and next week we’ll see what kind of deep gladness the world now has available for meeting its deep hunger.

There Are No [Easy] Answers

We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process. —  Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, October 12, 2017.

Last night, I spoke to a group of public interest . . .  law students about being a good lawyer in these troubled times–using the Sessions speech as my starting point. In the lengthy Q&A, almost every single question was about how to keep going in this work, how to not normalize things, how to know which battles to fight, etc, etc. . . . I’ve seen it with my own students–they are learning the law at a time when the law itself is under attack. . . . Try as I might to spin it as being more important than ever, even heroic to gain the skills that will slow down and push back against the harm, it was obvious that it is just a really, really hard time to be a law student. Those of you out there teaching or mentoring law students or . . . new attorneys…please be extra mindful of how hard it is, and how uncertain some are that the work going to make a real difference.

Class was really tough last week.  We had read Michele Gilman’s “The Return of the Welfare Queen” and Lucie White’s “Notes on the Hearing of Mrs. G.”  I had planned a good class using narrative theory to identify the characters, traits and masterplots embedded in the themes of these articles, and to construct a critical theory based on class and economic justice.  I will no doubt teach that class at some point.

Because as I reviewed the students’ journals (which they submit a couple of hours before class), and as the students themselves came in, chatting with each other and with me, I realized this class session was going to be different.  The students were revved up and frustrated and angry.  They were eager to talk about how bad things are and how hopeless they feel.  And they were hopeful that through our discussion, we would arrive at solutions — things that would really address the issues we have spent the semester exploring.

We have identified the systems, my students are saying.  We recognize the master plots and stereotypes and archetypal characters.  We recognize the different narratives – the white supremacist narrative of “still n—a;” the patriarchal narrative of the “Charmed Circle”; the classist narrative of the worthy poor and the Welfare Queen. We see it all. Now What?

Of course, there are no solutions.  Or at least no easy ones — not without dismantling our First World Capitalist White Supremacist Patriarchal Judeo-Christian society. (Which is seeming inevitable, actually, though not without a lot of devastation in the process.)

The fact is, my friends, we are in the middle of a slow burning (in some cases literally) social, cultural, and environmental apocalypse and I have been handing out special goggles so my students can see just how apocalyptic things really are.  That’s great except for the fact that the apocalypse is still burning all around us, and all we have to fight it are these special f-ing goggles! We are really tired of wearing them, but it’s really hard to take them off, now that we know what’s out there.

So I did not try to convince my revved up, frustrated and angry law students that “no really, this stuff works:  we can make a difference! Don’t forget what Margaret Mead said (; or why Dick the Butcher wanted to “kill all the lawyers,” (  Instead, we just talked about how hard and bad it all is, and how really it feels just awful a lot of the time.  And other than the fact that misery loves company, I don’t think any of us felt much better by the end of class.

This week is “Fall Break” so we don’t have class.  And I will take a week off from blogging too.

I am tired and discouraged, as are all of you, I know.  But I’m not done; none of us are.  Sometimes, we just need a break, to regroup and figure out what comes next:  what is my deep gladness, what is the world’s great hunger, and how can part of my deep gladness feed part of the world’s great hunger? I am working to figure that out.  And as the resister known simply as “Robert” reminded us all back in February:

“Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.”

Let’s all take a breath.  And then, back to the music!

The Story of O.J., Peaches & Valerie Castile

I’ve been thinking a lot about the living prophets and other voices around me who describe aspects of what our country is going through right now. As I wrote last week, those voices help me stay grounded and awake in those moments when denial and oblivion beckon like sirens from the rocky shore. Sometimes those voices appear on my Facebook feed or on the Rachel Maddow show or from a pulpit somewhere. But sometimes those voices float from my son’s room as he is getting ready for school or practice: Chance the Rapper, Nick Cannon, and, my latest obsession (according to my son): Jay-Z.

I promised last week that I would write more about the class we had on Philando Castile and gender. So that’s what I’m going to do now. But first, please go listen to these two songs: Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” and Nina Simone’s “Four Women” you know these two songs, you will understand why I suggest you listen to them both together; if you don’t, you soon will.)  I’ll wait.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by wondering if you understand what these two songs have to do with the current state of our society, government, world. But I am going to ask your indulgence in following my current (possibly obsessive) analysis of these two songs as tools to understand – and undermine – that current state of affairs.

Here are the lyrics of both (I’ve excluded the last verses of the O.J. song for space and focus reasons. Much there to analyze too, but not for today). I’ve highlighted the distinct characters – and their traits — in bold. :

The Story of O.J.:

Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a
Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

House n–a, don’t fuck with me
I’m a field n–a, go shine cutlery
Go play the quarters where the butlers be
I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
. . . .

And Four Women:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah
Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see!
My life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
My name is Peaches!

These characters and traits are what narrative theory would describe as “stock” characters, or archetypes, the idea being that they describe kinds of people rather than individuals. So for black men, the stock characters used to be house slaves and field slaves; now they are rich n—s and poor n—s, butlers and hustlers. But all of the archetypes boil down to just one: still n—. Even O.J. Simpson can’t escape from that archetype – still n—, still n—.

And for black women, Simone describes four archetypes as well: Aunt Sarah, the “mammy” character who can handle whatever comes at her – with her strong back and long arms; Saffronia, the product of violence who might pass as white in some circles, but remains part of the world of “still n—;” Sweet Thing, the black temptress who, with her wide hips and wine-like lips can be bought by the highest bidder; and finally, Peaches – the epitome of black female rage, with her rough manner and language, who threatens violence against anyone who crosses her.

Okay, so these are two interesting songs telling interesting stories about being black in America. Why am I obsessed with them? Because they are not only describing stereotypes about African American men and women.  Rather, these songs are describing the processes of categorization and oppression. The characters identified by Jay-Z and Simone were not created by the artists or by the people populating the archetypes. They are created and maintained by the system of white supremacy itself, as a way to sort and control all blacks.

These songs are not about the stereotypes of the slavery or Jim Crow era, but of today’s American society. Every single black man and every single black woman is forced by today’s American society to fit in to one of these archetypes.  If an African American individual does not conform to the contours of one of the stock characters, chances are that White America will fill in gaps and build on assumptions to make them fit.  That is part of how a hierarchy based on “race” works:  the dominant “race” gets to sort and label the oppressed “race.”

I started our class last week by playing the Nina Simone song/video on a loop as the students walked in. (I had assigned both songs in a previous week) And then we talked about the issues involved in Philando Castile’s killing and its aftermath.  I didn’t even have to prompt my students to think in terms of characters, traits and archetypes.  They were right there with me.

Who is Philando Castile? Go look at the coverage of the shooting, look at the pictures of Mr. Castile, read what his family and friends have to say about it and about him.

Over and over again, we read after one of these police shootings of black men that he “wasn’t in a gang;” “he isn’t a criminal;” “he had a job;” “he was in school;” etc.  Why? Why is this what families and friends and communities of color stumble over themselves to say loud and clear to whoever will listen?  A loved one has just been killed and those most devastated by his death are desperate to tell a counter-narrative about him:  that he is NOT one of the typical black men America knows all about — the house n–a, the field n–a,  the butler or  the hustler.

And what about the women in Philando Castile’s life? We started with Valerie Castile — Philando Castile’s grieving mother who “stayed calm” and “dignified” throughout the events following her son’s death, all the way through the trial and beyond.  Who is she? “She is Aunt Sarah,” sighed one student.  And indeed, here she is, with her broad back and strong arms, embracing the grieving fiancee of Justine Ruszczyk in the days after Ruszczyk’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police:

Whether in news coverage of how quiet and dignified she was during the trial, or photos of her attending a private vigil for her son, Ms. Castile was the middle-aged black woman white America could root for; and be comforted by.

Until . . . . she became Peaches.  Every account I have read or seen or heard of the moments after Yanez’s “not guilty” verdict was read contains a sentence like this one: “After the verdict was read, Valerie Castile yelled an expletive and . . . left the courtroom in tears.”

No stranger to the boxes white America tries to put black women in, Castile described her experience in her own Facebook Live video a few days after the verdict:

“I’m sure y’all seen this bullshit that happened today. Fuck what they talking about!. I’ve been holding myself, trying to be strong, and not say the wrong things because I already know how they get down. I’m 61 years old. I’ve seen it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve heard it. Now you see exactly what these motherfuckers think about us. They murdered my mother f*cking son with his seat belt on. So what does that say to you?”

I could go on, and I’m sure you can do.  Where does Diamond Reynolds fit? Is she Sweet Thing and Peaches, or just Peaches? And what about Mohammed Noor? Is he a house n–a  as a cop; or a field n–a, as a Somali immigrant?

And then of course, we have to consider the two songs themselves, and the layering of Patriarchy over White Supremacy.  Where do Nina Simone’s “Four Women” fit in Jay-Z’s landscape? He samples the song throughout his, but doesn’t use the gender identifying language of the original song.  What does that do to the unique (and deeply intersectional) experience of a black woman, as opposed to a black man?

All of which to say, these songs and the tools they suggest are just that — voices and ideas.  What we do with those tools is up to us.  I propose using them to remind us to keep our race and gender and power goggles on; to challenge ourselves at every turn to identify hierarchies and interrogate our own participation in them.  I believe that is what makes these voices those of living (or recently deceased — RIP Nina Simone) prophets:  they remind us to look beyond and outside of ourselves and to keep paying attention to what we find there.

The Real Work (and Why We Do It)

Saturday was Yom Kippur. I am not an observant Jew – grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants, yes, but raised in a highly assimilated and non-religious New York family. But this time of year coinciding as it does with the turning of leaves and the shortening of days always grounds me in the spiritual underpinnings of the work of Resistance.

My favorite Resistance Rabbi – Michael Adam Latz – described the Day of Atonement this year as a day of “Open broken hearted souls joining together in song and prayer, in tears and in repentance, in the work of forgiveness and the work of breathing a new world into being.” He prayed that the day of reflection “take you soaring to new spiritual heights, your engagement with t’shuvah [repentance] turn your lives in a more holy direction, your forgiveness flow like a mighty stream, your commitment to justice and human dignity consume your waking hours.”

I first started this blog as a way to keep breathing in the early months of the Trump administration. It helped, as I joined other anxious white women like Rebecca Solnit ( and Amy Siskind ( and Jennifer Hofmann  ( who are determined that this not become a normal, if slightly worse, bad Republican administration. We keep track, we monitor, we call out, we center, all in the name of #Resistance – to Trump and all he has ushered in.

But as the months wore on and it looked like we were not going to get a do-over or early impeachment, as the Republican leadership seemed determined to stand by their man, I realized I needed to pace myself. And to remind myself of the real work of #Resistance. This isn’t a tennis game, or a brilliant, if not quite believable, spy novel. This is the country that I live in, a country that has been riven by strife and cruelty and selfishness since its founding.

Rabbi Latz is not the only spiritual leader to remind us why we do this work. No. It is, after all, “the real work of Christmas”

“to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

And it is the work of my Buddhist chaplain sister, Kim Moore, as she brings her practice to men and women in the cells of San Quentin and Soledad prisons. Over 500 prisoners have participated in an intensive year-long training in mindfulness, emotional intelligence and understanding violence, its roots, and its victim impact. In response to the work Kim and her colleagues are doing, one of the prisoners said, “You are speaking to us as if we were human beings again. No one has come in here and addressed us like that before.”

I will write more about last week’s class on gender and Philando Castile and how as critical lawyers and resisters we have to keep keeping, monitoring, calling out and centering, in the name of #Resistance. For today, though, it seemed important to remember why we choose every day to put our race, gender, class, privilege goggles on and force ourselves to look through them at the jagged shards of misery all around us. For me, while I am inspired by the words of the Bible and the teachings of Buddhism, I find the comfort and strength to keep at it from the actions and words of our living prophets – of all faiths and traditions. My fellow resisters, I count you among those prophets and thank you for walking this path with me.