Landscapes of the Mind – Six Singular Experiences

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fleurdulys: The Devil’s Bridge - Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard Pass, JMW Turner, 1803-1804,

It’s all about the mind, of course. All experience filters through it, the outward and inner, nature and the art it inspires. But some paintings arrest the mind more than others and invite you to linger. To become part on one’s own mindscape, images we return to again and again to express the inexpressible. And that call upon us to articulate what it is that moves us so.

The one above by JWM Turner is one such painting that looms large in my mind. It’s the gold that captures me first, the light that dazzles. A feast for the eyes, the mind, before you ever enter the painting. And then, what depths! What flow. The water coursing down the chasm, the travelers flowing across the bridge, the airy clouds lifting us up. The dark shadows carrying us, like the two tiny birds, far before.

The drama of it all. The mystery. Like life itself. Dreamlike. So deep and wide and far away and dissolving in a moment. Yet for all of that, it matters. This matters. This moment, this painting. Something so deeply significant is happening here and even though we do not know what it is, it  matters.

Henri Manguin - The Parkway, 1905 at Pinakothek der Moderne Munich Germany by mbell1975, via Flickr

Henri Manguin, The Parkway

Here, a very different landscape to enter. Again, what captures me first is the tangle of colors, the reds and blues, soft greens and sparkling golds. The deep shadow in the forefront with the mysterious woman sitting so quietly, turned away, inward, while the forest path winds past her, lost in the distance, and the trees loom over her, curving, lifting, a tangled torrent of upward movement. The glimpse of clear blue sky in the top right corner, a whiff of promise.

But the light, the light!  Filtering down through the trees, dappling the path, dazzling the daisies, and gilding the ground before her. The light that surrounds her and lifts the path out of darkness, that filters up through the tangled trees to the crisp blue promise overhead.

Paul Gauguin - Mata Moe

Paul Gauguin – Mata Moe

This one, for all its similarities, has a different feel. Again, it’s the colors that grab, that tantalize before we even begin to decipher what we are seeing. Not a tangle of colors like the last one, but great emphatic splashes! The mountains in the distance fairly shout, look at me! And the eye does not know where to go next, there’s so much to see! All my exclamation points make the same emphatic point as this painting.

We’re like a traveler in an exotic location. We don’t know what to look at, where to go first, so much calls us. The large birds lazily crossing our path, the man about his mysterious work, the path curving toward the women walking, the whimsical house, the dense forest, the palm tree leaning upward. So much movement, so much color, excites us. We are there, we are there, immersed in the moment. This is not a dream.

inloveipersevere:“ Children at the Beach by Maurice Prendergast ”

Children at the Beach by Maurice Prendergast

This one just makes me happy. Pure bliss is written all over it. The children at the center, enveloped by the sea and sky, dazzle the eye. Their playfulness, those splotches of light-hearted color, are mirrored in the dappled sky above, the dappled sea-shadows and reflections below. It’s as if they are floating in some aquatic space, cradled, cuddled.

Oh, I want to hold them forever! I could stay here all day watching. They make me so happy.

Sower with Setting Sun - Vincent van Gogh. Epic painting that has stood the test of time! #painting #sunset #artwork

Van Gogh, The Sower

Here, so different from the others, the mood more mellow. Yet that golden sun, setting or rising, we know not which, like Turners golden mountain, commands the eye. I’m not just drawn toward it, I want to enter in, to rest there, in that roundness. I want to sink deep into it.

The rest is just framework. The dark tree leans toward it, the orange leaves a fitting crown. The man below, the sower, sprinkling seed-gifts in its wake. The solemn fields patiently awaiting its warm rays. I feel at peace here. Even with the dark-shadowed man silhouetted so softly before it. He’s on this way home. His long golden rest awaits.

peter doig | Peter Doig, Figures in Red Boat , 2005-07, Oil on linen, 250 x 200 cm ...

‘Pelican Island’, 2006 – Peter Doig (b.1959)

When I enter here I find silence. No words. That is the painting’s most salient feature for me. The merging of sea and sky, the fairy-like bird and trees, the trailing leaves above, the blue boat below, are all dreamlike in the distance. All mere contrast. The mirage-like details that draw the mind downward into that deep warm pool, the stillness below. The stillness of no words.

David Whyte, Putting Down the Weight of Aloneness

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Interior with a Girl Reading - Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

I’ve long been a fan of David Whyte’s poetry and this one is no exception. It seems it may have been written especially for these times, when so many of us find ourselves cocooned in our homes, feeling alone, cut off from everything.

And yet, even here, all alone, he writes, is this “swelling presence” of the everyday and ordinary, this “chorus” of the mundane that surrounds us. This “conversation” with kettles and cooking pots, doors and stairs is a grand symphony that accompanies our solo voice. Yet these intimate and animate objects, like a constant companion that comforts and supports, just waiting for our interplay, go almost unnoticed.

My elbow leans lazily on my desk and my hand cradles the mouse as I stop to stare at this brilliant invention before me. Then I lean back in my chair and continue typing thoughts into cyberspace. The wall clock behind me waits patiently for my wayward glance, ticking out the seconds so it can tell me the exact time when I need to know.

Yes, everything, everything is just waiting for me. Somehow these objects and I are woven together, seamlessly creating this life we share. We are never alone if only we would look and see.

Everything is Waiting For you

by David Whyte

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

Links to more poetry by Whyte

Something in this Sleeping Earth

Opened at Last

Melt into that Fierce Heat of Living

 

Wildfires Everywhere, Literally and Politically

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That unusual thunderstorm I wrote about last week brought more than 1200 lightening strikes that forked across California causing 560 wildfires gobbling up forests, homes and whole communities. The worst we’ve had so far, and the fire season gets worse each year.

We were fortunate here on the central coast. The few fires that struck nearby were quickly put out. But the state is ablaze north and south of us. Our county lies under a thick  pall of heavy smoke that fills the air with ash and fine particles. Air quality warnings are on high alert all around us. Our masks do double duty now, to protect us from Corona and the fires’ fallout.

While all this was going on I was watching the Democratic National Convention, which shone like a glimmer of hope beneath the pall of smoke and burst aflame during the final days.

Here’s what I wrote on Facebook after the convention:

I have been so inspired by the Democratic convention this week. I’ve been riveted all 4 nights, loving the new format, the intimacy and variety it brings, highlighting ordinary citizens all across the nation, republicans as well as democrats who are joining together to support this inspiring ticket to redeem the soul of America. While I was thrilled with the speeches by the Obamas, charmed by Jill Biden’s loving endorsement of her husband, excited by Kamala Harris’s acceptance speech, and cheered by so many others, it was Biden’s speech that filled my heart with hope and joy. He is the leader I’ve been waiting for, the one who can unite and heal our country, who can bring decency, honesty, and integrity back into the oval office. Who will defend our democracy and protect our troops and restore our standing in the world. We will again be a city on a hill, a beacon in the dark, a champion of human rights around the world. I’m stoked and hope you are too. Please VOTE

Despite this excitement and new confidence that Biden will win the day, I worry about the day after January 20. There are so many wildfires he needs to put out before he can even begin to “build back better.” Not least among them is getting this virus under control, getting kids back to school and people back to work. Replacing all the Trump-appointed heads of departments and agencies who have worked so hard to tear them apart. Recalling his ambassadors who wreck havoc overseas. Restoring our relationships with the WHO and NATO and the Climate Accord and so many other entities. The list goes on and on.

I think a President Biden administration will be up to the task. But it will be a long haul just to get back to zero, to the prosperity President Obama left for us before Trump ruined everything.  The challenge will be trying to do all this while also marching forward with new positive changes so needed, like ending systemic racism and guaranteeing affordable healthcare to one and all, in order to make this truly a “more perfect union”

The most most pressing problem to address, and the hardest in which to see timely results, is Climate Change, which contributed to all these wildfires and to the double hurricanes sweeping toward our Gulf Coast as I write.

Saving our planet from ourselves and for our children and grandchildren is priority #!. My fear is that with all the other fires we need to put out it will be put on a back burner. And if it is, who knows what devastation will be brought to our shores and across the globe next year, and the year after, and the one after that  . . . .

Photo credit – Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty. A senior center sign warning of Covid during Hennessey Fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa on August 18, 2020

Still Waiting to Land . . . .

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Last summer brought an abundance of roses, so many I did not have enough vases to hold them all. And I only picked those hidden from view!

This year the roses are few and those poorly formed, although our watering and fertilizing and spraying have all been the same. But the baby quail, and deer, and turkey! We’ve never seen so many baby critters trailing through all our yards, hunkering under the bushes, and flying up into the treetops!

This week a heatwave has been forecast, with temperature over 100 for ten days straight and up to 112 degrees. Clear skies, zero precipitation.

But twice this week, instead of heat, we got warm rain. One time lasting all day, and today our house shook with thunder. The rain fell so hard and thick it looked like hail. And they say it never rains in California in the summertime!

A sign of the times, this unexpected mixture of drought and abundance. And not limited to nature. So much seems surreal.

Mailboxes ripped up and sorting machines thrown into dumpsters right before an election!

Walls of moms, and dads with leaf blowers, being tear-gassed by storm troopers!

The first Black woman chosen as VP on a major political ticket!

A diplomatic treaty signed between the UAE and Israel!

Open warfare between teachers and governors over whether to open schools or resort to distant learning again!

Hoards of unmasked worshipers swamping the beaches in Orange County, despite a pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans!

What does it all mean? How will it all end?

We are lost within the grey fog of war.

Clearly we live in interesting times. A curse? Possibly. A cleansing? Hopefully.

No wonder we feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under our feet. And we haven’t quite landed yet.

To Live Content With Small Things

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Rain                                                                                                                                                                                 More

A few pebbles for the pond . . . . 

To live content with small things;
To seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion;
To be worthy, not respectable;
To listen to stars and birds, and to babes with an open heart;
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasion, hurry never –
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common.  — William Henry Channing

love is the voice under all silences,
the hope which has no opposite in fear;
the strength so strong mere force is feebleness:
the truth more first than sun more last than star
— e.e.cummings

We sit together,
the mountain & I
. . .  until only the
mountain remains.
— Li Po

“Vast Emptiness, Vastly Full”

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Gustav Klimt

There are a few refrains that I turn to again and again when I want to get a clearer sense of who I am beyond what appears in a mirror or an ordinary, limited sense of self.

Some are from Buddhist or Taoist texts that I’ve written about or alluded to on these pages:

Able to be the mother of the world

Not-two” Or “Not-I

Oh so delicious!

Some are from poems I wrote to capture a particular state of mind where I was “there”–Not-I.

I am clean, uncluttered space . . .

Drifting mindless round the bend, bursting out, bursting in.”

“Vast emptiness, vastly full” is another refrain I turn to that helps me to move beyond a constrictive sense of self to something that feels freer and truer.

It comes from the book On Having No Head, Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by D. E. Harding. Some excerpts follow.

The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

It was eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?

. . . . What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking . . . . Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in—absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.

It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

. . . .  I seemed to stop breathing altogether . . . .  alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void . . .  utterly free of “me”, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.

. . . . [I]t felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. . . . . In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words . . . . the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

I’ve had that sensation of being “vast emptiness, vastly full” and it feels more real, more “me”, than my ordinary sense of self. The full-blown experience doesn’t last long, but the sense of it, the memory, the feel of it when I enter those words vast emptiness, vastly full is heady. It takes me somewhat out of myself and into a sense of being that is freer and fuller. And truer. It brings me home to myself.

Which is probably why I love that poem Love After Love by Derek Walcott so much.

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

. . . . Feast on your life.

Toni Morrison: Diving Into Darkness on Wings of Light

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"You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down." -Toni Morrison

Last in my series “Brushes With Blackness” on how Black lives and Black Culture colored my Whiteness.

I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to write or what I wanted to write until I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman.

What I mean by how and what is this: Sentences so carefully crafted they grab and bite. Images  so sharp and powerful they cleave you to the bone. That lift you up and tear you apart with one clean stoke. Characters that are utterly human and yet larger than life. Story-telling that is a kind of myth-making. Themes that capture the heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching brutality of an oppressed people.

Song of Solomon is the coming of age tale of a Black man in the 1930’s, Macon Dead, III, otherwise know as Milkman, because his mother nursed him until his his legs were dangling toward the floor. It’s about his strange aloof family, a wealthy bitter father and a secretive, passive mother, a bootlegger Aunt born with no novel, a beautiful cousin he lusts after and abandons. It’s about his best friend Guitar who joins other angry young men bent on revenge killings, and his own quest to escape that violence and a dead-end life and learn to fly, as his own  great-grandfather, Soloman, is reported to have done. All the way back to Africa.

It’s tale that reminds us about the possibility and need of transcendence, to find something within ourselves that lifts us beyond where we ever thought we could go.

Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, struck me in similar ways. So much so that I taught the book in my freshman literature and composition courses for many years. Reading that book was an experience that I believed my students must not miss out on. “A book like an axe,” as Kafka recommended, “to break the seas frozen inside our souls.”

Beloved tells the story of slavery, its escape, and its aftermath. It’s based on the true story a a woman who would rather kill her own than to see that child return to the horrors they’d just escaped. And it’s the tale of how the horrors of the past, in this case a dead child, can come back to haunt us.

In the end though, it’s about love. About loving others, being loved, and learning to love ourselves, despite all that would argue against it or try to stop us. This is the great theme that runs through all her books.

In one moving scene, Baby Suggs, Holy, a backwoods preacher in a sunlit meadow, offers up to those who come to hear, her great big heart:

Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!

Morrison’s writing is a kind of “diving into darkness on wings of light.” She does not flinch away from the darkness, but at the same time shows us how it’s pierced with light.

She has inspired me as a writer on not only how and what to write, but also why. To write large, and write deep, in language that sears and soars. To write stories that matter, that make a difference, that must be heard. To write in nuanced and meaningful ways about both the beauty and brutality of the human experience. Stories that inspire us to rise above our smaller selves.

You want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. –Toni Morrison

My Arms Are Empty, But My Heart Is Full

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Moonbeams by Jessie Wilcox Smith

My granddaughter who had been living with me this past year is visiting with her Aunt and Uncle this summer, 300 miles away.  If all goes well, she will be staying with them  while starting second grade.

My long, hard-fought struggle to win permanent guardianship of my 7 year old granddaughter was finally won. Which means I must decide what is in her best interest: To continue living here with me and her grandfather in virtual Covid-isolation. Or to allow her to live with younger, more active caretakers who love her dearly and can provide a far better life for her than we can.

I chose the latter, of course, but not without anguish.  I miss her dearly, despite the daily face chats, photos, and reports of her adjustment. She loves her new “awesome” bedroom with the pink walls and loft-bed where she and her new dog Sasha can hide-away beneath and play. She has a “real” sidewalk to ride her scooter now, not a long steep driveway that leads to a narrow road. The beach is only minutes away, and already she’s surfing, and standing(!) with Uncle’s help. She’s in a musical theater day camp where she plays one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. She has two active caretakers to play with her and put her to bed and teach her new things every day. They are the kindest, most loving couple I know, and they are so excited to have her there, filling their home with love and laughter.

My arms are empty and I ache for her. I know despite all the good that has come and is coming her way that it’s not easy to adjust to so many new changes. But she’s strong and resilient and wise beyond her years. Before we ever contemplated this move, she was reading a book about a girl who was anxious about a new move,  going to a new school and making new friends. She said, “Grandma, I don’t get it, why kids are always so scared of change? It’s just a new school! She’ll make new friends! It’s nothing to get so dramatic about!”

She knows this from experience. She’s had so many changes in her young life and she’s learned to take it all in stride and make the most of it.

I know this is the best possible outcome, and I’m thrilled for her, and for my daughter and son-in-law. She knows that I will be visiting often, and she’ll be coming here to spend holidays and summer vacation. This will always be her home too.

It’s what her parents said they wanted for her also. Years ago they chose this Aunt and Uncle to care for their daughter should something happen to them. They trusted them then, as I do now.

Still, it’s not easy letting go. My house feels so empty without her. My arms crave her warm body. But my heart is full. She’s safe, she’s happy, her future is secure. She’s is cherished, and so very, very loved. God is good.

Brushes with Blackness – Feminist or Womanist?

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Alice Walker Quote Art Womanist Is To Feminist As Purple Is | Etsy

Third in series in how Black lives and Black culture colored my Whiteness.

I came of age during the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement in the 60’s and 70’s.  Women were reading the works of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and holding consciousness-raising sessions in their living rooms. They were celebrating the arrival of oral contraception, marching for the Equal Rights Amendment, and advocating for Woe vs Wade.

While I supported the movement and considered myself a feminist, I was not particularly political then and spent most of the time at the fringes. Intellectually and ideologically, I was in sync with the movement’s goals, but I didn’t feel the same kind of urgency or passion that I saw in others who were actively engaged.

I grew up with a strong mother and aunts, women who did not take a back seat to anyone, least of all the men in their lives. I never saw myself or other females as lessor than the males I knew. I loved being a woman and, if anything, felt sorry for men, the inability to carry life in their bodies or give birth to humankind.

In college I read widely about the movement, including its critics. I learned that many Black women felt uncomfortable within the narrow scope of feminism, which did not represent their personal experience and broader goals. A new social movement called Womanism emerged.

Alice Walker coined the term and “defined womanists as black feminists or feminists of color who are committed to the wholeness and survival of the entire people (both men and women).” She went on to describe a womanist as:

A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … and women’s strength. … Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health … Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit … Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.

I was inspired by this new movement. It seemed to me that while Feminism derived from sense of deprivation and distrust to address issues of social justice and equality, Womanism rose from a sense of wholeness and faith to address the same issues. It was broader, more inclusive, and contained a spiritual element.

According to scholar Layli Maparyan, a womanist seeks to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension”.

Womanism spoke closer to my own experience and aspirations. I wanted to be part of a liberation movement that freed all of us, even those who oppressed women. To truly be free, we all needed to be free, oppressed and oppressor alike. We needed to lift the consciousness of the entire race, male and female.

Though not a woman of color, I was excited about this new kind of feminism and began to identify myself more as womanist than a feminist, without repudiating the latter. Like Walker, I saw feminism as part of a broader ideological movement that womanism embraced.

A Third and Fourth Wave of Feminism eventually arose that speaks closer to the intersections between race, class, gender, and geopolitical divides, with a diversity of experience as keynote. The whole thing gets very complicated and confusing.

But for me, the maxim that none of us is free until all of us are free prevails. Movements that divide of us by gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, etc, will never secure the freedom and equality we all desire and deserve. But respecting our differences, celebrating our diversity, and embracing our common humanity just might.

Brushes with Blackness: Best Friends and Bullies

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ClearClearClear

Second in series in how Black lives and Black culture colored my Whiteness.

As a child I was completely color blind. I know today people would say that was unlikely. Or even problematic. White people declaring they are color blind is seen as a kind of whitewash, or cop-out, a way to refuse to deal with the problem of systemic racism. People of color born into racist societies do not have the luxury of being color blind.

But it is my recollection of my personal experience as a young child. Certainly I saw differences in skin color, but it meant no more to me than differences in body size, hair color, gender, age. I assigned no value to these things other than appreciating that there was difference. It was a natural part of life.

My first “brush with Blackness,” as I call it, happened in third grade. We were living in Omaha, Nebraska in the late 50’s, in an old haunted house that I write about in another series of blog posts.

On the school playground I befriended an older girl named Barbara in the 4th grade who happened to be Black. She was kind and fun and we shared a love of books. As she lived nearby, sometimes she walked home with me, and occasionally came to my house to play. Eventually she became my best friend. She was beautiful, tall and slim and had the loveliest smile. One day she invited me to her house to spend the night.

I only found out later what a ruckus that created between my mother and stepdad, who did not like the idea at all. But my mother insisted that I should be allowed to go. She met with Barbara’s mom, a nurse at the local hospital only a few blocks away. She was also a beautiful woman, fuller figured than her daughter, but with the same upswept hair and regal bearing, the same sweet smile and soft, warm voice.

It was my first sleepover and I was so excited. Barbara lived in a large home with several stories and a basement. Lots of her relatives lived there with her, including an uncle younger than she was, a fact that amazed and delighted me. How was such a thing possible? He was a fresh-faced boy with cute grin who liked to tease us. At dinner time we all sat around a huge dining room table eating the most delicious food I had ever tasted—barbequed pork ribs that melted off the bones. Everyone was friendly and laughed a lot, and made me feel a part of the family. My first sleep-over was a huge success.

But later that month I learned in a very personal way what racism was all about. In those days it was popular to wear dresses with full petticoats that made them flare out. While I loved them, they were also a nuisance. When I walked down the aisle of my classroom the dress would swish papers off desks if I wasn’t careful. So I got into the habit of holding the sides of my dress in when passing between desks or in crowded hallways. It seemed the polite thing to do so I wouldn’t be bothering anyone.

One day I was walking home from school on a narrow sidewalk. The girls in front of me were walking slower than I wanted to go, so I passed them by, politely pulling in my skirt as I did so. When I was in front of them, one of the girls began yelling at me and calling me names. Then she kicked me and made me fall. All I remember is being so hurt and angry and scared. I took off running as they laughed at me. When I got to the corner (my home was only a few houses away down the adjacent block) I turned around and yelled back at her the worst name I could think of, the one my mother had told me to never call anyone. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I felt she deserved it. I called her the N-word.

The next day I was called into the Principal’s office. My mother was there along with the girl who had kicked me and her 6th grade teacher. I thought we were there because she was in big trouble for being so mean to me. But instead I found out that I was in big trouble for calling her that horrible name. It seems she had thought I was holding my skirt in because I did not want it to touch her black body. And the fact that I had called her the N-word proved it. My mother explained that I did not know what that word meant, that I had nothing against Blacks. My best friend was Black.

Barbara and her mother came in to testify in my defense, and I was so grateful to see them there. Barbara told me later that the girl who kicked me was a bully who was always getting into trouble. She came from a bad home and her teacher was trying to help her.

I can’t remember what happened after that. Whether the girl and I had to apologize to each other or what the consequence was. Barbara and I remained friends. But I never got another sleepover at her house.

My colorblindness was shattered that day in the Principal’s office. Skin color became a thing that tainted all of us, me most of all. My whiteness set me apart from my Black friends. It made me suspect. It tainted me with the guilt of my forefathers and of my own prejudiced step-dad and other family members. It did not change my feelings for my Black friend or her kind family. But it changed my feelings for that Black girl who kicked me. I learned how my whiteness had marked me as a member of a race whose prejudice had scarred her, and how I had unwittingly contributed to that. I had a crash course in race relations, and from what I could see it was the White race, who had enslaved and oppressed others who were the tainted race, not the people who we had oppressed and continued to discriminate against.

Not long after that my stepdad was transferred to Vandenburg Airforce Base on the central coast of California. There were no Black children in the school I attended there, and very few in the small town I grew up in.

I feel for the girl who had kicked me, the hurt and outrage she must have felt as I passed her holding in my skirt, calling her that name. I feel for my friend and her mother, that they had been put into the position of defending me against another Black child, even a trouble-maker. I wonder what damage I did to race relations in that family who had welcomed me into their home with such loving-kindness, only to hear about what I had called another child, and feel betrayed.

The experience only deepened my empathy toward others and my commitment to fight for equality and justice for all people, whatever our race or ethnicity, gender or faith, economic status or sexual preference. But it also made me realize how easily we can misjudge each other, how a sense of injustice (hers and mine) can make us say or do hurtful things, things we wouldn’t if we knew better. How difficult it is to win trust and sustain it.

The worldwide protests against racial injustice, the insistence that Black Lives Matter, the kneeling of police officers with protesters, the public outrage against the senseless, violent deaths of Black men and women, make me hopeful that change is possible, that change is coming. None of us are free until all of us are free. That’s a lot of freedom yet to win. We’ve no time to lose.