Tuesday, September 15, 2015


And the Importance of Being Faithful Children to the Time & Place in Which We Find Ourselves:

A friend recently messaged me with this wondering:
"Hi Tad. I like you! I've been reading some of your posts lately and have wondered something: if something horrible and unjust happens to a person, why focus on the color of their skin? Doesn't focusing on that just perpetuate more race based issues? A bad thing happened and justice / awareness needs to be served (and yes context added perhaps), no matter what. Even if it happened to you or I, and it was outrageous, we deserve to be stood up for, and we are not the minority. Maybe getting to the core issue can help you be a solid advocate without feeling crazy in your mind? All lives matter. You are love and participate in a lot of goodness and awareness raising / advocation in this world." 
It's an important question because there is a trend I'm noticing that whenever someone uses the tag #blacklivesmatter or #nativelivesmatter someone else (almost always, and this is crucial to see, a white person) will reply with #alllivesmatter or #livesmatter.

I think for many white people, it can feel much like this:

And it's important because, as we take steps towards the beloved community Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about, we want to be sure not to make any wrong turns or leave anybody out.

#alllivesmatter is an attempt to reframe the conversation in a more useful way so that it's more all encompassing and no one is left out. The intention is good. But the lense and analysis, from which that correction or suggested edit comes, is the thing I want to talk about.

MY THOUGHTS: I think that the ability to say 'all lives matter' is this strange and unsought privilege white people have. I think the reality on the ground is that these issues are much worse for black people and that this pattern has been largely ignored by much of white society. So the #blacklivesmatter is an attempt to bring attention to it.

Our lives do begin to end when we become silent about things that matter. And we have been silent about the importance of black lives for too long.

The #alllivesmatter response to me feels a lot like a scenario where I get my heart broken and go to a friend to talk about it and their response is to say, "Honey. Everyone's got a broken heart. Let's talk about the broken heart of humanity. I mean I've got my OWN broken heart too, this one time..." and suddenly the healing empathy is gone from where it's most needed back into the abstract place where we think it ought to be.

To have someone listen to a story I have of romantic heartbreak about a particular girl in a particular moment in my life and then to reflect what they heard with, "Hrmm. Sounds like a life event had you feel bad, hey?" would have me sit back and shake my head and wonder if they'd heard a damn thing. I might try again to restate the details but if their response was to say, "Right. So... yeah. Bad feelings from a thing." I'd just walk away. They're incapable of hearing my particular story.

And particulars matter.

As Stephen Jenkinson puts it:
"Whenever we do things ceremonial, generally speaking, we don’t do it at the mountaintop. We don’t do it in a beautiful meadow. We don’t do it in a lot of other Class-A ceremonial places. I look for places that are pretty plain. I know as lot of places have been withered by human larceny. Maybe they could use it a little, those places, it seems to me, and those are not easy places to love. Not at all. So you really exercise your humanity trying to do this love thing that we’re talking about, you see.”
The idea that talking about race will create more divisions along racial lines is a good thought to ponder. The way we talk about things certainly matters a great deal and, more often than we'd care to realize, the way we talk about problems actually deepens the problem. I don't think that's the case here. I think what it's doing is simply reflecting the genuine and real divides in experience that exist. It's a faithful mirror to what's happening whereas the #alllivesmatter ends up feeling to black people like a distorted fun house mirror that gives them a feeling that maybe they're crazy... maybe they're blowing things out of proportion. But their reality has been blown out of proportion for many generations now. Naming something that's true doesn't make it more true. It just gives us something to work with.

I think #blacklivesmatter is the medicine needed for this particular time and place.
As is the #idlenomore movement.

As was the #occupywallstreet movement.

And years ago the antiglobalization movement.

And the civil rights movement.

But, in every different time and place, the movements, if they're going to be true children of their times and places, must look differently, just as you look different from your mother and father and your grandparents while carrying some of the same traits. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles of modern culture, white culture in particular, is to actual BE in any particular time and place rather than to live in the abstract world of ideas, metaphors and notions (e.g. new age movement, monotheism, the personal growth movement etc). So much of the world view we're handed has literally no roots in the the land it's in. I once saw a book entitled, "If this is your land, then where are your stories?" No, we live in a culture that doesn't talk about the spirits of this place but about 'spirit' as universal thing. We, and I have to emphasize that I'm largely speaking about civilized humans (and largely white) don't talk about much that's particular, but we talk a lot about things in general. And we're smug when we do it, convinced that it's better.

Modern culture is big on getting to the essence or core of things beyond the current form.

The desire to strip context and have an abstract philosophical conversations that don't pertain to any particular people, place or time is a modern one I think. The desire to keep conversations either purely personal or utterly universal is something white people do much of. But by avoiding the current political realities of this place and time we are, of course, denying the past. By insisting the present is only a still body of water we make others feel crazy for feeling waves from the wake of the passing boats of injustice.

So, to get to the heart of things, we say, "Well the essence of #blacklivesmatter is that #alllivesmatter". I predict it won't be long until that is further abstracted to be #allLIFEmatters.

And of course, all three are true. And all three need to be spoken to.

But I think there's a power to the getting specific in time and place. #alllifematters is true but it feels like it's an anaemic, general notion with no teeth to it. I don't think that #alllifematters is more true than #blacklivesmatter. It's the ground from which it comes but a corn plant is not less true than the Earth is springs from. It's just the particular expression of it. Is love important? Surely. But we also need to decide if love is simply a quality to know in some general, abstract way or if it's a verb - something we do, a skill we cultivate. If it's a skill or a capacity then surely it needs to be practiced where we find ourselves just as building a home is a skill. Would I build the same home in the Highlands of Scotland as in the deserts of the Sinai as in the mountains of Tibet? If I were a product of this culture, the chances are that I would. But that doesn't speak to my skill as a home builder. It speaks to the rigidity of my cultural training to which I am most likely blind. It speaks to a certain interior homelessness I carry around with me. It speaks to a lack of skill in making home where I go. And I think it's the same with love.

Love, in this time and place, means seeing the heartbreaking reality that many black people genuinely do not feel safe living in the United States because they are not convinced that their lives matter at all to white people. The difficult consideration for many white people I know is this - what if they're right? What if it's true? What if the biggest evidence they see for the lack of their safety isn't the police brutality and the murders of black men and women at the hands of police but the reactions of white people?

I'm going to say that again: What if the biggest evidence they see for the lack of their safety isn't the police brutality and the murders of black men and women at the hands of police but the reactions of white people?

What if the thing that makes them most afraid is seeing white people say things like, "She should have kept her mouth shut." to the death of Sandra Bland? Or "He shouldn't have tried to get away?" to the death of Samuel DuBose?

What if their fear stems not only from the violence of certain white people but the countless ways the rest of them say, in one way or another, "Well, they had it coming."?

What if they're scared because, while we can walk through the streets like this, they feel like they need to make lists like this...

In 1938 civil rights activist and poet Langston Hughes wrote his chilling poem “Kids Who Die” which illuminates the horrors of lynchings during the Jim Crow era. Now, Hughes’ vivid poetry is being featured in a three minute video created by Frank Chii and @Terrance Green and narrated by Danny Glover. It is a startling reminder that the assault on Black lives did not end with the Jim Crow era.

What if what convinces black people that their lives don't matter to white people is the way that white people seem to believe that white police officers are allowed to have the emotional maturity of four year olds? That ff someone is mean to them, they're allowed to beat the shit out of them or kill them because, well, they started it. We should also definitely assume they are not racist. They should *not* be expected in any way to understand the impossibly heavy history of race relations between white police officers and black people and how many black people not only can't rely on police protection but need protection from the police.

What if what convinces black people that their lives don't matter to white people is the way that white people seem to believe that black people must be unflappable. impeccable, perfect and spiritually enlightened masters at all times and never react with anything but courtesy and politeness to a police officer no matter how illegal, terrifying or aggressive their actions must be? They are also probably racist towards white people. You can tell because they're so rude to them when they're police. They should, but don't appreciate how hard it is to be a cop and be nice because their job is so hard.

And what if what convinces black people that their lives don't matter to white people is the way white people continue to react instantly to #blacklivesmatter not with "Yes. They do." but with #alllivesmatter instead? Why is it so hard for white people to feel or express empathy for black people's pain?

GeekAesthete from Reddit explains this brilliantly using the example of having dinner with ones family and not getting enough food:
Imagine that you’re sitting down to dinner with your family, and while everyone else gets a serving of the meal, you don’t get any. So you say “I should get my fair share.” And as a direct response to this, your dad corrects you, saying, “everyone should get their fair share.” Now, that’s a wonderful sentiment — indeed, everyone should, and that was kinda your point in the first place: that you should be a part of everyone, and you should get your fair share also. However, dad’s smart-ass comment just dismissed you and didn’t solve the problem that you still haven’t gotten any!

The problem is that the statement “I should get my fair share” had an implicit “too” at the end: “I should get my fair share, too, just like everyone else.” But your dad’s response treated your statement as though you meant “only I should get my fair share”, which clearly was not your intention. As a result, his statement that “everyone should get their fair share,” while true, only served to ignore the problem you were trying to point out.

That’s the situation of the “black lives matter” movement. Culture, laws, the arts, religion, and everyone else repeatedly suggest that all lives should matter. Clearly, that message already abounds in our society.

The problem is that, in practice, the world doesn’t work that way. You see the film Nightcrawler? You know the part where Renee Russo tells Jake Gyllenhal that she doesn’t want footage of a black or latino person dying, she wants news stories about affluent white people being killed? That’s not made up out of whole cloth — there is a news bias toward stories that the majority of the audience (who are white) can identify with. So when a young black man gets killed (prior to the recent police shootings), it’s generally not considered “news”, while a middle-aged white woman being killed istreated as news. And to a large degree, that is accurate — young black men are killed in significantly disproportionate numbers, which is why we don’t treat it as anything new. But the result is that, societally, we don’t pay as much attention to certain people’s deaths as we do to others. So, currently, we don’t treat all lives as though they matter equally.

Just like asking dad for your fair share, the phrase “black lives matter” also has an implicit “too” at the end: it’s saying that black lives should also matter. But responding to this by saying “all lives matter” is willfully going back to ignoring the problem. It’s a way of dismissing the statement by falsely suggesting that it means “only black lives matter,” when that is obviously not the case. And so saying “all lives matter”as a direct response to “black lives matter” is essentially saying that we should just go back to ignoring the problem.
I think our job as humans is to be faithful to the time and place we're actually in right now and to bring love where it's needed now.
Tomorrow it might be different.

And everywhere we go, that love will look different. The love needed for the indigenous cultures of this place is different than what's needed by the black community. Does the white community need love and healing? Surely, but for us, I think it looks very different. We've grown up in the absence of all that we've lost from our flight from Europe. Indigenous people have grown up in the presence of all they've lost. Surely, love will look different. The struggles of the black community are different still.

I don't think the guiding question, "What is most universally true?" is a faithful guide. I think the questions, "What is being asked of us here and now? Where is the love needed most? What does love look like here?" might be more trustworthy sherpas on our upwards journey through the troubled times in which we find ourselves towards something that might come to look like justice.

Can't We Just Pretend The Past Didn't Happen?

"As I have said before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America." - Utah Phillips

"When a meeting over land claims between a First Nations community in northwestern British Columbia and government officials comes to an impasse, a Gitksan elder asks, 'If this is your land, where are your stories?'" - from the publisher's introduction to the book If This is Your Land, Then Where Are Your Stories by J. Edward Chamberlin

“The point of this language of “intention” and “personal responsibility” is broad exoneration. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. “Good intention” is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me 

In Celtic mythology, there lives a band of warriors known as the Fianna. They were the most noble, powerful and fierce defenders of Ireland. It was an extensive and harrowing process to become a member of this group. The leader of this band was Fionn Mac Cumhaill [pronounced: Finn MacCool].

Once Fionn, and his hunters were discussing the "finest music in the world." The question was put out to the group as a riddle, "what is the finest music in the world?" The hunters began to give their answers. One said it was the sound of a stag running across the lake. Another disagreed , saying it was the sound of raindrops falling onto leaves. Another suggested it was the laughter of a young girl. The sound of dogs yelping thing during the chase, wind in the grass or water falling over stone. Each hunter seemed to have a strong opinion.

Then one hunter turned to Fionn and asked him, "And what do you think is the finest music in the world?"

He replied, "The finest music in all the world is the music of what is happening."

This begs the question: What is happening?

Underneath so much of the rhetoric of white people around race and indigenous issues, men around feminism and, I'm sure, many other people around other issues, is the unstated, but constantly implied, question.

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

This question is a door. And, depending on how it is opened, it can take us into forgetfulness or memory.

I think about my past failures and regrets. I think about the ways I've hurt others. The ways others see me as a result of these actions. I think of the shame I feel and the fear that I might do the same in the future. I think of the depth of my craving for a chance to start fresh. I think of how much I want to bargain with the Universe and end that bargaining petition with, "So... can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

"But songs all resolve.
They come back to the one.
And people just live
with the damage they've done."
- Corin Raymond

"So I'll keep on moving.
Things are bound to be improving these days.
These days.
These days I sit on cornerstones
and count my time in quartertones to ten.
Please don't confront me with my failures.
I had not forgotten them."
- Jackson Brown

And so I can understand, very well, why white people would want to pretend that slavery and colonization never happened, why white women might want to pretend feminism hadn't let down women of colour in the past, why German's might want to pretend WWII never happened, why abusive parents and spouses might desperately want to pretend they weren't the monsters they kept becoming, why Dr. Jekyll might want to pretend there was no Mister Hyde, why most of us want to pretend we have no shadows at all, why addicts want to pretend they have had no problems and, most of all, why pretending these things never happened never works to create the lives and world our hearts know is possible.

Of course, it's rarely said in those words, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" More often it sounds something like:

"Man! That was years ago!"

"Why are you so suspicious?"

"We need to move on!"

"You can't live in the past."

"You need to forgive."

"We need to start fresh."

"If she'd kept her mouth shut, she wouldn't be dead."

"Black people are over reacting."

"Natives have an addictive gene."

"They should just get a job."

"Women are totally equal today. What are they fussing about?"

"Those Arabs should learn to peacefully co-exist with Israel."

"Why are you so angry at me? I never owned slaves! I'm not racist."

"Why are we fighting? We're all one. Why are you trying to divide us by talking about race?"


"But whiteness shouldn't mean supremacy."

"It's just a headdress! God. Relax. I'm just having fun and it looks hot on me."

"We need to look to the future."

One fellow wrote me to say this, "It is of my opinion that we cannot move forward effectively if we keep looking to the past. There is a very simple concept that drives this, we cannot change the past and as such dwelling on the past is utterly pointless.   I am not saying that we shouldn't take lessons from the past, as a matter of fact quite the contrary. We should learn from the mistakes of our forefathers and use those lessons to move forward as effectively as we can.  If we dwell on the colonization or other things it only leads to hate and war, there is no need for this. Going forward can we not just forgive each other, accept that what happened, happened and that going forward we will do our best not to make the same egregious mistakes that have happened previously?   I am not saying forget about slavery, or the holocaust or anything, but seriously what are we supposed to do about something our grandparents, great grandparents or even older generations did. The concept that the child pays for the sin of the father is a dated notion and has no place in a modern society where everyone just wants to get along. Easy solution, Just get the frig along. Be nice to people, don't hold unfounded biases, and most of all, Don't be a douchebag."

The whole line of thinking that that says, "Things should not mean what they have come to mean" is another way of saying, "Sure. That's true if you consider history. BUT! What if we pretended like the past never happened at all?"

In a recent Facebook conversation on this, I replied to a white woman who was lifting these issues up and questioning why black people felt the need to be victimized by their history.

I replied to her, "Right - so like, if we were immortal beings and someone shot me 200 years ago then to, 200 years later, be saying, after the wound was healed, "I can't succeed because I was shot 200 years ago." would be a victimized, self-pitying posture to hold (if I'm understanding)."

I think this is how white people see it. It happened a long time ago. It's over. The wound is healed. It's in the past, so let's move on already.

But the past is not a house that has crumbled down. No. The past is the forest you see that was planted from seeds a long time ago. This unwillingness to know the past as the seeds of the present that they were can look like a lot of things.

Sometimes it looks like taking down all of the old Gaelic signs in Ireland or Scotland and replacing them with English ones.

Sometimes it looks like a residential school in England where the children of the Gaels were taken and taught English and beaten if they spoke Gaelic. Or one in Canada where indigenous youth were beaten if they spoke Cree, Black Foot, Dine, Annishinabe or whatever other beautiful language they would soon come to forget.

Sometimes, over enough generations, "can't we just pretend the past didn't happen?" sounds like someone who has already forgotten history or never knew it in the first place. I think much of what we see in social relations and struggles for justice has to do with our unwillingness to sit with this question honestly enough, faithfully enough and long enough.

It almost always looks like forgetting on a cultural level.

I think you can draw a straight line from white people wanting to pretend colonization never happened to women at music festivals wearing head dresses or leading ceremonies for which they are not qualified, white people rapping with a black accent, using songs from other cultures without credit given and other forms of cultural appropriation.

I think you can draw a straight line from white people wanting to pretend that racism wasn't so bad and ended years ago, to their reactions over the death of Sandra Bland saying, "If she'd only kept her mouth shut, she'd still be alive."

I think you can draw a straight line from the United Kingdom and the United States wanting to pretend they didn't colonize the world to the vehemence with which they are condemning immigration today.

Underneath the inability to reconcile troubles in relationships and communities you will find the same question. The desire to move forward at odds with some unpaid debt to the past which those who owe are desperately hoping will be forgotten by the persistent memory of the world. The desire to fix a problem that has never yet to be properly understood, to make something beautiful in the world without facing the ugliness it is trying to cover, the desire to build magnificent new buildings dedicated to hope and a better tomorrow on the rotting and unresolved foundations of the past.

How can one engage in restorative justice and healing if nothing happened that requires attention?



"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

Of course, pretending the foundations aren't rotten will do nothing to make the house last the tests of time.

But, there comes a point where was has been swept under the rug is larger than the rug, when the debt accrued can not be ignored. There are moments in history that are a sort of time of reckoning; a point where we need to deal with the past we've been so conveniently and diligently trying to ignore.

This, of course, prompts the predictable uproar of the aforementioned, "We need to move on! You can't live in the past. You need to forgive. We need to start fresh."

The feeling of this is understandable but that doesn't make the saying of it excusable.

As a white man living in the time and place I do, I don't think my job is to tell black people or the indigenous people of this land what time it is.

They've got enough of their own work to do and their own issues to figure out and I can't imagine that even my best conceptions of the perfect timing for them to be 'over it' would be welcome, useful or anything other than a vulgar break in anything resembling a protocol of courtesy and graciousness. In other words, I don't think that's any of my damned business.

After all, I have never yet experienced a rush of gratitude when my upset at someone for past actions was met with the response that I should move on. I have yet to feel my heart melt open when my anger at someone's conduct was met with, "Stop living in the past." I can't seem to recall a single moment in my life when I slapped my head and said, "Of course! Thank you!" To someone who pointed out, despite having acted badly, that instead of focusing on how they might make amends, I should be focusing on how I should forgive them."

And I can't imagine those communities who have been ground down most relentlessly under the wheel of progress, power and privilege would find themselves feeling suddenly empowered by someone who looks like me telling them that what we need to do is to forget history and to get a fresh start together.

I am reminded of the William Shatner (yes, that one) title track from the album he did with Ben Folds called That's Me Trying describing the story of a pathetic father reaching out to his daughter after a lifetime apart and asking her, in essence, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"
I got your address from the phone book at the library
Wandered in, looked you up and you were there
Weird that you've been living, maybe
2 miles away for the best part of 20 years

You must be, what
In your early forties now, if I remember
You were born in June or was it May?
Eisenhower was the President although it may have been JFK

Years of silence, not enough
Who could blame us giving up?
Above the quiet there's a buzz
That's me trying

You still working in that store on Ventura?
You still going with, no, that's not fair
I know I haven't been the very best of dads
I'll hold my hand up there

The reason that I'm writing is I'd like for us to meet
Get a little daughter dad action going soon
We could put things behind us, eat some pizza, drink some beer
You still see your sister, Lemli? Bring her, too

But I don't wanna talk about any of that bad stuff
Why I missed out on your wedding and your high school graduation
I'd like to explain, but I can't
So let's keep things neutral, stick to topics that won't bug us

How 'bout this?
Let's choose a book and we'll read it before we meet
Then we can sit down at a restaurant
Have a look at the menu and talk about it while we eat

See, if we never had a problem then that's what life would be like
Easy, uncomplicated, cool
So let's just pretend that the past didn't happen
I don't really like thrillers as well

I don't want to know if I've got grandchildren
No need to tell me where I went wrong
I don't want to know what happened in your thirties
You wanna try 'Cold Mountain' or is that too long?
I think my job is to figure out what time it is for myself and, perhaps, with some latitude people who look like me and who grew up in the world I did too. I think my job is to come to know this world as it is and to find my place in it, my role. After all, if I don't come to know the world as it is, in some real way, how can any role I find be real?

The impulse to move on without confronting the past is a deep one. Most of us try to do this every day, several times per day. And yet, we can see the absurdity of it - a father trying to create meaningfully reconnect with his daughter while refusing to talk about and address the very things at the root of the disconnection.

There's a desire to go back to zero, to start fresh, to wipe the slate clean and begin anew is the yearning that drives many of us to move to new cities and begin again, only to find, with not a little humiliation, that what drove us there followed and move into our new home and new relationships - that what we were fleeing was carried with us in the passage there. We run from something and recreate it here and so never discover the new place we came to much as my ancestors' people fled Europe only to arrive in Canada and name every city, river, hill and street name saw after something from home. One could argue that we have yet to discover much of North America.

We try to restart our lives and so the old life goes unredeemed.

We declare bankruptcy and move on and so old debts go unpaid (but not away).

We want to go back to zero so we who are in debt can feel comfortable in the present moment as we map out some brilliant new, self made future on the blank page sitting on the desk in front of us.

We want to go back to zero because there's something we are terrified we will lose if we don't.

We want to go back to zero because there's something we are terrified we won't get if we don't.

The impulse to go back to zero is, all too often, revealed to be a selfish one designed to help the perpetrator (or those who benefit from the perpetrations of the past) to feel at ease and designed to do absolutely nothing for the ones who have been hurt, killed, stolen from and abused (or those who descended from them).

As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise, found himself on Cortes Island, BC with a group of young people who, after a day with him, sat, wrestling with the implications of what he'd had to say about initiations, being young, the role of ancestors and elders and the times we're in. One young man shared the heartbreaking realization that he was just realizing, on the heels on learning about initiation and it's importance, that he would likely never receive such an initiation. The realization grieved both Stephen and the young man sorely. But, then another young man, slightly older, shared his realization with pride. And the words that came out of his mouth shattered Stephen's heart even more.  "I've got it figured out. I'll just choose who my ancestors are."

I'll just pretend that the past didn't happen. I get to choose what the present is and isn't. 

Tom Compton, an able and deeply skilled teacher and facilitator of The Work of Byron Katie, woke up one day to the sobering and deeply humbling realization that, despite all of his inner work, meditation and spiritual practice, he didn't really love him wife and children. Not really. A week later, his wife, not knowing of his insight said you him, "You don't really love us." The seeing of that unwelcome truth was the beginning of a real love developing in the tidal sway of the lack of it.

When Byron Katie herself first woke up to the way things were, her family didn't believe or trust it. Perhaps, they told themselves and each other, she was have a manic episode, or some sort of delusion of grandeur? But the inner solidness stayed. Finally, the held back boats of the past, finally having found safe harbour, came crashing in, "You always loved the other kids more than me!"

"Yes" she would nod. "I was so confused then."

This brings us squarely to face the reality of what this present moment is. We are told that, somehow, the present exists in some discrete package, separated from the past and the future. But, what if the present moment is something very different? What if the present moment is where the past comes to visit us? What if the present moment is the banquet hall of our days, constructed from the timbers of yesterday?

Utah Phillips speaks to this beautifully in his song Bridges from his collaboration with Ani DiFranco.

"I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can't live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now.

I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn't live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them serious trouble. No, that 50s, 60s, 70s, 90s stuff, that whole idea of decade packaging, things don't happen that way. The Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975-- what's that got to do with decades? No, that packaging of time is a journalist convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas. I defy that.

Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world. Bridges…from my time to your time, as my elders from their time to my time… We all put into the river, and it flows away from us…till it no longer has our name, our identity, it has its own utility, its own use, and people will take what they need and make it part of their lives…” 
When people say, of social injustices, "It's in the past." I have to agree. But where is the past? Right here. Right now. All around us.

And so, there comes a point where the only way forward to some better tomorrow is to see how the past is living on in our days currently. How rocks are not dead, but living time, slowed down enough so we can hold it. How history isn't gone. How it's right here. How the present is the wake of the past.

The past doesn't want to be forgotten. The past wants its place in our days. The past wants to be redeemed and the only place it can be redeemed is in the present moment. Perhaps, more than anything, the past wants to be known for what it is instead of vanished by someone asking, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

My friend Ian Mackenzie recently shared the following story about how understandings of time are inherited. 

Recently I attended a music festival on one of the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea. Though modest in size, the gathering was a beautiful mix of young and old, live music and electronic, art and food.

One afternoon, nearing the end of her set, a friend and female artist left the stage and stormed into a few of us chatting to the side. "Did you hear that?" she proclaimed, visibly shaking with anger. "He cut me off!"  Before we could respond, the stage manager, a white male, approached her with bewilderment. He believed he had no choice:  she had gone over the allotted time slot.  "I told her to finish the set, but she kept going."

My friend is a petite and fiery Mexican; she followed his words with a hail of accusations. "You don't cut off an artist!" she admonished. Her set had been a rich fusion of Latin American beats, invocations for the ancestors, and prayers for the land.  "I wasn't finished. You people just don't understand."

The argument continued briefly before she ended it by walking briskly away to collect her gear. The stage manager, also a DJ, looked to us for support.  "What could I have done differently?" he asked, genuinely affected. I assured him there was nothing further to be done in the moment, and he left, puzzled.

While it's tempting to see this conflict as a passionate artist unwilling to relinquish the spotlight, I believe this was a conflict with much deeper roots.  At the heart is their differing conceptions of time.

The dominant culture runs on the modern invention of universal time. This is the collective deference to a shared understanding that we all agree upon - hence, ask someone the time in the modern world, they will likely give you universal time. (For example, 3 o'clock).  The miracle, and calamity, of this development cannot be understated. From this perspective, time is linear, quantifiable, and infallible.  

From an indigenous perspective, time is relative, unique, and fluid. Anyone who has sat in ceremony knows that one enters a place "outside of time."  The ceremony or ritual is a living thing, and the ones that might show up to your courtship, both seen and unseen, are living as well. The proper space must be given for the conjuring to run its course, therefore, deferring to an abstract "schedule" is an absurd act of violence.

When white people washed up on the shores of what they would come to call The Americas, this is one of the illnesses they brought with them. The culture of colonization runs on the consciousness of universal time.  A people can only rapaciously consume if they see the world as inert, interchangeable, and inevitable. And a people can only be at home if they see the world as alive, unique, and preciously precarious. It will not continue unless we are willing to keep up our end.

Here's what I think: that day at the festival, the sincere stage manager was inhabiting a universal notion of time. The indigenous artist was inhabiting a relational notion. I'm not saying either of them should have done anything different.

But I do know we are children of forces that began long ago, heirs to its debt as well as its redemption.
Her understanding of time came from somewhere as did his. That moment of conflict was like the turbulent joining point of two mighty rivers who ran a long way to get so far down the mountain. There is a story behind this story that is many thousands of years old. And that entirely story is vanished when we try so hard to wish away the past. 


“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen [black] bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.” 

The question, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" is a question a child might ask. 

But that doesn't mean it's not a worthy question. Maybe it's the most worthy question we could ask ourselves at a time like this. 

Should a child ever come to you with eyes wide and ask a question that sounds, in any way like this, I hope you won't dismiss it because, as sure as anything, you are being visited by the ancestors come to check if you have forgotten them or not. Because they aren't asking you about that situation at hand. Not really. They are asking you about time and what it is and isn't. They are asking you about the shape of the world - what is possible and isn't. They're asking you about the past and where it goes when it's done of if, like we are told of our dead, that it is simply gone, unaccessible and forever beyond our reach. They're asking you if the past is something real or not. They're asking you to help them understand if there is, in fact, anything real to this world at all or if it might simply be a great act of pretend in which we're all engaged where the past can be whatever we wish it to be. They're asking you if the past is still alive anywhere or if it lives only in our memories and imaginations and, if so, does it belong to us and shouldn't we re-imagine and re-remember it in the most pleasant of ways? They're asking you if suffering has any use at all. They're asking you, plainly, what is the difference between this world and a piece of paper, their #2 lead pencil and their trusty eraser guaranteeing them seemingly endless fresh starts? They are asking you, "Is the present like a constantly refreshing blank canvass or is it some other sort of thing?" They're asking you something important about life. It's a question worthy of an answer that enobles the asking and returns it as a set of larger questions. It's a question whose answers means something to those who went before us and live on in new ways now. I hope you might take them down to the nearest river or body of water, point out the passing boats and jet skis to them and the waves they make as they roar past and say something like this,

"TIME Sit on the shore while everything else goes on by you, and get through the lo-level anxiety and the boredom and the feeling that you've already seen it all. That's a good time to learn. Here's what there is to see. Everything we do and don't do makes a wake, a legion of waves and troughs that pound the shores at the edges of what we mean, grinding away on the periphery of what we know. They go on, after the years in which we lived our individual lives are long passed. If we don't learn that simple, devastating, and redeeming detail of being alive - that what we do, all the jangle of our declarations and defeats, last longer than we ourselves do, that the past isn't over - then the parade of our days stands to indict much more than it bequeaths. This is something that we have to learn now. Many of us count on our best intent winning the day or getting us off the hook of personal or ecological consequence. It hasn't, and it won't." - Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise

When we say (and often in other words than these) "Can't we just pretend the past didn't happen?" we are saying saying "can't the present be something other than it is?" We are refusing to know the present for what it is, just as my ancestors refused to come to know this new home of Turtle Island for what it was, just as too many Americans refuse to see that the wealth of the rich was build on the labour and death of millions of enslaved Africans and the stolen land of the 20 million murdered Native Americans, just as many of us don't want to see that our own personal successes (and very existence) has been underwritten by the love, support and efforts of so many others. Woven inescapably into this present moment are all of the disturbances to the past living out their days as storied threads in the garments we wear. 

"The resistance to the disturbance is the disturbance." 
- Vernon Howard

The past is a story that isn't over. The whole story is alive, right here, in this moment in my writing of these words and in your reading of them. Every ancestor you had and everything that sustained them it's alive right now and right here. Everyone who oppressed them and everyone they oppressed. It's all here. Nothing is left out. The past is a story and the present is the only place we can read it.

And I am coming to think that the way we redeem the ugliness, injustice and old hurt of the past is to come to know it by seeing how it is showing up in the present.

Or, stated another way, if you don't know the past, you won't be able to truly see the present. The present is made up of the past - that's where it comes from. You can't really see someone until you know their story. 

If you can't see the past of slavery and colonization in the wealth of billionaires and the incarcerations and death of too many black and native North Americans - then how clearly are you seeing the present.

If you can't see the past of your actions in the ways people treat and look at you today - how clearly are you seeing the present?

If you can't see the history of civilization in the changing weather patterns and destabilizing climate of our times - how firmly in the present moment are you?

If you can't see the history of colonization and religion in your shame around sexuality and your ability to embrace the pleasure your body can feel - how well do you see the present moment of this body?

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

The next time someone asks you this, perhaps you might return the question in a new form.

"What makes you think we aren't, right now?"


"What makes you so sure that anyone is sure that the past happened at all? Where is your proof in the manner of how people are proceeding through their days that they understand the story of this place? If the present is our land, then where are our stories?"


"Where do you think the past goes, when we pretend it is gone? Who will carry it when you decide to try and put it down? And what does it do to someone to be the only one left carrying a history that the rest of the world refuses to acknowledge as real? What good will our pretending do to the ones we are trying to forget? What harm will it do them? What harm does it do to you?"


"What you're really saying is that you want to believe, for your own comfort and so as not to interrupt your carefully laid life plans, that it's always been like this and it's this way everywhere now, that what's normal is, in fact, also totally natural isn't it?"

or as my friend Marilyn Daniels lifted up,

"What you're saying is that anything you find unpleasant from the past should be relegated to the scrap heap of our collective forgetfulness, and, in doing so, we should be doomed to a personal and cultural amnesia in which we are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, learn from and gain wisdom from either the mistakes of the past or its treasures."

"Who will get paid to rebuild?
And who will they build for?
Who will endure the drought and the rain 
Who will be safe and sound indoors?
Who built the missiles, the smart bombs, the rockets
Who gets raided and who gets paid from whose pockets?
Who gets sent off to war
Who dies for whose profits?
Who gets remembered?
Whose been forgotten?
Who paved concrete over the pores of the Earth only to make our lives harder?
And built buildings to scrape skies to get us closer to God 
But moved farther
Our histories been lost to forgetfulness."
- Climbing Poetree

But, as we come to see the most heartbreaking and devastating moments of the past are alive, right now, in the present, we can engage in some observant courtship guided by questions that might sound like, "What do you most want to become? What are you asking of me? What does love look like here, with you, right now?" And then we can do our best to be faithful to the answers we get and, in our faithfulness, I think that we are redeemed too. By bearing the consequences of our actions, by meeting the broken places with love instead of disregard of forgetfulness we actively put the pieces back together we literally remember the world into some sort of more beautiful wholeness, we make her jump up and live again with our loving ministrations. We become the kind of person who would never do what was done again. We become a human being. We plant the seeds of some better tomorrow and becoming an ancestor worthy of descending from.

As Drew Dellinger puts it, so beautifully, in this excerpt from his poem Hieroglyphic Stairway,

"it's 3:23 in the morning

and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do

"Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"

Yes. But I think it would rob us of the very medicines we need to heal the afflictions of our time. If the past is a gone thing, then there's nothing we can do about it and we must simply move on and let go. But, if the past is what the present is built out of, if the tree of the present has its roots in the past, then we are surround with raw material with which to make something new for the future. 

It is an irony the way we relate to the past. It is as if we want to take anything that might remind us of the elements of the past we don't favour and put them out onto a boat in the ocean to send them 'away' but the tides faithfully keeps bringing those things back to shore. Maybe our shores immediately or the shores of others and then, in some other form, back to ours like the proverbial chickens come home to roost. So, the past never really goes away. It is constantly arriving here in this moment. 

The only question before us is how will we relate to it. Will it be with pain, shame and avoidance? Or will it be with hard won clear seeing faithfulness and a commitment to the composting of it into something that might serve life again, or finding a place for its terrifying shapes in the designs of our culture so that it's terrible beauty might remind us of what matters in this life?

Our regrets and shame (and those of our ancestors) have a place on the altar. 

But I think they need to be placed inside the nest of our heartbreak which surely is a missing ingredient itself on the altar of what might yet be. Maybe the regrets, losses and and devastations aren't put there so much to be immediately fixed but so that we remember how it was and might yet be - so that we can remember what it is we are fighting for in the first place and, more so (impossibly more so) so that those to come might have a chance at remembering this. Remembering something longer than their own lifespan. 

Derrick Jensen says it so beautifully in his article, Against Forgetting:
I’ve gone on the salmon-spawning tours that local environmentalists give, and I’m not the only person who by the end is openly weeping. If we’re lucky, we see 15 fish. Prior to conquest there were so many fish the rivers were described as “black and roiling.” And it’s not just salmon. Only five years ago, whenever I’d pick up a piece of firewood, I’d have to take off a half-dozen sowbugs. It’s taken me all winter this year to see as many. And I used to go on spider patrol before I took a shower, in order to remove them to safety before the deluge. I still go on spider patrol, but now it’s mostly pro forma. The spiders are gone. My mother used to put up five hummingbird feeders, and the birds would fight over those. Now she puts up two, and as often as not the sugar ferments before anyone eats it. I used to routinely see bats in the summer. Last year I saw one.

You can transpose this story to wherever you live and whatever members of the nonhuman community live there with you. I was horrified a few years ago to read that many songbird populations on the Atlantic Seaboard have collapsed by up to 80 percent over the last 40 years. But, and this is precisely the point, I was even more horrified when I realized that Silent Spring came out more than 40 years ago, so this 80 percent decline followed an already huge decline caused by pesticides, which followed another undoubtedly huge decline caused by the deforestation, conversion to agriculture, and urbanization that followed conquest.

My great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Nebraska. When she was a tiny girl—in other words, only four human generations ago—there were still enough wild bison on the Plains that she was afraid lightning storms would spook them and they would trample her home. Who in Nebraska today worries about being trampled by bison? For that matter, who in Nebraska today even thinks about bison on a monthly, much less daily, basis?

This state of affairs is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s harder to fight for what you don’t love than for what you do, and it’s hard to love what you don’t know you’re missing. It’s harder still to fight an injustice you do not perceive as an injustice but rather as just the way things are. How can you fight an injustice you never think about because it never occurs to you that things have ever been any different?

This is a process we need to stop... Everything in this culture is aimed at helping to distract us from—or better, help us to forget—the injustices, the pain. And it is completely normal for us to want to be distracted from or to forget pain. Pain hurts. Which is why on every level from somatic reflex to socially constructed means of denial we have pathways to avoid it.

But here is what I want you to do: I want you to go outside. I want you to listen to the (disappearing) frogs, to watch the (disappearing) fireflies. Even if you’re in a city—especially if you’re in a city—I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year you see buttercups, the first day frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall, the first day for grasshoppers. In short, I want you to pay attention.

If you do this, your baseline will stop declining, because you’ll have a record of what’s being lost.

Do not go numb in the face of this data. Do not turn away. I want you to feel the pain. Keep it like a coal inside your coat, a coal that burns and burns. I want all of us to do this, because we should all want the pain of injustice to stop. We should want this pain to stop not because we get used to it and it just doesn’t bother us anymore, but because we stop the injustices and destruction that are causing the pain in the first place. I want us to feel how awful the destruction is, and then act from this feeling.

And I promise you two things. One: Feeling this pain won’t kill you. And two: Not feeling this pain, continuing to go numb and avoid it, will.
Maybe it's that our transgressions, personal and cultural, are like seeds and that they need to be planted back in the soil of our personal and collective memories and watered with the tears of our grief so that they might grow into some magnificent, scrappy tree that has a chance to weather the coming storms. And maybe that tree can be a sign to them that, knowing these times were coming, there were those who prepared for them, planting the seeds of our own greed, forgetfulness and stupidity at tremendous cost to ourselves so that they, not yet born and sure to be born in harder times than we can imagine, might have some shade to protect them from an unforgiving sun, fruit to eat and a reminder that they were not forgotten but kept in mind by those who came before them. And maybe, one day, a child amongst them will climb such a tree and find in a carefully made birds nest, a small, carefully laid bundle of shames and regrets unappealing to any child. And perhaps they will ask some adult, with some memory of these times, what these things are? And, if we are lucky, he will tell them honestly about these times of greed and excess. He will unwrap the bundle and carefully tell the story of each piece, as best as he can remember, silently cursing himself for not having paid more attention to the stories when it was his time to learn them. And he'll tell the child that, during these times of running from the past, there were those who stopped running long enough to plant this tree and make this nest and fight for a better day. And he'll tell the child about what's been lost in his time, the time of his parents and how very much has been lost in the generations before that. 

And, if we are very, very lucky, the child might kick at the dirt and with some mix of frustration and wonder, with some pride in the brilliance of the possibility occurring to him, open a door for you both and ask, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?"
"By trying to feed the Holy in Nature the fruit of beauty from the tree of memory of our Indigenous Souls, grown in the composted failures of our past need to conquer, watered by the tears of cultural grief, we might become ancestors worth descending from and possibly grow a place of hope for a time beyond our own. ... the rental rate for this gift of being allowed to flourish and reside in this continuum with the rest of the world is that we do everything possible to be indigenously beautiful, promising that we make ourselves spiritually full and delicious so as to feed the next ones to appear in the ongoing river on the occasion of our passing." - Martin Prechtel, The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic
What is happening?

In every moment, the past is washing up on the shores of the present like some long voyaged boat from beyond the horizon's horizon across the ocean. It is full of a crew that is weary from their travels and hoping beyond hope to be received by us as the esteemed and honoured guests they are and for a bit of food and hospitality in the mead hall of our considerations. 

That is what's happening.

And is there a more beautiful music in all of the world?

Additional Reading:
Why Don’t You People Just Get Over It? Here’s Why
We live in the future. Come join us.

Poem: Why are white people in charge of North America?

Why are white people in charge of North America?

Because they took it by force.

Why are white people here in the first place?

Because they came here from Europe.

When did they become 'white'?

Mostly after they arrived here.

Why did they become white?

So their children might survive.

What burden is too great for whiteness to carry?

The memory of home.

Why did they leave Europe which was their home?

Mostly because they were taken as slaves or, more often, because they were running from something.

From what were they running?

Homelessness due to famine, war, persecution and colonization.

What did they bring with them across the waters when they arrived in North America?

This same homelessness from which they ran.

Where is home?

The place where generations of the bones of your dead can be found.

Can home be made again?

Yes. At about the same speed an old growth forest is made. 

Why was there famine, war and persecution?

Because the rich wanted more and took it from the land and the poor whose lives, they told themselves, mattered less than theirs.

Why are there poor?

Because they were made poor.

How were they made poor?

By the same means they made Native Americans poor centuries later.

How did the rich become rich?

By enslaving the land and its people and paying only themselves. And then passing this wealth (and way of seeing the land and it's people) 
onto their children.

When did this begin?

Thousands of years ago.

Where did it begin?

From the crater and cradle of civilization.

What will it take to stop it?

A willingness to do the hard and heartbreaking learning on what 'it' is.

Privilege & Poverty: On Being White in These Times

Being white in North America in these times is a complicated thing full of invisible and unearned privileges and poverties. And full of forgetfulness.

An invisible is the key word here because we (white folks) see these privileges and poverties as normal - the way it is everywhere now and the way it has always been.

While there may not be much we can do about them for ourselves, but there is plenty we can do about them for the generations yet to come. I can't get rid of my whiteness. I will always be perceived as white even if I get some funky indigenous name and live off of the land - I would always be able to benefit from the privileges my skin colour and heritage gives me. And there are many poverties that are holes which will never really be filled. I was not initiated into manhood by a close knit community in any meaningful way. And I never will be. That time is gone. But I may be able to do much to ensure that the generations to come might know fewer of these poverties.

When I say white, I am not referring to skin colour alone. I am referring to the politically and culturally constructed idea of 'race'. Biologically, there is no 'white race' or 'black race' - there is only the human race. The idea of whiteness was created in North American colonies in the mid to late 1600's. Before this there were no 'white people'. There were Irish, Scottish, English, French, Italians etc. The notion of race has its roots in white people being better than the negros and mongoloids. Being white meant being better than. Being white meant, legally, economically and politically, having more privileges. That is the troubling true history of the term than, today, we take to mean 'pale skin tone'. I've provided some links at the bottom that can help you dig deeper there.

When I say privileges: I am referring to the idea of white privilege popularized by Peggy McIntosh's brilliant and simple article Unpacking the Backpack of Privilege (link below)

It is the idea that there are many things, in this culture, that are easier for a white person than for a person of colour (e.g. getting a job or a cab) and even more things perhaps with which white people never have to contend (e.g. people crossing the street when they see them, confusing them for 'the help' at fancy events) and about which they never need to be in constant fear of (e.g. being killed by a police officer for no good reason at all and having the cop walk free while their family is shattered).

This is idea of white privilege is one that has been explored brilliantly and beautifully by many smarter and more learned than I. I think of two white brothers Chris Crass and Tim Wise who have done much to speak so clearly about this idea and I am sure there are countless people of colour from whom these ideas and distinctions arrived.

When I say poverties: I am not referring to economic poverty. Or to the ways that commentators on Fox news go on about how hard it is being white and how white people are being persecuted by people of colour playing that all powerful race card.

I am referring to all of the things that white people have lost or had to give up, over many generations, on the road to and in the process of becoming white. Whiteness is a crowning achievement of empire in North America. But the road to get here has been long. It has taken us from our own European indigenous roots, through colonization, christianity (for many of us) and capitalism to deliver us, inexhorably, to here. Along the way, much was lost and, with whiteness, most of that has been forgotten.

It's important to lift up that I am not saying that other peoples have not lost these things also - only that I can only speak for myself and my own history and the particular ways this poverty seems to make itself known amongst those who look like me and who came from where I came from.

When white people come face to face with the ravaged wasteland of history wrought by their own ancestors (even if distantly related) it can only be a shattering and heartbreaking experience. So much of what we thought we knew, and no small share of our innocence, is dashed on the rocks. White people in North America have done such terrible things. They exploited the land. They intentionally, planned and fully rationalized the genocide of the indigenous people they found here when they arrived. And they enslavement of Africans. And through this they amassed incredible financial wealth and a set of institutionalized and invisibilized privileges which they passed onto their children.

When white people see this for the first time, once the shock wears off, what is often left is a deep guilt and an even deeper urgency to fix it. "What can we do?" But this desperation to fix and unwillingness to do the hard learning of what is actually going on, might be at the very heart of why white people have come to be as they are and act as they do.

If whiteness has been a monstrous sort of bird that has wreaked havoc on North America first and, soon after, the world then privilege is one wing of that bird and poverty is the other.

And this poverty is a piece I would like to explore more deeply because I think it's a piece of the puzzle that has been missing in the conversation. If we want to stop this bird then we have to start with understanding what it is, how it moves, what feeds it and what it feeds.

The largest challenge in identifying our poverties is that, to us, they don't look like poverties. They look like progress. They look like convenience. They look like efficiency. They look, in every form, like a good idea.

Cars. Electricity. Running water. Money. The nation state system. The internet. Literacy. The nuclear family model. Nuclear power. Guns. The highway system. Cars. Cell phones. Facebook. Old folks homes. Hospices. The personal growth industry. Life coaches. Books on parenting. The seemingly unending array of options and choices to us available at every moment from what exact colour of lipstick to get to where to live to what culture of the moment we'd most like to identify with or what name we want to be called.

All of them are signs of human innovation and genius. But, more so, they are evidence of something that happened to our people a long time ago that makes all of these things seem like a good idea.

Very few of these came directly from whiteness (though, certainly, they are all a part of the same plodding engine of western civilization which has carried us here) but the way we relate to them is deeply affected by whiteness because whiteness has removed the memory of anything before the European event that was 'North America'. Our memories have shortened and our indigenous roots have shrivelled or been hacked off and discarded. As Utah Phillips put it, "The long memory is the most radical idea in America."

So, then, what happens to the struggle if you remove the possibility of memory? Answer: There is no more struggle.

There is only forgetting.

What is the burden to great for whiteness to carry? The memory of home.

Perhaps the central poverty we carry as white people is the lack of any meaningful sense or even memory of 'home' or 'being from somewhere' and certainly 'belonging to somewhere'. Many white people do not know where their ancestors are from. Or they're from so many different places that it seems impossible to know what to make of it all.

White people have wings but not many roots. They know freedom from limits but not how good the warm and worn walls of deep culture might feel when the world has grown cold outside. They know limits as something that confines them and have a hard time imagining that the same walls might beautifully help to define them in ways that could comfort them when the world sends them mixed messages about who they are or who they should be. This lack of limits has fed our longing but starved our belonging.

"In a culture like ours, so unsure of itself, so without a shared understanding of life for its people, there are subtle, enduring consequences that look like personal inadequacy, failure of will, inability or unwillingness to live deeply. But what I’ve seen over twenty five years of working with people convinces me that these problems or struggles are not bad psychology, worse parenting or lousy personality development. What we suffer from most is culture failure, amnesia of ancestry and deep family story, phantom or sham rites of passage, no instruction on how to live with each other or with the world around us or with our dead or with our history...
... We know that people for millennia have rebuilt homes, reestablished villages, and so reconstituted ways of life following a period of crisis and flight. Is this the same thing as reclaiming the ability to be at home? Not initially and not inevitably, no. Being at home in a given place means learning. It is only coincidentally a 'feeling'.

Specifically it means learning the ways that place has of being itself... This kind of learning one's home place does not happen by a feat of imagination or fantasy, or by socialization, or by the transcendental yearning for things to be different. It happens by an act of internment. You plant your dead in your home place, and the bodies of your dead sustain that place. The same place that once fed them feeds you now as food and water and air and ground. Time goes on, life is lived, and then you can recognize - meaning know again - your dead in the grass and the animals and the water and the air - in the nature - of your home place.

Being at home is not a feeling, any more than your dead are 'how you feel about them': Being at home is a skill. It is a skill of recognition and belonging, the skill of inextinguishable obligation. Obligation: not 'to owe' but 'to be bound to'... Being at home is knowing your obligations to your home and proceeding accordingly. Being at home is a competence born of deep knowledge of your belonging to and your obligation to all that has been and will be for that belonging. This knowledge includes - it requires - knowing where the bones of your dead are, and know where your dead feed the life that you are learning to obey… When you know yourself to be at home, you know who you are bound to." - Stephen Jenkinson, Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

My friend Heather Milton-Lightening put it this way in a Facebook post:
"I get annoyed when people don't understand Indigenous Sovereignty but then I remember many people don't have a connection to who they are and where they come from. Some didn't have choice. They don't feel the power of their ancestors when they stand on their homelands. Like I do. They don't understand the connection I have is because my ancestors bodies returned to the earth I walk on. Every step is with them. They don't have that feeling of "home" when they come back to the territory like I do after being away. Sometimes I need to remind myself how much privilege I have that I found my home."
It is almost impossible for a white person alive today in North American culture to answer the question, "Who were your people before they were white?"

It is almost impossible for a white person alive today in North American culture to imagine what this kind of home might look like.

It is almost impossible for a white person alive today in North American culture to imagine what life would be like with our endless options replaced by enduring obligations.

And the loss of this kind of home has, within it, many other poverties.

The List of Our Poverties:

To make this list is an impossible thing. But, just as making a list of the privileges we enjoy can serve to open our eyes, so can contending with our poverties.

It is important to lift up that most of the poverties below were not caused by whiteness but by colonization, christianity (and Islam is some parts of Europe) and capitalism and it's important to understand that whiteness is the direct heir of those three things. Whiteness was created by them all. Whiteness is the perfect expression of those things because whiteness brings what those things could never entirely work - the utter forgetting of anything before it. Whiteness, over time, is amnesia.

So, as you read this list of poverties below, know that whiteness didn't cause most of them, but whiteness is central to us never even considering these things or knowing them as poverties should we be faced with them.

This list is far from extensive and far from exclusive to white people - surely it could be true of many who live in this modern world. But perhaps it will do some service if it stirs in you some appetite, some recognition of the lack of real food we've had for too long. As the old ones say, "Food makes hunger." And so too, though not as well, can the rumour of food. I hope what follows will be the scent of something for you. I offer it as a patchwork quilt - connections between them implied but not spelled out.

Where to begin the the list of our poverties?

We live in an age of human caused climate change and ecological unraveling.

Our culture is full of levels of depression, anxiety, addiction and mental illness that are staggering.

We don’t know our family history beyond a few generations back. We have no real sense of cultural roots beyond 'being white' and therefore we have very little sense of culture beyond 'whiteness' and even less sense that whiteness is a distinct culture from a distinct moment in time and from a particular place, created with particular and ignoble aims in mind.

We don’t know our ancestral stories (and even if we know some we may never have been to, seen or experienced the places talked about in them and there’s a good chance we never will).

We are rarely at the deathbeds of anyone and so show up to ours as amateurs and spend our last days dying mostly alone, badly and terrified.

We speak English and, for the most part, don’t understand the languages (and thus worldview) of our ancestors.

We have a culture full of olders taking drugs but very few elders giving out medicine.

We don’t have a traditional cosmology for the role of humans in the world handed down to us from our ancestors and a place and land based creation story.

We don’t really belong to the places we live in a meaningful way.

We don’t know the difference between needs and wants.

We’re rarely grieved over or praised fully for who we are.

We lack the basic skills of being human: how to grow food, make clothing, shelters or fire etc.

There are no real initiations for the major stages of life - especially for young people into adulthood.

The food we eat is denatured, overly processed and often toxic.

Many of us suffer from 'nature deficit disorder - there so little wilderness left and we spend so little time in it.

We can’t identify most of the plants where we live, or what they do or know any stories about them. But we can identify over 1,000 corporate logos.

We lack cultural songs more than 100 years old at the very most. We don't have ancient songs that have endured hundreds of years and been a thread that weaves the culture together.

We suffer from a monoculture of relationships which means that less of us is brought out. We tend to hang out with people only in our age group and who are like us. Little children have precious time with elders and both are deeply impoverished because of it. Teens in the throws of angst lack much support and sure guidance from adults (and they mistrust most adults anyway).

More than that - our only relationships are with people. We have little time fostering relationships with animals or nature. Or the stars. Or our ancestors. And, since each relationship brings out some new part of us, we know only a very narrow band of who we are. Our sense of self has become desperate narrow.

We are deeply addicted to being in control and competent at everything we do.

We feel a deep guilt around our sexuality and bodily pleasure.

Many of us lead a sedentary lifestyle which harms our structure and leads to its breaking down.

We have very little connection to our food and where it comes from. Could we even name what country the tomatoes at dinner were from, much less the farm, much less having a relationship with that farmer?

We have no idea how to handle conflict in a way that makes the community stronger and doesn’t rely on the exclusion of the other person.

We have a homeless education. We learn about abstract things but we learn so little about or from the place we’re in - our own home.

Instead of a culture full of myths and storytelling we have TV and Hollywood. Instead of heroes, gods and tricksters, we have celebrities.

We have no stories behind most of our stuff. It comes from 'the store' or 'IKEA'. But we don't know who made it. Or what wood it's made from. Or what tools were used in the making of it and how long it took.

We see the world as a collection of objects, not a communion of subjects. Instead of a vibrant, living universe to walk through, we are left with a lonely and empty one.

As white people, we imagine that, at our core, given the evidence of history, we must be a bad animal and that nothing good could possibly have come from where we come from.

My friend Ruben Anderson wrote me on this topic,
"Tad, we could just go on and on... The Finns know Bear to be their blood relation. I will never know that. Many aboriginal people believe the appearance of animals portend the future, and that they can shapeshift—they are magical. Which means when an Indian sees a raven, as they might several times a day, they are in the presence of magic...several times a day. I will never know what it feels like to live in a magical world.

I don't know the specificity of land. In Peru they grow about 2000 varieties of potatoes. This is because one variety grows slightly better here than it does there, and so on.

I think I am precluded from almost all "knowing in my bones". Most of this knowledge must be transmitted almost by osmosis, through immersion in our youth. Yes, we can study, and even become expert in one or two things as adults. But we will never learn all of the things—what the clouds mean for rain or wind; the birds; the trees; how much salt to add to salami; when the milk is best for which cheese; when to plant the peas; do dill and potatoes have an antipathy? Et. c.

I will never know what it means to raise a barn with a group of people, who I know intimately and know their strengths and weaknesses—know who I trust up on the ridge beam with me.

I will never the know the honest feeling of joy and burden from being in a community. I will die evaluating whether it is worth it for me, or if I should be trying my luck elsewhere. I call this optionality. We have options. Endless options. Our optionality costs us depth.

I will never know contentment. I worship contentment, I aspire to contentment. But I am a child of an era of striving, and that is what is in my bones. I will die a failure, because I lacked the desire to strive.

Because of emigration, I don't know the stories of my people.

I don't know the name of the beetles I dig up in my garden.

For fuck's sake. The basics of what bird that is, what tree that is, and if that berry will kill me. I am trying to learn this, and there is not enough time.

Carmen should tell this story, but apparently in the language of the Lekwungen people, where we live, a deer in the field is called a deer. But a deer you have killed is called a relation, like a cousin. I will never know that. I think it is impossible to feel that. Even if I think I feel that, I will never know if I am feeling THAT.

I cannot remember what it is like to feel like the future is hopeful, like tomorrow will be better than today. Obviously I know tomorrow will be less messy than today, because I tidied up tonight. But I mean the general trajectory of our society is down.

Anyhow. There is 0.0001% of my poverty."

The greatest poverty? We are unaware of any of these as poverties.

Our greatest privilege? We are unaware of any of our privileges as privileges.

What would this all look like?

I'm with Ruben in that I wish I knew.

What would it feel like?

I can't even begin to say.

But I have told you about the poverty and so I suppose I should tell you about the wealth. But that is hard because I, like most white people, are fingering the rosary of all the rumours of how it has been different in others places in the world, how it is still different in many places and how it might be different still here. I'm following the scent as best as I can.

I have heard rumours of the wealth but I haven't lived it myself. But, I suppose that it's fair enough to share some portion of the rumours that I have heard.

Imagine fish being so plentiful that you only had to dip you bucket into the water and it would come out full of fish. Imagine grandmothers you knew you could go to in times of loss and heartache who wouldn't try to change you or fix you but might just pull back the blankets of their bed and pat the mattress and hold you while you wept. Imagine watching the young people of your community being gathered up and taken away by people who cared enough to do the hard work of initiating them into adulthood and seeing them come back exhausted but beaming with some bright new thing inside them. Imagine knowing how to make fire and shelter with your bare hands. Imagine a village where childcare is shared and children are safe to run around in nature. Imagine knowing the names of all the plants and what they do. Imagine no more factory farms and knowing where all your meat came from and even the animals themselves and how precious and sacred it would be to you.

Imagine what all of the poverties listed above might become if tended to.

Imagine that and then know that your seeing any of that in your lifetime is incredibly unlikely. This is the tree you wished you'd planted 50 years ago whose shade and branches you may now never get to enjoy. A tree that can only be planted now, where we are, in the compost of this dying culture.

Here's how it seems to me...

Until we know our privileges and poverties as such, we lack even the possibility of finding a meaningful and helpful way forward in the world as a people.

In fact, until we know our privileges and our poverties, becoming a people of any place may not possible at all. When white people say, "But I have no culture!" I want to direct their attention to the devastation of this world and then to this unwelcome, two-winged bird and say, "There it is. This strange combination of privilege and poverty and the destruction it has brought - there is your mother culture. But it is not your grandmother culture and less so your great-grandmother culture."

Knowing this could be the beginning of something worth beginning.

But I think seeing both is required.

To see neither our privileges or our poverties is not see this bird of destruction at all. It is to be drunk or asleep at the wheel of this great boat of modern culture as it ploughs straight ahead into the harbour from which life flows. To see neither does not mean that we stop seeing the destruction but rather that we can't see the bird and so, of course, we have to come to some other understanding to make sense of it all. Maybe it was always like this? Maybe black people are exaggerating how bad it is with the police? Maybe indigenous people are inherently lazy and alcoholics? Yes. It must be those things. What else could it be.

“The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege which dehumanizes others and themselves. They cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.”
― Paulo Freire

To see only our poverties and not our privileges, is to imagine that this monstrous bird is only attacking us. That we are victims and that being white is so hard because 'we don't even have a culture'. This doesn't make us particularly useful in the struggle for social justice or environmental sanity. It might make us cling to the shreds of whatever culture we have left even if that 'culture' is the too recent, blood stained and anemic culture of whiteness. It might have us respond to #blacklivesmatter with cries of #alllivesmatter

To see only our privileges and not our poverties is, often, to be drown in guilt. I see this all too often in the world of anti-oppression and activism. A relentless focus on privilege and owning it. To do this can be to imagine that only others, people of colour and indigenous people, are being attacked by this bird and that we have, somehow, remained unharmed. It can be to be filled with shame and a fierce urgency around how we can be a good ally and gain the approval of people of colour.

But acting from the desire to stop feeling guilty is different than acting from the desire to start building a better tomorrow.

Acting from a place of wanting to protect ourselves from attacks or to cover up our shame is different than doing what needs to be done for those not yet born.

Acting from wanting to fit into an activist scene is different than a sincere attempt to decolonize our hearts and the world in which we live.

To see only our privileges is to be unable to see how our ancestors were victims of the same colonization and how we are still, in this very moment, having the flesh stripped off of us inch by inch by the same as well.

But to see both? That is to be utterly heartbroken. That is to remember something older than you are. That is to know, for sure, that it has not always been this way and that it could be different yet. It is to see how so much that is precious and worthy in the world has been treated as anything but. As Stephen Jenkinson might say, it can only be a grief soaked proposition.

It is this heartbreak that we avoid and medicate away at all costs. It is this heartbreak that the forgetfulness of whiteness has keepen us from. It is this heartbreak that will make us human and useful to life again.

To see both is to see the bird clearly for what it is how even as you don't want to see it. It is to finally look up and see how it flies, the span of its wings, the food it eats and what it feeds. To see both, and to sustain the gaze, is to come to understand something about the nature of how things have come to be and maybe, from the pattern of its flight and location of its nest, to come to some deeper learning about how we might best deal with it so that no more damage need be done.

To see both is to see both how it harms others and how we have been harmed. It is to see how the struggles of others are not separate from our own. To see both is to see more deeply into both. Our learning of our privileges informs our understandings of how deep the poverties go and vice versa. To see both is to have a clearer sense of the whole. And this learning comes dear. It will cost you more than you can currently afford to pay. It will cost you much of what you have come to know to be true. It will cost you most of your ideas how who you are, how the world works and how it all came to be. It will cost you much of your easy comfort and almost all of your innocence. It will cost you your capacity to enjoy many of those things into which you could escape. It will cost you distraction.

But, most importantly, to see both is to finally see that this bird is not alive. It is a mechanical device. An automaton. This bird is a machine. It was not hatched from an egg but from the minds of men who sought only more power for themselves. And this bird must be destroyed. It is not enough to say, 'Not in my name.' It is not enough to walk away from it. This bird must be dismantled and the precious metals it is made from given back to those from whom it was taken. Perhaps some of us have come, over generations, to imagine that this bird is here to protect us, or that it is some new mighty god to whom we need to give our fealty. Perhaps it's just that we've come to see whiteness as who we are and, in the absence of any other meaningful sense of identity, we clutch to it like a threadbare, blanket on a cold night - some measure of protection and warmth offered against the cutting winds of this modern world. But the clutching to this blanket will have us freeze to death in the end. There are warmer things in this world.

We must discard and destroy the notion of whiteness and we must heal from what it has done to us all.

Instead of a loyalty to whiteness, or 'the white race' - how about a loyalty to place and to community; a loyalty to learning history and then bending the arc of it more firmly towards justice.

The waking up to being this strange, cultural orphan, simultaneously spoiled and impoverished, might yet wake up the desire to be a good parent; a finer ancestor to those yet to come.

I think that, in some unlikely twist, the paying so dearly is what will take you out of your poverty. The costly learning of the warp and the weft, the woven patterns of too many unearned privileges will guide you in how to unravel them and be a part of the weaving of them into something finer, more beautiful and more worthy of passing on to future generations.

And the unweaving of one thing to weave it into another might reweave something inside of you too. The hunger you come to know might wake you up in the middle of the night to stumble, groggy, into the kitchen and cook some magnificent feast that not only feeds you but many others as well.

"...the rental rate for this gift of being allowed to flourish and reside in this continuum with the rest of the world is that we do everything possible to be indigenously beautiful, promising that we make ourselves spiritually full and delicious so as to feed the next ones to appear in the ongoing river on the occasion of our passing." - Martin Prechtel, The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic I

Gratitudes to:

Stephen Jenkinson for many of this words here and for speaking so eloquently to the poverty of our times.

To David M. Porinchok for his astute historical clarity and feedback.
To Ruben Anderson for reading and wrestling these ideas out with me.
To you for reading these words and being willing to consider them.



You can learn more about what I mean by 'whiteness' here:

Books on Whiteness:

The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen

Abolition Of White Democracy by Joel Olson
The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills

On White Privilege: