I was pretty surprised when my son and husband returned from a quick trip to the library a couple weeks ago with this book among their new selections. Even more so, when my husband confessed that he had no hand in picking out a single item! Granted, our library does a great job of displaying books connected to a season, holiday, special event, or other poignant theme. But my action-adventure-and-technology-loving 6 year-old typically gravitates toward superheroes, dragons, dinos and the like. So I was super proud and impressed by his awareness of the kinds of books that I would choose for him!
Now we’ve started this monumental week in our nation’s history by honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and will close out by attending the first ever Children’s Social Justice Reading Group offered at a local library this weekend.
We begin this historic week with the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the National Day of Racial Healing as we trudge toward the final day that our country’s first Black president, Barack Obama, will stand as head of state. Fueled and aflame, with our hearts and minds resting on justice, liberation and healing, we take refuge in the good works, legacy, and words of wisdom from emissaries of light.
In intimate circles, we draw closer, lean into, speak truths and listen deeply to one another — resisting the temptation to be pulled under by despair, fear, hate, and hopeless. En masse, we gather, convene, rally, and march — using our voices and bodies to resist the normalization of this new swell of injustice and violence that seeks to impoverish, divide, and oppress us. Wherever we are, we reclaim the integrity of King’s vision: to stand firmly…
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As a Zen practitioner in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, my study of his teachings and personal history provided a surprising lesson about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This gleaming insight into their relationship renewed my appreciation and broadened my understanding of King’s legacy as it elucidated the global impact of his compassionate mission.
Several years ago, inspired by the “inter-being” between these two leaders as well as my own dharma as a Black American woman on this path of practice, I led my root sangha in the Touching the Earth prostrations to honor King and Thay as spiritual teachers.
Since then, my Monday evening Yin+Yang Yoga class has fallen on this national holiday. Each asana that brings our hearts closer to the earth (like these two favorites: Child’s Pose + Anahatasana) becomes a prostration, in which we fully embody the mindfulness practice of remembrance and reconciliation. We remember our origins and connections: to ancestors, by blood and spirit; to this Earth that sustains us and upon which our complex and interwoven histories have been built. We may began to penetrate the deep suffering emanating from our painful histories, which continue to manifest in new forms and to impact our experiences and abilities to relate to one another because of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability and a whole slew of “differences” that seem to separate us. Breath by compassion-filled breath, we may began to reconcile these histories as we acknowledge, cradle, and heal our own suffering. We give it back to this wondrous Earth to absorb and transform it, as from the mud blooms a lotus.
In every class, I invite the practitioners to cultivate compassionate understanding of their bodies, minds and hearts through the alignment of breath and posture. Generating such mindfulness and loving awareness for ourselves teaches us how to skillfully extend compassion and loving-kindness to others.
When we abide in mindfulness, our senses become clear and fully attuned to the spectrum of beauty and suffering in the world. We acknowledge our own contribution to that stream–how our actions increase beauty or increase suffering. We make amends when we cause suffering and begin anew, watering seeds of compassion. Each heart-driven act–embodied on the mat, the cushion, among our beloveds and within our communities–commemorates the King’s legacy.
On this path, as teacher and practitioner, I know I am a continuation of Dr. King.
[Originally posted 31 January 2013; Updated 20 January 2014]
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel |The Way-Seeking Mind of Martin Luther Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. | King’s Nobel Peace Prize Nomination Letter for Thich Nhat Hanh
Rev. Dr. Andrew C. Kennedy | Martin Luther King Jr. + Thich Nhat Hanh
[Broken links updated 16 January 2017]
Long before I began studying the dharma, Christmas had lost its tinsely-sparkle. My interest and effort to participate waned as I became increasingly disheartened by the conflation of generosity with consumerism, of Jesus with Santa, of prayers with wish lists. Wedged between this fall’s incendiary election and the new year’s looming inauguration, these typically family-oriented holidays became the fallout zone of politically-endorsed hate and division that seemed only to escalate distortions of faith. It further illuminated the problematic ideology of Christmas and its pervasive cultural narratives, which whitewash holidays in a Hallmark hue and subsequently generate carols of racist backlash that seeks to stake exclusive, rage-filled claim to the icons of comfort, joy, and holly-jolly cheer.
Letting go of Christmas has not only been a process of minimizing my participation in the “fanfare and frippery” of festivities for which I feel no personal connection. More than that, it has been a proclamation of both my commitment to center and uplift practices that make space for inclusive, inter-cultural understanding and my resistance to engaging in toxic cultural customs. Rather than occupying space as a mere bystander at a holiday gathering, I would prefer to cultivate “the enchantment” of the season through activities that bolster a lasting sense of goodwill, gratitude, and kinship with our community.
Celebrating the Simple + Sweet
We’re a keep-life-simple-and-sweet kind of family in general and are just as vigilant in applying that rule to holidays (and birthdays). Our son has reached the age where he’s aware that our way of doing things doesn’t necessarily look the way that other families do things. When he makes observations to that point, we explain how our values/preferences are reflected in these choices. If met with a request to make adjustments, we often brainstorm fresh ways to expand our perspective and integrate his ideas.
For instance: When K commented that we never put up a tree and lights, I told him that his dad and I weren’t interested in accumulating seasonal knickknacks. Instead, I offered to help him decorate his room. Then…we watched the Just Christmas Baby episode of black-ish, and he adamantly quashed my suggestion! (So glad to have dodged that.) Decorations aside, we may watch a few holiday movies and listen to songs. But we’re far more likely to get enthused about having enough snowfall to go sledding than we do for unwrapping gifts.
Of course, K loves gifts as much as any kid and gleefully receives them from family members under the auspices of Christmas. But we’ve explained to him that we simply don’t make a big deal out of getting gifts that we can otherwise purchase on any given day (though my husband will take advantage of the sales season for things we’ve already had in mind for the household). And, like most parents, we hope our child will have a healthy appreciation for material possessions balanced with a practice of generosity, a commitment to simplicity, and (the struggle of all struggles) a capacity to let go of things that are no longer useful.
The question always is how to embody and integrate those values in our daily experiences; and, during special times of the year, how to creatively channel the energy of the holidays to bolster what’s most important to us.
New Rituals + Renewed Hope
K’s old enough to sincerely comprehend how and why we put these values into action. So we enjoyed a “giving back” family outing — crafting cards, drawing pictures, and donating food for holiday baskets that a local non-profit organization delivered to those in need. While this was not the first service project we’ve participated in, it was the first one connected to the holidays. And, it was truly heart-warming to know that we could add a little more light to someone else’s celebration.
However, on a deeply personal level, the holidays remained lackluster for me. Drawing on my son’s enthusiasm and curiosity, I reflected on my own heritage for a spark of inspiration. My matrilineal family is of Jewish ancestry, but the cultural and religious practices did not survive the three generations of intermarriage and border crossings that would produce such multi-ethnic, multicultural, multinational descendants of a matriarch who left Germany as a teen in 1880. So, unsurprisingly, Hanukkah was not at all a part of my family’s tradition. As for Kwanzaa, I have only vague memories of my mother wanting us to celebrate it when I was in junior high. It’s very likely that my siblings and I groaned and begrudgingly allowed her to drag us to a public event once. But we never adopted it in our home.
To see these traditions with fresh eyes and to show K that there are other ways to honor this season, we read books about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Both uplift principles can be integrated into lessons beyond what are intended to be these holy days of reflection on endings, beginnings, transformation, rebirth, renewal, and spiritual fortitude.
Hanukkah Moon illuminates the lesser-told Sephardic Jewish traditions as it focuses on a special evening that a young girl spends with her aunt, who has recently moved from Mexico. They sing the Dreidel Song in English and Spanish, hang a dreidel-shaped pinata, and celebrate the luna nueva (new moon) at Hanukkah in which the faith of women in ancient story is highlighted (Rosh Hodesh). In her “author’s note” and glossary, da Costa provides a brief explanation of the settlement of Jews in Latin America as well as the significance of Hanukkah as the celebration of re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.
My First Kwanzaa is a primer on the seven-day celebration of pan-African cultural pride that is now in its 50th year. Though it is not a religious alternative to Christmas, Kwanzaa prayers have been written and incorporated into faith-based services.
Written from the perspective of a little girl who is experiencing the festivities for the first time, Katz illustrates in bright bold splashes the seven principles of Kwanzaa: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). Each concept is presented as a “special idea” matched with activities to honor each day. For example, on the third day, friends and family plant flowers in their neighborhood to demonstrate “working together,” a kid-friendly interpretation of ujima or collective work. (What didn’t quite translate well for me was the depiction of self-determination, wherein little girl asked her mother to braid her hair in a “fancy African way.” This principle could have been simplified as “making choices for ourselves” and the example strengthened by more clearly illustrating that little girl had been given the chance to choose her own hairstyle.) Like da Costa, Katz also includes a pronuniciation key for the corresponding Swahili word and an author’s note that explains the history and purpose of Kwanzaa.
However we ultimately decide to observe the holidays next December, these two books offered ideas that our family can lift up, reimagine, and put into practice all year round.
Follow your Curiosity:
Overhearing these two adorables wake up and tell each other what they dreamt about was the sweetest way to begin this final day of the year!
Until recently, my son couldn’t recall the details of his dreams beyond knowing if they had evoked scary feelings. So, being the archiving-curating-storyholding mama that I am, I was geeked when he launched into the wild Minecraft-esque adventure he dreamt back in October. He indulged my request to draw a story of it, which he called “The Disappearance of MJ.”
This morning, I could hear the kids rolling awake in their beds — sleepy voices brightening as they recalled dreamscapes filled with flowers big enough to sleep in, LEGO-built dinos and robots, and various characters and people from daylight activities superimposed onto a Jurassic World dimension.
More than being tickled by and capturing a cute moment, I hope to preserve and nurture the connection between these cousins — that they will continue to share their dreams whether seeded in heart, built by hand, or envisioned in slumber.
It’s astonishing that people are actually coming out of their faces to say that voters didn’t intend to cause harm or to condone violence when they elected a demagogue.
Please tell me what multiverse are you living in?
That man’s racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-disabled, anti-poor, anti-everybody-who-has-a-heart-for-what-is-just-and-equitable was not whispered behind closed doors and later leaked into the public sphere after folks were good-and-bamboozled by his charisma and hope-filled messages.
He was and continues to be endorsed, lauded, now flaunted and paraded by white supremacists with confederate flags, swastikas, and full KKK regalia.
The hate and violence that fueled the campaign has escalated since Tuesday.
His “win” has become a “license to lynch” — with numerous accounts of children, women, LGBTQ persons being physically attacked, taunted, harassed and threatened.
(I will not link those articles here. Instead, I encourage you to take good care of your mental/emotional well-being with your…
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because it had to be told.
Some folks may not quite understand why the stakes are so high for me and those I love.
I am aware of my privileges:
I am educated. I attended a private boarding school and a private university where I earned both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree.
I am a U.S-born person whose 1st language is English.
I am a cis-gendered heterosexual.
I am married.
I do not live with a disability.
I also embody a space where the targeted and marginalized aspects of my identity make me vulnerable to practices, policies, and dominant cultural beliefs that have denied or would attempt to block my humanity as well as my civil rights:
I am a Black Woman.
I am the daughter of an immigrant.
My father is from Trinidad. His family has roots throughout the Caribbean.
The great-granddaughter of immigrants.
My maternal great-grandparents were Canadian.
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It’s been so hard to get out of bed feeling like the biggest hate crime has just been committed as this country was overwhelmingly motivated to vote on the side of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, inhumanity and overall terror.
And still I move against the weight of this devastation and dread to attend the second day of a health equity and social justice workshop where I am observing and participating as a facilitator-in-training. Trying to conjure a lasting remedy for the heartache, anger, mistrust…I am literally sick to my stomach and only managing to smile because of the joy my child exudes.
My local library has so many treasures but to find Jessica Walton’s Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender + Friendship on prominent display among its new book section was an absolute surprise and delight!
Immersed in Difference
My son is growing up in an interfaith, multi-ethnic, and multi-racial family and has friendships with children of similar backgrounds. While differences abound they can, however, easily get overlooked and go uncelebrated by an extended family that is focused on loving each other through life’s uncertainties, entrances, exits and shifting tides — birth, marriage, graduation, disability, illness, death, financial woes, retirement, unemployment, new opportunities, etc.
In other words, many culturally-blended families appear to become colorblind and/or unwittingly comfortable in their neglect of healthy discussions about their multiplicities (unless some external circumstance prompts it).
When young kids are in that “hyper-literal” phase they can perceive concrete differences in appearance such as skin tone and hair but race and culture are abstract concepts. My family still laughs at the 25-year old memory of my fair-skinned aunt being identified as white by her brown-skinned preschool-aged son. Kids of a certain age simply see what they see, so “blackness” will be questioned when one’s complexion is literally not a shade resembling the coal-colored pigment known as “black.”
Gender, on the other hand, often seems to be a child’s first encounter with a recognizable difference that can appear to be concrete. Girls look, do, and act like this and boys look, do, and act like that. And, as we well know, it’s reinforced from the day they enter the world by the colors and toys they’re assigned.
Who Has What
We can easily talk with our littles about biology (hat tip to Robie Harris for her awesome book on anatomy whose title I borrowed above), body parts, and body safety to help them protect themselves and to respect that each of us is “the boss of our own bodies” (h/t to another must-read from the bodhicitta bookshelf).
Although my son sees me, a cisgendered woman with a shaved head and wardrobe free of dresses (minus my pjs) and other women, of varying self-proclaimed identities, in our lives who express themselves in gender non-conforming ways, we cannot avoid the dominant cultural “ideals” about how gender is lived out. So whenever a gendered statement is made (be it on television, in a book, or uttered by a loved one), I am quick to challenge, correct, and explain it in terms that I hope will uproot seeds of bias in my child.
But how do we introduce age-appropriate lessons about gender identity and fluidity, especially when we love people who are trans and who are lesbian and gay and express themselves in ways that are non-conforming? Especially when our children are not old enough to see and understand the more complex concepts of sexuality and identity?
Beyond upholding the virtues of kindness, fairness and respect in how we treat others, I didn’t have a clear answer. Neither did my friend who is trans! Even after living as their authentic self for several years, they had preteen family members with whom they are extremely close yet didn’t know how to discuss their transition.
What a grace to provide this early lesson on how to honor and acknowledge the full spectrum of humanity — our particularies and sameness!
My little guy has become a more eager reader in recent weeks and, as he prepared his own lunch, pointed to his juice pouch and asked if it read “Heart Kids.” When I explained that it was honest, he surprised me by stating, oh-so-matter-of-factly, that it was basically another way of saying heart. And so my heart sighed, as I marvelled at his ability to see into and then extrapolate the meaning of one word toward another that we adults (it is hoped) come to learn are bound up in each other. It takes heart to be honest; and, when we commit to practicing being honest, we are living intentionally from the heart.
We’ve not discussed the definition of either word as part of a formal lesson on reading or spelling. So this moment was a wonderful reflection of the priority we place on modeling our values! We have demonstrated and openly discussed what honesty, heart, and their “offshoots”–kindness, love, fairness, forgiveness, patience–look and feel like. So now he is learning to identify it, even on a juice pouch. Proud mommy moment!
I told him that I love learning along with him because I like the way he thinks. Then my darling boy told me that he loves learning from me because I know everything. I am always honest and remind that I don’t have all the answers. But on this homeschooling journey, I am guiding us toward that which cultivates bodhicitta, the heart and mind of love.
Exploded and firefighters are two words you don’t want to hear from an unfamiliar caller, informing you that your mother needs you to come over to the house immediately.
Already in the car, heading in the opposite direction, with my husband thankfully behind the wheel. My first response was not to panic but to pause and assess. In reflection, I recognize: This is my brain on mindfulness.
And let me say right now that mindfulness is not a quick fix tool that I acquired after some 6-8 week stress reduction workshop. It is the result of 10-plus years as a dharma practitioner with feet grounded firmly on the Zen path and a lifetime of exploring contemplative spiritual and wellness practices that have helped recalibrate my fiery temperament “to be more able more often” to generate skillful responses.
I’ll be straight up: it doesn’t “work” all the time in all situations! There are certain conditions that are more likely to trigger my unskillfulness than others — lack of sleep, hormonal shifts, information overload, my enduring pet peeve with folks’ poor communication skills, a sudden pile-on of simultaneous requests for assistance or multiple “crises” (’cause, ya know, family) and, not for mere emphasis and effect but because it is my reality and truly can the training grounds for spiritual resilience, all manner of family habits/patterns/cycles.
It takes time, over a span of time and situations, to cultivate mindfulness as a spiritual faculty. With practice this faculty serves as a power, which becomes activated in a moment of crisis, where our innate flight-fight-freeze instinct is bypassed and instead calm and clarity prevail. So instead of having my husband immediately bust a U-turn, I took a fortifying breath and quietly cancelled the appointment I was heading to; notified other family members of the news — explaining that I didn’t have all the details but would provide an update soon; prayed that no one was harmed; and concentrated on seeing clearly and calmly a broad range of possibility.
En route I learned that my mother and grandmother were indeed safe, which made the drive from the opposite end of town less stressful. Still with only minimal information, I was mentally prepared to pull up to a busy scene with the driveway blocked by a firetruck, a crew assessing damage, and my mother and grandmother in a dither.
Much to my relief, there was no outward evidence of any hazard. Life, limb, and living quarters were in tact. There had, in fact, been an “explosion” and “smoke” in the form of a pipe to the water heater bursting, a release of some vapor/exhaust cloud through the smokestack, and a legitimate concern about the gas line being connected. But, thank God, all was well…albeit flooded. No elevated heart rate, nervous sweat, or belly-twisting fear to recover from. A sigh of relief and deep gratitude that nothing worse had happened. I later joked, Do y’all know how it sounds to hear “exploded” and “firefighters” in the same sentence?! There’s a certain picture that comes to mind…
I won’t speculate further about worst-case scenarios. What’s more important was being reminded that, whether in the midst of uncertainty, tension, and crisis or in their aftermath, I can trust the fruits of my practice will continue to bloom — equipping, nourishing, sustaining, and restoring me.