Talking about *practice*

This is what I’m practicing today:



the next task in front me
that needs doing
that I’m capable of completing.

Performing the task.

Returning to the beginning.

This could be as simple as putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, or making breakfast, or sleeping if I’m tired.

It could be as complex as revising an essay, or arranging alone time with my partner, or settling a dispute between my children.

If all the tasks that need doing involve caring for others, or
if all the tasks that need doing are about self care, or
if all the tasks that need doing are unpleasant or difficult, or
if all the tasks that need doing are pleasant are easy,
these indicate that I should consider carefully how I define “need.”

For me, if the task takes more than half an hour, it’s too big, and I need to break it into smaller tasks.

It’s challenging, but I already feel more attentive, more present, and calmer.

The first two steps (pausing, breathing) are the most important.


Progressive 3.0?

The use of resurrection of the word “progressive” has helped make this an intriguing election cycle. Contention over that word has roiled the political left as candidates and their supporters have jockeyed to prove their progressive bona fides. But the discussions around, and reaction to, the primaries thus far have given birth to some divergent ideas about what progressivism means. For that reason, I thought it worthwhile come up with an instrument—an MMPI, if you will—to help identify who might fit the term as I see it.

If you call yourself a progressive and you’re talking about unseating one of the most economically progressive members of the Senate because she didn’t endorse your candidate, you may not understand what progressive means.

If you call yourself progressive and you demean and/or dismiss the votes of hundreds of thousands of southern people of color and working class whites, you might want to check what progressive means.

If you call yourself progressive and your movement is dominated by white middle-class northerners while your biggest base of support is white voters in the whitest states, you might want to think again about what progressive is supposed to mean.

If you call yourself progressive and you and your compadres have to be coached on how to talk to a Black person, it’s time to take a look at that progressive credential you’re wearing.

If you call yourself progressive and you think everyone who doesn’t support your candidate is either bought, deluded, or uninformed, then progressive might not be the term for you.

If you call yourself progressive and many of the oppressed people you’re trying to “free” are giving you the side-eye, it might be time to think again about what you are.

If you call yourself a progressive and the only time you actually engage with people of color or working class folks is every four or eight or twelve or twenty years when your political messiah pops up, if the worlds in which you and your family live and work and play are nearly devoid of people of color, then you might need to download a new version of progressivism.

Now, it’s true that capitalism is a system that has crushed the lives of millions in this country. It’s true that those with money have outsized power and influence in our political and economic systems. It’s true that both parties have failed to adequately grapple with these and other issues, and, like Michelle Alexander, I would be thrilled at the appearance of one or more new viable political parties to challenge that failure.

But if you call yourself a progressive and you think the truth only belongs to you, then you’re not any kind of progressive I want to be around.

If you think the truth of this country resides in the monologue coming from you rather than a dialogue—a conversation—coming from many voices in many places, then I am decidedly uninterested in whatever progressivism means to you.

Because you know what’s great about this election? When it’s all over—whoever gets nominated and whoever wins—those who only call themselves progressives will take their ball and go home. They’re going to blame whatever lack of support they’ve experienced on someone else. But the real progressives, the people who intend to do something about change, they’ll be working.

Whoever wins the election, the real progressives will be agitating and agitating and agitating to push that president and that Congress and those governors and state legislatures and those mayors and city councils and district attorneys and school boards and fucking dog catchers to do what’s right.

And every time they get even a piece of a victory, they’re going to build on that and carry it forward. See, some of you would-be progressives might set down your economic analyses and read about Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez and Shirley Chisolm. It might help you to look at some Audre Lorde and Minnie Bruce Pratt and Gloria Anzaldua. You’ll find that no single white politician—male or female—has ever done for oppressed people what oppressed people didn’t agitate to make them do.

So the real progressive will engage and organize with Black and Latino and Asian-American and Native American people of all classes—and working class people or every race, and women of every race—everywhere they can find them, because the real progressives will be going to where those folks are and listening to them and what they need, not pontificating from their theoretical high ground.

They’ll know that if you can’t connect people’s own narratives, about who and where they are and what they want, to your narrative about where and how you’d like them to go with you, then you don’t deserve to win.

That’s what it means to be “grassroots.” Not to impose your vision from above but to build a vision in collaboration with a broad base of people. And here’s a hint: It’s not broad if it’s dominated by whites, and especially white men.

So if that’s not what your progressivism—and your idea of democracy—looks like, it might be time to either change your practice or find a new name for whatever it is that you’re doing.

Being Black is a Fulltime Job

With all the numbers about Black unemployment, and the common racist depiction of Black Americans as lazy and unwilling to work, I’ve been thinking about how useful it would be to find a statistical measure for the labor that’s involved in simply being a Black person (or any person of color) in this country.

Because in addition to whatever labor we do to make money, being Black is a fulltime job in the United States. Of course we all have the job of being human. And, no, I don’t mean holding down employment and/or taking care of your own. Spending and getting. I don’t mean “functioning.” That’s not being human.

I’m talking about, in addition to all that, developing and maintaining some human decency, some sense of compassion. I mean nurturing and acting from an awareness that we belong to a larger community, one reaching beyond sect and nationality and even humanity to encompass everything on this living, breathing ball of blue spinning in the inky ether.

Of course, some folks believe that being human means reaching to realms even beyond that, realms of accountability that we’ll have to deal with after we die. I haven’t decided about that; it’s more than I know. But the elements of being human that I’ve talked about so far are plenty even if you don’t believe in a hereafter.

Then we each have the job of carrying our gender: male or female or something more fluid that encompasses parts of both, or moves from one to the other, or hovers in some way between them. As a man, I can tell you that masculinity in general, and Black masculinity in particular, has its hazards. My experience beyond that is limited to observation, but I’m pretty sure that whatever difficulty the work of being male requires, the work of being female entails more.

Anyway, that covers the jobs that all Americans have to work, or at least ought to be working. But the work of being Black involves additional labor.

It includes the work of making up for the likely economic differences between yourself and white people, regardless of what social class you’re born into or what educational level you or your family have attained.

It includes the work, beginning in childhood, of trying to find a place for yourself in the national and cultural narratives. That is, a place that doesn’t keep you only in the confines of slavery or civil rights or deprivation or crime.

It means the work of being concerned for your children and their lives and livelihoods. And that includes trying to prepare them for the economic, social, physical, and emotional hazards of carrying all of these burdens themselves.

It involves the work of fending off white supremacist notions about your inability to function as an intellectual and moral human being on a plane level with them.

It also involves the work of hearing white privileged notions that whatever racist animus you experience and discuss is exaggerated or imagined because of your own unfounded “sensitivity.”

It definitely includes the work of dealing with white leftists of all stripes, including progressives or feminists or socialists or other intellectuals who insist that if you only subsume your struggles under their “larger” sense of the “real” issues, your problems will be over.

And if that isn’t enough, the labor of being Black includes the overtime work of dealing with useless white liberal guilt that accompanies these conversations, when what would really be helpful is a white moral outrage at all injustice that would translate into concrete actions to combat it.

As I indicated earlier, for a Black woman, you can take the level of work that I’ve talked about and at least double it. You know that cloak of invisibility that’s so coveted in the Harry Potter books? I’m guessing some wizard got it from a working class Black woman who said, “Here. You can have it for free. Been trying to get rid of this thing all my life.” Those may be hard to find for many white folks, but in the United States they hand those cloaks out to Black women at birth.

This list presents some of the extra labor, the second fulltime job, that comes with being Black in America. The work can makes us weary; it can anger and exhaust us. But speaking for myself, there are fringe benefits that make it bearable.

Here I mean things like knowing you come from a people whom hundreds of years of ongoing economic, political, physical, and cultural violence have been unable to break. Think of that. Nearly half a millennium of continued oppression, and we’re still here. Not only are we here, but we’ve remade the cultural and moral landscape of the very civilization that’s tried to destroy us. We can look around and see art, literature, music, film, dance, theater that would be unrecognizable as American without our presence and influence.

That’s what I think of as I work that fulltime job. That’s the heritage my children inherit. And despite the work of being Black, I have the happy task of reminding myself, my children, and white America of that.


We will know them, each member of the newly

dead in France. We will name them, list them.

Their loved ones we will draw into our global

embrace. Their faces, friendships we will recollect

to weigh against the images of white sheets

lying lightly on misshapen masses on the ground.

Bullets, bombs took their targets at random,

ignoring virtue and sin alike, assigning totality,

finality, amassing act by act their accounting.

But theirs will fail to be the final statement.

We will know these dead just as we hear the

names of 9/11 read and reread. Just at the New

York Times delivered its precis of each life lost

in flying furnaces and rubble. We will know them


And slightly farther south, along Europe’s belly,

we count up in a different way a different dead,

washing ashore or plucked a thickening harvest

from the waters. These too indifferently were

taken, generations erased. And here no names,

no flag colors draped around the globe, no lists

or accounting of habits or hobbies or dreams, of

lineage or age. Their links to the living severed

in the terror and turmoil of sudden splashing.

Their throats choked as they filled with unpaid

promises, eyes bulging as they gasped for the

oxygen of action, of compassion. Until, gaping

mouths wide, they slid into the deep unnamed,

scarcely numbered, unclaimed except by the sea.

Flagless. Faceless. Forgotten with the multitude.

(How must it feel, the desperate, failing tread of

legs against the sea, laboring to hold aloft the

weary head of loved ones, flailing last thoughts:

the knowledge of sinking, all sinking into breathless

green and blue.)

How different the tallies we take, and what they

tell of how we weigh the loss, measuring bloated

brown bodies by the ton, by the gross, against the

individual blanket draped over each crumpled

figure. And names, so many names, those floating

on our lips, and those that sink into the sea.

And: A Temporary Spiritual Manifesto

Last week, for the first time in my life, I met with a spiritual director. I think of him as a coach for my spiritual life. I tell him my spiritual goals, and he suggests ways to help me achieve them.

After the meeting, I realized even more acutely (I had already realized it on some level, which is why I sought him out) that I have been wandering through life without a spiritual compass for a long, long time, and that this is a very dangerous situation for me.

Let me name what spiritual means to me:

not religious, though I have moved through several Christian religions

not about “god,” since the idea of a Guy/Gal in the Sky no longer speaks to me

My sensation tells me that something larger, deeper, more fundamental than we can easily perceive runs this universe.

I don’t know what to call it.

The universe. Nature. The Tao. Reality.

Some people prefer “God” or Spirit.

Who am I to quarrel?

It exists beyond my power to fully understand it.

Which is good, because understanding it isn’t the point.

It exists beyond my power to control it.

Which is even better because in my humanness, if I could control it I would long ago have wrecked the universe completely and we wouldn’t be having this interaction.

My best chance of being able to tolerate existing in this world depends on my experiencing the unmitigated joy of trying to live in harmony with this larger/deeper/more fundamental—well, let’s call it a Presence.


Yes, I said “trying.”

The joy of “trying.”

In the deep and frightening unhappiness that was much of my childhood, my spirituality kept me alive. I don’t mean this metaphorically.

Spirituality saved me in every way a person can be saved: physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically.

It revealed to me, not intellectually but in some felt way, a reality beyond the interpersonal, racial, economic, and political chaos of my family and my country and the planet.

It doesn’t prevent my suffering (nor does it “make” me suffer in order to teach me a lesson).

It doesn’t prevent my causing suffering.

It doesn’t make the world better, not does it make the world worse. Doesn’t render it just or unjust.

It does, when I listen to it, make me aware.

Of pain and sorrow of confusion of wrong of beauty of life of love.

Of joy.

It does not let me replace the pain or sorrow or confusion with joy.

It does not say, “The world can be terrible, but here are flowers and babies and the ocean.

It says the world has pain and there is love.

The world has injustice and we can hold one another.

The world is a blood-soaked valley and every day, in a billion ways, there are people who sacrifice for the well-being of others.

In short, the presence of reality or the Tao promises nothing except the resonant hum of our messy, blindingly confusing existence.

It demands, in return, two things: the willingness to be aware as fully as I can, and the willingness to respond as fully as I can.

My awareness and response likely won’t end injustice, save the planet, end violence, overcome poverty, heal relations between people. They won’t prevent my death, or guarantee me a life afterward in some idealized realm.

All they offer is the joy of really being alive in this moment. And to me, again, at long last, that offer is everything.

Whose ease?

How often has my own depression been

A stage play dramatizing the tension

Between my version of integrity

And what this culture tells me I can be?

Wrapped in black brown yellow skin, bearing this

Or that apparatus between my legs,

What versions of my integrity will

Feed the beast that is this culture’s ease?

And what peril do I invite if I

Disturb that universe of set, proscribed


The cultural dis ease demands that I

Dis integrate certain ways of being—

Dis re membering them, swapping certain

Parts for somewhat less disruptive new (w)holes.

I recollect how the Soviets used

To label dissidents as crazed, and

So they were, unsettling the discourse

That structured their society.

How recently we named as illness ways

of framing a self that unsettled us.

Said only a dis eased man would seek to

Surrender the role of female screwing, guarding

Guy; how only a dis eased woman would

Refuse to chase a man’s satisfaction

Rather than her own, would find fulfillment

Sexual romantic emotional

Only in another woman’s embrace

My television teaches me dis ease

Will generate pathology, birth some

Criminal mind that runs amok, threatens

Those sent from central casting to play the

Role of helpless, hapless, clueless victim.

Two birds with one stone: dis ease demonized,

female weakness neatly reasserted.

What do I do, then, with my dissident

Integrities? Acknowledge I am in

A criminal enterprise that seeks to

know its own mind, its own skin, regardless,

and realize that ease is not the aim.

Welcoming now a Kairos-times chaos.

Erase the seeming gap so I can then

set discipline and self acceptance dancing.

Black Clark Kent

Let me tell you about a certain dark brown boy of my acquaintance. When he was nine or ten, his elementary school carried out one of those regular vision screenings and discovered his nearsightedness, which led to his getting the glasses he needed. Over the years, they tested his hearing to make sure it functioned properly. Each fall, they reviewed his immunizations, and in his physical education classes, they monitored and tested his physical fitness.

What no one ever tested or inquired about was the sadness and trauma of his home life—his parents’ continual screaming arguments, sometimes turning violent; the family’s life at times on the border of poverty. Because this boy was a Good Student. He listened attentively in class; he earned good grades; he had a quick mind; he was unfailingly polite and respectful to his teachers. In other words, both he and his family had the decency to keep the difficulties of his life to themselves. And because he behaved and because he learned, no one really cared. Unlike his eyes and his hearing and his shots, his emotional life, in the eyes of his school, was none of their business.

Only much later, when the boy had reached the middle age of his manhood, did he understand how much the turmoil and pathology at home contributed to his being a Good Student. It taught him obedience; it taught him deference to authority, even when he knew that authority to be irrational; it taught him when to be silent and when to speak; it taught him how to adjust his speech so that authority would find it acceptable.

The boy saw, too, what happened to those who failed to perform the role of Good Student that he had mastered. He saw the kids who wore their hunger and their anger and their sadness on their sleeves. He saw the kids who carried in their eyes the question of why the world seemed to despise them, who demanded to know what crime they had committed to be relegated to life’s lower tier. He sympathized with them, and in his mind he asked the same questions, but unlike them, he had the good sense to keep those questions to himself.

And he climbed. Oh, how he climbed. Not that he didn’t trip at times. As an undergraduate, in the midst of success, he fell into episodes of despondency, of depression and inexplicable inaction. He even dropped out of school eventually. But after a few years, he returned with renewed focus and finished his degree, earned a graduate degree as well, became a college teacher himself, and then, by his late 30s, earned a Ph.D.

And then, something strange happened. He backed slowly away. And bit by bit he discovered something about himself. In retrospect, it felt to him like those narratives where a seemingly normal human being discovers that he has a secret super power, perhaps has even had that power all along. But in his case, the discovery didn’t take place all at once. It accumulated like rain that falls quietly but incessantly, that seeps into the ground, soaks down to the water table, and slowly rises until it steadily inundates everything, until its power becomes unmistakable.

He thought of all the times during his climb that he had felt outside—all the time really. And he remembered that this position on the edge had let him see some things that his student colleagues didn’t. He remembered his depressive episodes and how, even in their difficulty, they had humbled him and forced him to maintain a perspective about the limits of academic learning that so many of his peers lacked. And one day it dawned on him that it wasn’t his obedience or compliance or even intelligence that had sustained him. All the while that he had worked and read and studied and learned and sought to impress, something else had kept him going.

It was his skin. It was the blackness he’d worn all his life that had shielded him and prevented him from easy acceptance of all the “supposed-to’s” around which he often felt such pressure to arrange his life. The skin that had always tied him to others and to a different sense life’s significance. His blackness has taught him to question and challenge, had showed him how to turn a thing upside down, had revealed the ugliness that clung to the underside of every gleaming trinket respectable life dangled in front of him.

He realized then that he had chosen to remain outside, on the edge, watching, and his blackness had prepared him to do so. Every time he had watched, as a boy, the absence of black characters in the television shows and films, or seen them presented in cartoonish and stereotypical ways. Every time, as a child in school, he’d read endless books by white authors of characters with white lives and people of color on the periphery or immolating themselves for the greater good. In undergraduate and graduate school, he hadn’t needed to learn critique and analysis; a lifetime of living in his skin and having to translate society’s platitudes into the prejudices that lay beneath had taught him for more than any course in any theory. His blackness had taught him that you can make discoveries through emotion and art and music and language that you can’t make any other way, whether anyone else wants to hear it or not.

And so this acquaintance of mine, like anyone who discovers her or his secret super power, faces new challenges. What to do with this secret strength? Whether to keep it secret. Or whether, and how, to take off at long last the costume of How Things Are, reveal that burnished blackness underneath, and fly, whatever falls might await him.