The People at the Table
April 19, 2019
It’s one of those weeks where on Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. I was all, Whew, TGIF!
That’s the level of Ready-For-Next-Anything-Please I’ve been feeling. Not for any one reason.
This is what I heard God say. I typed it in my iphone, on the “God notes” page: “People. It’s about people. Breaking bread (matzoh!) One word, one bite, one hug, one raised clinked glass, one table, one prayer for freedom. One person inviting another to the same, one table. The table expanding for more to sit.”
[Before you keep reading, and because what a shame to waste a joke–if you’re not aware, Filipinx also call ourselves “pinoy” or “pinay.” Scroll on.]
The gift of exhaustion? Besides hearing voices—Yahweh’s included—I entertain comical, emotional tantrums, Netflix numb before bed. Tell myself it’s okay, you’re okay. I have enormous privilege in this world. I know this (thank God). Write a gratitude list. Then, I get quiet. Fortunately, it fits well with Holy Week. Been listening to the Holy all around.
This will be my 19th Passover Seder. Most years, we host a full house of friends and family. My prep involves shopping and setting the tables; chopping ‘n slow cooking ‘n roasting ‘n souping ‘n stirring. Passover is a bridge to Chris’ Jewish heritage. He thoughtfully prepares the Haggadah (the narrative of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt) with guests’ names as readers. We take time to note who, in this world, especially needs to hear and experience the story of freedom from bondage this year. So many too many.
I love it all, down to the moment we celebrate in light of Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Hybrid story-ing, like our mixed family. Some ask if we’re Messianic Jews. Nahw, closer to non-denom’ Jesus followers who integrate the Story.
This Story is my “favorite holy-day” to get quiet, listen. As I cradle two of the biggest, briskety Costco briskets, a hefty bag of rainbow carrots to roast and swim in matzoh ball soup. As I grip square, concord graped bottles of Manischewitz that evolved on my palette over time, from cough syrup to sacred…syrup ;0) Still checking off the lists in between work, parenting, wife-ing, hula practice.
This weekend is a full-er Reflection: Redemption, Resurrection, Remembrance. (Don’t forget this week’s other RRRRR…..Redaction—a different kind of “set apart,” secular sacred for some. Swiss cheesy Hole-y.)
But I had to get to the real TGIF calendar day. So in class, I got quiet as our English class worked on their timed essay. We had rigorously practiced how to craft this specific rhetorical analysis and play the Ivory Tower transfer test game. Everyone, game day and game faces, ready.
One by one, students turned in their essays, proud and relieved. The young woman who normally raises her hand to share all the answers handed me an incomplete essay.
“Oh. Is this finished?” I asked, calmly confused.
She began to toss a word salad at me. I stared at her fingers pointing up and down the paper, as if directing an army of block printed letters to stand at uh-ten-SHUN! Well-dressed but shell-shocked word soldiers, standing 32 shoulder-to-shoulder lines down a page [i.e. a whole essay with no paragraph breaks]. A sharply dressed but aimless army. Not one following order.
I smelled the alcohol. I pretended I didn’t. Said instead, “If you want to take the rest of class time to add more, you probably should.”
How could I know why she drank at 8 in the morning before class (or why it was evaporating her skin from a soaked night)?
When she tried and couldn’t, I acquiesced, “Okay, turn it in and see what happens. Good thing this is a low stakes practice for the transfer exam.” She nodded, packed her bag, left.
I kept at reading everyone’s essays, snapped back to my seated paradox posture of: how.can.I.better.support. and how.there.will.always.be.essays.ad.infinitum.
“Essay” in college means “hella annoying assignments” for both students and professors. In French, it means, “to try, attempt.”
Also: a trial, a weight.
The last essays I read that day, more word worlds: a young man with cancer; the pregnant teenager forced into homelessness by her outraged parents; another who traveled outside of the country for the first time and told me, “There’s a whole world out there. Knowing this changes everything.”
I tried for an inspired quiet in my Lake walk as I listened to a new-ish podcast, “Rough Translation.” I cried the kind of expanding tears from what a story can do to me. The episode, “War Poems.” (The title alone HOMG!)
I despised History classes in high school. It had a lot to do with rote memorization. It got worse when our 11th grade teacher tried to make me interview my Papa about his experience in the Vietnam War. I refused and gladly accepted the “F.” But Mr. A insisted I complete the assignment because it was a “valuable experience.” By the time he ‘got’ how most of the Filipino kids’ dads were Vietnam Vets, that we were ‘taught’ to leave them alone about That Time & Those Ghosts, I also learned failing an assignment didn’t have power to shame me. All to say, I’m late-blooming to understand how history—world, my own—is “valuable.”
Oh, yeah, why the podcast helped me Listen.
It references General Petraeus, a commander of American forces in Afghanistan during the war against ISIS. About ten years ago, he promoted a “new” tactic: he told American soldiers to build trust among the Afghan people. He advised Americans to take off their sunglasses, connect with the locals, be “a good guest” meaning “drink lots of tea.” RADICAL counterinsurgent strategy: get to know people. Don’t just speak their language. Listen. Speak their culture.
For some American soldiers who took these Listening Orders to heart, it meant learning ancient Afghan poetry as a bridge. An American female captain who is fluent in Dari (a common language in Afghanistan) urged the military leaders to learn their poetry. She recited a 13th century Afghan poem on how all of humanity is one family.
She said of her time in Afghanistan, “I have never spoken the first words of those verses to an Afghan and not had them reply with the rest.”
(If anyone listens, there’s some nitty gritty! If you get to the end, you’ll know why I cried.)
For the rest of Not-TGIF days, I asked God more or less, What’s Up with This? The whole thing, the Holy (and Hole-y) thing: how the break up with Church feels good and awful. How I recognize stages of grief, but the nuances are sneaky sabotage. I’m unnerved. Can’t track. I feel like a disordered essay in my body—aimless army. A trial, a weight.
How disappointment surged when an email invited me to support a shiny ministry called, “Once Gay” with [redacted hole-y] testimonies of people who are no longer broken in their gayness (an exercise in confirmation bias). That there’s such a policy, “open but not affirming” for any LGBTQ person who walks through the doors.
What will Easter Sunday look like in these visitors’ eyes? Highly prayed-up & produced services as faithful members are outnumbered by “holiday in” Christians (and curious “pre-” and “post-“believers). Who will invite each other to tea, to the table? Who will say the opening line of, “we are all one family,” get quiet, and listen?
Let me collect my leaky faith-politics and say about myself: I need to do a lot more listening.
Christians call it Good Friday. I wonder if “good grief” came from this version of “good” because Jesus was crucified and buried. It’s only “good grief” because of Sunday’s resurrection. What about Saturday?
The power of Saturday is the Waiting.
This year, the converging calendars will also have us remembering our history of Waiting for freedom. Around several folding tables in our living room, the Seder becomes our Passover war poem. We follow the Haggadah, each person reading from the script.
The most innocent child will ask, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
Grown ups—supposedly the ones who know better, who have sat at the table longer, who are more fluent in listening, learning, and speaking the language of humanity—will try to answer.
Haka instead of hymn
March 25, 2019
I walk to class, leaving my pre-planned handouts at Duplicating. There, the shadows of brown and black faces in the hallway, many veiled in hijab.
Over a hundred languages and cultures on our campus. Worlds of words.
“Anyone ever seen or heard of a Haka? In any context?” I start.
A student says he saw it on TV before a Rugby game.
Another says, “I think the Māori people do it?” Yes, the indigenous Polynesians of New Zealand.
“There was the time Jason Momoa did it before the Aquaman premiere. Remember?”
Some smiles. “Yeah, it was kind of like a “flash haka mob” because suddenly these big looking guys in suits were chanting like warriors, including his kids.”
I’m into it. “I saw that! I zoomed in on his 12 year old daughter. Watching a girl stomping, so focused, made me want to yell with her. Then of course I zoomed out to enjoy the whole spectacle.”
“Because Jason Momoa.” Laughter. Eyes light, some roll.
“It’s done to prepare for war, or to commemorate important transitions like a wedding or a death.” A student looks up from his phone. “I just did a quick search, and that’s what it says.”
I calm my voice a pause, ask, “Has everyone heard what happened over the weekend in New Zealand?” A few shake their heads. “Can someone summarize what they know so far?”
Fifty praying Muslims murdered by a white supremacist. A Friday, a time when Muslims and their families pray together. Two mosques. Dozens in the hospital. He’s Australian but went to New Zealand to do this. He wrote a 70-something page manifesto blaming Muslims for everything. [I will not read it or give him or his hate any of the attention he wants.] He praised Donald Trump as a symbol of white supremacy. The man livestreamed his rampage.
I look at my Somali student in hijab sitting against the window. Brown eyes widen then squint. She turns toward the window, starts writing in her notebook.
A cohort of young Latinas in the back are whispering. Sometimes, I have learned, one of them is translating for the others, from English to Spanish.
“As a response to this tragedy, the news has started posting hakas around New Zealand and Australia.” I load news clips onto the computer. “I’d like us to watch two hakas.”
Before I click play, “This one is called Tika Tonu, and it is taught to adolescent boys to prepare them for challenges and the need to persevere in their lives. Some of the words mean, ‘what is right is always right.’”
This haka, a beachside full of barrel-chested, boisterous Australians. Eyes bulge, tongues thrust, muscles twitch and pound. Thunder. The place is called Surfer’s Paradise.
We watch. We swell with silence.
The second haka is by a guy in a baseball cap and hoodie, white tube socks and white workout shoes, one untied. He quietly breaks off of a small group of locals paying homage at the Al Noor mosque site. He uses a walking stick branch and pours his warrior haka out onto the street, a few feet from the police-tape.
He chants and yells towards what we imagine is the mosque. He stomps and beats his chest and thighs, sounds out, KA Ma-teh KA Ma-teh. His open fingers and hands shake. As his chanting subsides, his right hand still quakes at his side. I feel my hands quivering too, as when my whole person joins the stream of prayers for healing over a sick friend.
Paga is the Hebrew word for this type of intercession. To take something violently by force; to strike and hit the mark. It is lightning—both solid and gas, human and supernatural—the same form Jesus took standing on the Mount of Transfiguration. Lightning rod truth.
We sit for a minute. A few students gulp. One wipes their eyes. I ask to move our seats into a circle. I think of surfers who paddle out to sea in memorial of lost ones. Like those at Surfers Paradise. I can tell by body language, we have moved from watching to bearing witness.
“What did these two hakas make you feel? Any observations?”
One student says quietly, into the circle. “It’s an act of solidarity.” Slow nods.
A student who has yet to share out loud this semester raises her hand. Shy eyes and voice, shaky English.
“The group one…it make me feel the…power.” She half sighs, pushing out more words.
“But the one by the man. It feel…different. I can feel the pain.”
Gutting, guttural, the meaning of compassion—to move our intestines.
I’m wiping tears with one hand, the other a fist at my thigh. “This makes me think: what, in our own subcultures, do we do as our form of haka? As signs of solidarity, of putting it all out there with our bodies and emotions?”
I’m asking this of myself. Where is my version of haka? Who can teach me, a hyphenated American, an in-betweener of cultures, a way to stomp and yell as an acceptable response to grief in this space, on this soil?
“If anyone who is Muslim or was raised in a Muslim home would like to share anything, please do.”
Mohammad raises his hand. “It is illegal in Afghanistan, and some parts of Pakistan and India, but there is a type of Muslim leaders who meet and chant some lines together. First quiet. Then they get louder and louder. They use their whole bodies to start yelling until there is chaos. Some of the men end up going to hospital.”
“Is it a form of prayer?” I ask.
Another says thoughtfully, “When I play sports, I put it all out there.” We talk more about this. How sports do unite diverse groups of people. I have felt that in college football stadiums, hugging strangers in the bleachers at the Oakland Coliseum when we watched Rickey Henderson steal his 939th base and break the world record. I recommend A League of Their Own to those who like learning from movies, to see the power of women playing professional baseball in America, a way to unite a country as the men fought in World War II.
A dancer, thick black wavy hair shielding most of her face and neck, pulls one knee up in her seat. I can imagine her tying on dance slippers in that position. Tilting her chin, “I don’t practice the Muslim faith anymore. I was raised that way, but being born right around 9-11, it was too hard being stereotyped all the time.”
She’s choosing her words. “I’m emotional seeing this. In eighteen years, this is the first time I have seen people offer compassion in public to the Muslim community.”
How do we make and share our own “hakas”? What would it mean to us, each other?
I used to think when our amygdalae are triggered, our animal brain responses to threat are only: fight or flight. A scientist corrected me, “Think about any catastrophe. Humans don’t just fight or flee. They also gather.” Many people find each other. We rush together; we go where there is need. We do, don’t we?
Fight, Flight, Flock
The nearest Sunday in 2012 after Trayvon Martin was murdered, a northern California church filled with Berkeley friends showed up, all wearing dark hoodies. A picture on Facebook showed dozens standing in a circle, presumably praying for Trayvon’s family, the neighborhood, our country. Or maybe—probably—it was not the time for [only] words. They stood in that gap. Dilated time. Slow motion animal brains reaching out.
What is right is always right.
The opposite happened at the church I went to that Sunday. No mention, no space or time to dilate. (I know and understand it’s not everyone’s responsibility to wear hoodies or keep current with news or or or. I get it. It still stings.) A sufficient reason I am stepping away from institutionalized church is that these “F” words are treated as that. Too raw, inappropriate, vulgar.
In the pews, animal movements get minimized, sanitized.
Ten months later in the same year, when Sandyhook happened, I went to the nearest Sunday service hoping desperately that this time will be different. They’ll say something. We’ll have corporate prayer. Not everyone could empathize with a young black man being racially profiled, stalked and shot dead. [Politics and Pulpits—sigh] But everyone agrees on the intrinsic tragedy of murdered kindergarteners and first graders.
Again, no mention. Worship music filled the front of chapel. I turned to the sides, to behind, to find anyone. Sharon, a first grade teacher, near me. We held hands and wept. This was church, the holy moment for me.
My animal brain was activated then, as it is by Christchurch. This gut reaction feels right, but it is not given enough room to move, to do enough inside of our bodies, to let our guts decide. In other words, it is not time yet to become rational again.
Not surprisingly, when Christians came to the Māori in the 19th century, the Māori greeted and honored them with hakas. As the missionaries converted the indigenous people, they “suggested” the Māori replace their “pagan” hakas with more appropriate expressions, hymns.
Hymns instead of Hakas. Why not honor haka as hymn?
The Māori Council commissioned a haka for the victims of Christchurch last week. A couple of the lines say:
E oho, kia tika rā (Wake up, be true!)
Ko au, Ko koe, ko koe, ko au, ko tāua e (I am you, you are me, this is us)
If Paga—violent intercession, something Jesus embodied—is too “out there” for the Church, then I can’t count on the nearest Sunday to go There with me. I want to find a flock that will. I want to wake up, be true. To get close to the ground, elemental.
Who will teach one to me? Who will bear witness when my body can’t hold it in?
A helpful BBC article about Haka (where they come from, what they’re for, who can do them, with the full lyrics of the haka written for Christchurch):
Yes, And. Also no
March 9, 2019
We trip-wired back to 1997. There’s this thing called a weblog. Store it in your memory pocket for when we return to 2019 and you see this. If you want to sound more pop, you can abbreev to “blog.” Heard of it, a “blog”? Check the box, yes or no, and pass the note back.
Since the Oughts, I have read & wholesale appreciated blogs from friends. Me though? I had always been ambivalent about me keeping one [insert all reasons in Comic Sans].
Last fall, I joined a wild Rebel, Rebel Memoir Lab. In three measly months, I wrote the first draft of my next memoir. That’s 71,071 words AKA [slides abacus beads carry the one cash register ch-ching] over 275 pages. My first memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment took five years to write. It’s taken me thirteen years parenting to understand that I understand…nothing. As the Rebel instructors Alice & Tanya promised, this Lab provided a “sacred container” & “quantum time.” Shorthand: bonkers productivity.
I learned so much. (Stating the obvs b/c I haven’t yet decided if I’ll have “lifelong learner” tattooed in Sanskrit, Hebrew or Aramaic…erm…I prolly should choose Baybayin since it’s indigenous Filipino.) Unearthed, ongoing learning: this focused writing & publishing is very different from creating in raw form. It’s ultimately JOY-ful (especially because I love the world-changing people I met through it and am convicted story-telling is a calling) but it hasn’t been F-U-N.
In the few months post-quantum leap, I have come to see that I need to write—to create—without the should-n-have-to pressures flogging my brain, swiveling its “think of your target market” neck, crookwagging its finger at me. I do belong in that and will fluff up my yellow gown to do the beautiful beast zumba [hint: I am both Belle & Beast].
I am not created for Either, Or. I want to align with improv, Yes, And.
Right now though, it feels like if I don’t let myself create (stories, art, jokes, questions, food, bitcoin, transparency, connection) I’m choosing “Neither, Nor.”
I don’t want the pressure of writing that is consumable (if it’s imagined, it’s real to my stress sensors). I want to express myself with the confidence of the 90s before Blog Comments sections and doxing were armed, and the Pulpit & Politics Power People given the nuclear codes.
The 2016 Election has led to a lot of unmasking, of pulling off sheep’s costumes to the glint of snarling wolves teeth. Mainly, for me, this duplicitous pack runs in Church (capital “C”). I have broken up with the Church. It’s better for us right now, maybe in the long run if things within it don’t feel safe for a woman of color like me.
I still follow Jesus. Still meet with faith families in homes, on hikes, making art, loving neighbors. Still pray and raise my hands to worship musack.
But no institutional “four walls” for me. It’s like I was rescued from living in a fake Village with my benevolent kidnapper (nods to M. Night Shyamalan). Got symptoms of Stockholm syndrome. I’m in a so-slow-it’s-barely-visible re-entry. I’m trying to detox from any/all of the poison I ingested while being passive in the Church. I’m determined not to “throw the baby out” with the Kool-aid. Tricky reckoning.
Off and on, I feel more ‘off’ than ‘on’.
Like I have an IV drip of Peets coffee jittering through me.
Like I flew back from a magical Platform 9 3/4 trip via London and can’t resolve the jet lag delirium.
Like I’m cry-screaming bloodshot but in a mirror see that my body is swaying hips to hula or teaching class downtown or pouring coconut milk into carrot curry soup.
Like reading astounding words from beloved writer-activists, I defibrillate my arrested heart, raise my fist, then see my own brown knuckles box me about the head and neck.
On the daily, these bursts feel different but have the same truth underneath. Recovery? Reconciliation? Red Dawn <–legit vote
I’m in between, on a bridge, floating above canyons, suspended among valleys. (Does this count as ‘standing in the gap’ too?) I’m trying to get to some destination but not sure where, just know I’m walking away from the last place.
I can already feel myself curating this no-stakes, free-style post. This is really two or three topical posts. Be wary of word count. You didn’t preview what you’ll be posting about. What if mentioning faith stuff so early makes friends feel akward/pity/confusion say they’ll pray for me? Good! I’ll take prayer! This is not a ‘soft landing’. Think of a better way to end this.
Resist! Persist! I’ll pause here and