Looking for Grace
Sixteen years ago today I sat in my truck looking out on a cold blustery day in the California desert. I had just arrived for a seasonal job at Death Valley. And I took the opportunity of my first day off to spend the inauguration of George W. Bush visiting Manzanar, a site where ten thousand Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II for the crime of looking like the enemy. Friends at Death Valley had warned me that there was nothing to see over there; the camp was dismantled after the war. But I was of a mind to see, and so I did. The timing helped.
I subsequently spent five and a half years working at Manzanar National Historic Site, learning and sharing stories of internment. In my sublime and dusty desert home, the lessons of Manzanar were baked into my very soul. I was drawn there for a reason and that reason blossomed into a calling.
Today I find myself in a different sublime and dusty desert, exercising that calling the best way I know how. I am privileged to be in charge of a non-profit trying to preserve a school house that once housed the segregated Mexican American school in Marfa. More than a school house, the Blackwell School is about the people—the students, the teachers and coaches, the families, and the neighbors. We face an uphill battle in restoring the building, recording oral histories, and turning the old school into a fully functioning museum and historic site.
No obstacle is larger, though, than engaging our community fully in accepting what the Blackwell School was and the role that it can serve today. In 2010, a historian from New Mexico wrote a letter that I’ve found in our files. Although I’m not sure what prompted the letter, it references a question about the building’s origin. The historian includes some further thoughts on the Blackwell School:
Marfa seems to have a love hate relationship with their history and a utilitarian view of things. They want to hold up the historical value of the Blackwell School without really acknowledging (understanding?) its role in segregation at the time…So I think it will be interesting to watch the development of the Blackwell School Alliance and their preservation project. They will either help this community “gracefully” find their way to a new understanding of that part of their past, or they will uncover an old landmine (the way that some things were and still are) and people will get hurt.
And so really, my biggest challenge—which I readily accept—is to facilitate the conversation and community to a graceful new understanding. I occupy myself developing a strategic plan, writing grants, juggling partnerships, and trying my best to listen to the voices of stakeholders. But at the end of the day, the task eclipses even the national significance of the Blackwell School itself—the task is really no less than the healing of a town, my town.
OK, so I can’t do this by myself. But I don’t have to; I have co-conspirators in the pursuit of compassionate healing. We seek the line between justice and mercy. The important part of this for me right now, today, is that I have a purpose and a mission. And that buoys me on a day which feels like the beginning of the apocalypse.
Does that sound like hyperbole? Apocalypse? Perhaps you’ve forgotten the true nature of the Soviet GULAG system and its impact on dissenters, intellectuals, and artists. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the days of community supported lynchings. Perhaps you prefer the days of women not being able to have their own careers, opinions, and control of their own bodies. Perhaps you prefer the days of immigrants being white.
Whether anyone likes it or not, the browning of America has been happening for a long time. I really hadn’t considered, though, how furiously it would be resisted. Compounded with the empowerment of long-forced-invisible groups, including Americans with disabilities and those on the LGBTQ spectrum, America is now forced to acknowledge all the ways we might be different from each other. What’s curious is how and why some of us see that as a good thing and some of us seem to be threatened and afraid of this. What’s not so curious is how and why those who are threatened feel justified in acting out in hate and violence.
As an Anglo woman, most of all I wish that some day I could feel like a whole American. Shirley Chishom’s belief that she faced more discrimination as a woman than she did as Black has played out in our political system where a Black man became president before a woman. And gains that we have made are under constant threat, especially under the new regime. How a president got elected who could so blatantly devalue women is astounding. Yes, it feels like America is poised to wage war on women’s rights. Maybe Trump supporters didn’t intend that with their vote, but that’s how it feels to me. Maybe they didn’t intend to promote racism, but that’s how it feels to me.
And so today is depressing and scary. I’ve tried to remain optimistic in the face of the impending reactionary times, but today…today just sucks. Amen.
The weekend after the election, the timing unplanned, I drove to Standing Rock with my friend Ann Marie. We had two days drive up and back to process the election and, equally or more so, our experience at Standing Rock. Our time there was educational and inspiring in such strong ways that I expect they will continue to manifest down the road. Our immediate reaction was a rededication to civic engagement and non-violent communication and action. I told Ann Marie on the home stretch back to Marfa that I felt like I was finally becoming who I’m meant to be.
Who am I meant to be? The light of the world, in short. When I began my Buddhist practice ten years ago, it came to me that I am on this planet to love and serve. Half the time I get wrapped up in the minutiae of life and forget that. The other half of the time I do it rather imperfectly. I have moments, though, that I would never have if I hadn’t set that as my intention. And the more that I can challenge myself and put myself in situations that test this intention or educate me about this intention, the more that I can achieve it. And so I think I felt the arrival at some tipping point, where I now find it easier to serve this intention than to not serve this intention.
That is why when my friends were justifiably entering a period of despair over the election, I remained buoyant: this is the time I was made for. There is so much work to be done and I have been in training. There is no doubt: we will march, we will organize, we will vote, we will serve, we will listen, we will include, we will represent, we will love. “Still like dust, I rise,” Maya Angelou taught us.
I have my calling with the Blackwell School in my community. I have my sublime and dusty desert home of Marfa, Texas—it’s not perfect but it’s perfect for me, to borrow from Grace Jones. And I have this crazy, impossible, glorious mission to love and serve.
Earlier this week, Ann Marie and I organized a Martin Luther King Day Civil Rights Read-Off. That's a long name for a fun day of standing on the Presidio County Courthouse steps and reading speeches all day. We invited volunteers to read the words of Dr. King, Cesar Chavez, Chisholm, George Takei, Elie Weisel, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more. The weather was perfect, community members stretched out on the lawn in the warm winter sunshine, the words offered lessons and inspiration.
Because, yeah, there's a fair amount to overcome.
We are the people, and we live forever.