Thursday, December 7, 2017

eight square inches

i do not intend
to listen
when you tell me
i cannot
change the world

i ripple impact.

these eyes
have shed a thousand tears
have looked shame in the eye
transforming it to healing grief

these ears
have bathed in beauty
bled from pain
remained open vessels for new learning
maintained slopes pouring growth
down
to the heart
out through hands
moved to act. touch. heal. push aside.

this tongue
has formed whispers of comfort
launched rockets
of just anger
fought back fear
eaten hope

these lips
have kissed away heart wounds
tasted the sweetest strength found only
in a welcomed lovers skin
curled upwards to the sun
silent power shot across to another
striking loneliness a death blow

this mind
has learned, unlearned, relearned
wrestled with demons in and out
chosen the painful tenderizing of opinion
so perspective never hardens to hate

this heart
has chosen to stand still
instead of flee
to fight and sometimes relinquish
to face defeat but never be
defeated
to break wide open
over
and over
and over

eight square inches of my face
a house for all this
and more

eight square inches of my face
i see infinite

you see flesh and wrinkles
tell my eight square inches
"you cannot change the world."

i respond with silence
a composed canvas

but inside
i reverberate a force
rendering your words hollow

"i already am."

and though you don't see it, i do.
you are too

sixteen square inches.
infinite world changing impact

there is only one difference
to how you and i
will
change the world

i intend to do it
on purpose



Friday, October 6, 2017

An Open Letter to the American Public Media & BBC

An Open Letter to the American Public Media & BBC

Dear fellow humans who also work in public media,

I've long puzzled at your role in influencing the society I weave my way through every day. Growing up in Kenya, I was insulated from mainstream western media other than the morning news from BBC crackling across my father's 2 way radio in the 1980s and 90s.

When I moved to the United States for university in 2004, I was struck by your reliance on sensationalism, fully understanding your use of dramatic language and punctuation was meant to catch my attention. What I never understood, and am even more baffled at today, is your (apparent) total oblivion to the reason these types of headlines grab the attention of more readers. As a mother, as a woman, as an American, as an expatriate, as a human, as a budding mental health professional, I would like to plainly tell you something you seem to either not know, or worse, give no regard for: your sensationalism preys on the human tendency towards fear, and heightens our evolutionary response to fear: self-preservation and isolationism. And self-preservation and isolationism lead to anger, division, and violence. 

Plainly put, it is precisely the way you report the news that feeds the ravenous, insatiable beast of fear, and all that follows in it's wake. And I know that while I carry the bulk of responsibility for my own attitudes towards others, you carry a lions share and daily, hypocritically pretend to wash your hands of the division, fear, anger, hatred, and violence sweeping not only this country but also the world.

But increasingly, I think we're realizing what you're doing. We are slowly recognizing certain styles of reporting prey on our human nature for your profit. It's increasingly clear (through things like the interviews of the brother of the Vegas shooter) that you are capitalizing on people's pain in a way that makes them a sensationalist headline rather than using your platform as a way to remind people of their common humanity.   We are slowly wizening to you crying "terrorism" while using your own editing and linguistics tactics to weave terror into people's hearts and subconscious. I hope that soon we'll say we've had enough. 

I watched CNN early this year while at the gym, ironically there to decrease my stress but inundated with your coverage of the attack outside Notre Dame. A picture flashed of hundreds of people inside the cathedral sitting calmly with their hands raised. "how remarkable," I thought as a I huffed along on the treadmill, "those hundreds of people waiting calmly, joined quietly in solidarity, strong, resolute."

I'm glad I think faster than you speak for you quickly re-phrased the picture "what a terrifying scene. so scary', you said. I almost lost my footing, still somehow caught off guard by your brazen choice to cast a darker hue over an evolving, and self-explanatory story. Your choice of language blatantly pandered to only my fear-based emotion, asking me to engage with the world around me out of only fear, rather than using my resilience, compassion, hope, and patience for real fact rather than speculation, your narration seeking to strip me of my willingness to reason.

It ended up being an attack that resulted in no deaths, including the attacker or the policeperson they attacked. I never saw you hail any of this as positive, or a step in the right direction, or evidence of hundreds working for good while one worked for harm.

And then later that same day, I read a BBC article about the mother of one of the London Bridge attackers. You reported she felt too ashamed to grieve, and supported her faith communities decision to not bury her son. Her thoughts on the attack? "It's a horrible thing. It shouldn't have happened and it should never happen again. And I'm going to do everything I can to prevent this. We need more education for young people," she told you.

You closed the article with this one line: "We left her alone, contemplating in the dark."



How dare you take an opportunity to highlight solidarity in suffering, a commitment to unity & peace, a plea for education and instead literally leave a marginalized, grieving woman alone in the dark, and then highlight it in a home-page featured article? But you dared. And I noticed.

And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized this is your attitude towards your readers, and the world: Let's leave them alone, contemplating in the dark.

You tell us of all the real & potential & theoretical threats in the world, on a cycle of constancy that dizzies even the most robust of minds and stalwart of spirits. You clamour there is fear, and rely on us feeling afraid enough that we trust only you will have the answer. For your plan is to bring our eyes back to your publications and your channels, to profit from the microseconds our eyes or computer mouse hover over advertisements that further breed our sense of discontent, inadequacy, need for escape. And the cycle never ends, and the spinning nearly makes us black out. And you leave us, contemplating in the dark.

I'm asking you to stop. To consider that the bed you are making, you will one day lie in, and in fact already are. To consider that the terror you so often speak of is fed a gluttonous diet by your rhetoric. I'm asking you to believe in the desire of the majority of humanity to pursue these few simple things: a safe place to live, a way to care for those they love, and a way to provide meaning to their community.

I've almost stopped believing the entirety of what you say, and the increasing data-driven evidence that we live in a post-factual society would suggest the majority of the American  & western-world population doesn't believe you either.

Just weeks ago, some of you were on my street, going door to door looking for someone to talk about the shooting that had occurred in front of our home. I approached a reporter, asking them to leave - "but, ma'am, wasn't there a murder here?" I deflected the question, asking them again to leave. The reporter was clearly baffled, "ma'm, I don't understand your hostility. don't you know crime has risen in this part of town? we're doing a report on that." I simply responded, "that sounds like a great report - go find real datum to support it, but anecdotes of recently traumatized people are not data, it's pandering and manipulative."

He continued walking the block until he found a woman holding a sleeping baby who didn't know what had really happened, and got the sound bite he wanted. He never came back - not that night when nearly 100 people gathered in our street to pray, light candles, hug one another, multiple cultures and languages folded together in shared grief, and shared strength. Not the next days when there were more people walking in the neighborhood, talking to one another, knocking on strangers doors just to exchange numbers and give flowers. Not the next week when a mother came by to grieve her son and neighbors held a literal strangers grief physically and emotionally because alone is never how we are supposed to be.  Because that doesn't trigger our fear response, and so they didn't need those stories.

Powerful media, you have such a voice, such a potential for leadership, such an opportunity to meaningfully and significantly contribute to a society built on respect, an ability to dialogue with a sensitivity to emotion but a commitment to not taking advantage of it. I hope you'll begin using it. You would gain more readers and viewers and followers than you could possibly imagine, and you would, I truly believe, significantly and positively shape the direction of this country and world.

But even if you won't, I will and I believe with my whole heart that my family, and my colleagues, my community, and millions upon billions more will too. You have positioned yourself as the machine, and people have been walking away from factories and their deplorable conditions for hundreds of years. There's no reason we would stay now.

I have children to raise, and I have truth to teach them. About how the world works, about their role in it, about the equal value of all. About their ability to in every action and every word bring about hope or destruction.

And today, I wish you were my children, so I could sit you down and tell you that your words matter, they really do. To tell you that habitual fear has never once contributed to unity, and that you must do everything in your power to bring hope, truth, and a strong awareness of the tenderness of humanity to your own life and the lives of those you influence.

I know sometimes you do highlight the wonderful. I know sometimes you do push for beauty and unity and positivity. But they are the exception, not the norm, and almost never a headline story. What if the reverse were true?

I hope you'll begin to read every sentence of every headline and photo caption and news hour script (before and after it goes to publication) with this question: "will this, will I, spread hope and resilience; or will this spread fear and division?"

I'm committed to spreading hope and resilience. It's far time you did the same.

Sarah

to the curious: my primary (read several times a week, some daily) news sources are BBC, NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. In addition, on a monthly basis, I read Al-Jazeera, Fox News, Red State, and Brietbart, as well as Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, The New York Times, and Huffington Post. When things are really rough I also read xkcd, the onion, the oatmeal, and the babylon bee. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

transplanting blackberries after a homicide

To My Dear West Seattle Community,

My husband ushered our children into the back bedroom to finish their movie, unaware in their innocence, as the gunshots cut the air of our neighborhood. A quiet street I've only ever known to be full of dog walkers, joggers, and the occasional driver going a tad too quickly down a residential street now filled with flashing blue lights, yellow tape, and chalk.

Our front window, which still looks out at a row of adorable houses that remind me of a rainbow now also looks out on the memorial of a young man, our new friend, killed just steps from our front door.

It has been a hard week for us. And here, in West Seattle, as I go to my kids school, to work, and talk to our neighbors and friends, it sounds like it's been a harder season for us as a community in general. We're growing a lot, so many new people, so much less space, so many more cars.

And it seems as if it the growth is coming with more stories like the one that unfolded outside my dining room window as a life flowed out into a storm drain in the street while the kids obliviously sang along to "let it go."

There are more stories of people hurt, hurting one another, kids discouraged from walking to school without a grownup - our ideals of safety threatened and somehow suddenly fleeting.

People seem more afraid and it's coming out as anger; I get honked at more, glared at more, and if I'm honest, I'm honking more, snarkier with the person taking too long (in my opinion) in the check out line, defenses automatically up when I walk out the door. It just seems we're all more on edge. The tensions of our world, our city, and our community stuffed down into raincoats with zippers increasingly too short to hold all the pain and wondering in, and so there are quick glances away if our eyes meet a stranger's. Friend or foe? We don't know, and we’re too heart-tired to find out.

But in the wake of the events this week, I've thought of our West Seattle community a lot, and I had a few very simple things I wanted to share with you. So, here it goes...

I think a lot about fear. If I'm honest, I can feel a lot of it on a daily basis. I've learned over the years how to use it as a catalyst for good, how to be grateful for my constant vigilance, seeing the many ways it has benefited my family, my community, the things I am involved with. Fear is like a yellow light - it's not a directive to stop or to go, it's just a sign it's time to make a decision. And the more information I have about my trajectory, goals, and physical realities the more likely I am to make a wise choice in response to that yellow light.

My favorite yellow lights are the ones accompanied by an accurate pedestrian crosswalk - that number countdown to the yellow light is what all lights should be, and what I wish life provided: adequate time to know what to expect and how to prepare.

But in real life, which has come way too close to home for us this week, it doesn't work that way. While the yellow light of fear happens frequently enough, it is very rarely preceded by a gentle warning: "fear is coming soon - just wanted you to have a bit of time to prepare and plan your response."

Here is what I have learned about fear: if we do not choose how we will respond when it inevitably comes, then in the face of fear what flows out of us is our worst, not our best.

Fear tells us there is a threat, and in the absence of an intentional response to fear, our instinct tells us to turn away, to pull in, to put up higher fences, install bigger security systems, and fortify our defenses. And we do. I do.

But, here is another thing I have learned, having grown up in a city where the literal fences were high, topped with barbed wire, and monitored by dogs and armed guards.  The put up, pull in, back off mentality does not bring a greater sense of safety, nor does it diminish an actual threat of risk. Perhaps it does for a moment, but not for long. It is fleeting, and our belief in our own ability to singularly control our individual outcome in the world is like a drug: we need bigger doses of heavier substances to retain our feelings of control.

We are a culture that prides itself on self-reliance and individualism, and a city where politeness is paramount but our internal walls are high and we more easily turn away than towards. Uncomfortably, especially for us, this truth remains: the anecdote to fear is not an exertion of power or a reinforcing of our own walls. The anecdote to fear is togetherness.

This week has been incredibly hard for me and for our neighborhood, but it has been so softened by the fact we already knew our neighbors - even the ones who were the victims in this senseless tragedy. There was instant comfort in knowing that even in the midst of real fear we were surrounded by people who knew us, knew our kids, had us watch their pets, and came over for drinks or bbqs.

We didn't know our neighbors on accident, there was no roster passed out when we moved onto the block several years back. There was a lovely bottle of wine dropped off, and a couple phone numbers swapped at a Neighbors Night Out. The rest has been slow building. It has meant going on evening walks as a family and stopping to say hi to anyone we see out and about, including getting into or out of their cars (and yes, it's always awkward, and yes, it's always met with eventual warmth). We introduce ourselves, say where we live, offer to swap numbers and remind people "we're close by if you ever need anything."

It has meant watching when the houses go up for sale, knocking on the doors of folks as they unpack their boxes, passing on the next bottle of wine, swapping numbers, and again saying, "we just live right there...so glad you moved in." It has meant large group text chains telling neighbors about impromptu BBQs on the first warm Saturday of spring, asking for help managing our chickens while we travel, walking the mail incorrectly delivered to us over to it's rightful owner a block away and choosing to knock on the door rather than stuff it in the mailbox.

Building community, which I recently heard described as common unity, does not happen through programs, or private groups. Neighborhood groups on social media help with the transfer of goods and information, but they are no substitute for a handshake, an eye-to-eye smile, or a knock on the door.

I've lived in a lot of places, I've been close to a lot of pain, and experienced it myself. I've had my sense of safety violated more than once, and know it will happen again. As much as some knee jerk part of me wants to do everything I can to gear up for battle, I've lived long enough to know the real war isn't in the moment of fear, it's in how I've prepared my heart, my family, and my community before it comes.

I'm a fighter, through and through, there is no flight in me. But I won't fight fire with fire or violence with violence for one simple reason: love is much stronger than hate or fear. You see, hate and fear eat a soul alive while love self-repairs and grows stronger each time it's shown. A community turned towards one another, intentionally woven together, is more safe than a community pulled away from one another in fear and hate.

It's not up to me to decide what your block is like, that's up to you. But here on this block, even after the week we've had, we're going to keep turning in. We're going to keep watching each other's pets and kids, inviting each other over for warm pies, asking how the day was & waiting to hear the real answer. And the folks at the corner of the block are going to wrap this around the block and across the intersection, and I hope it spreads like the blackberries at EC Hughes until West Seattle is known as the part of town where folks know their neighbors, aren't afraid of the ways our city is changing, and see the yellow light of fear as an anticipated reality that we get to respond to with choice.

I hope you've already planted your own blackberry patch of love and togetherness in your neighborhood. But if you haven't, that's ok, just consider this letter a starter clipping from mine. It's all you need to get started, just drop it in the soil of a knock on a neighbors door, water it with a the swap of a phone number, and fertilize with a text when you're running to Target and just wondered if anyone in the neighborhood needed anything while you were out.

Hate raised its head this week, and it will again, even today. But I'll raise my head even higher, choose to look in your eyes a little bit longer, fighting for love a little bit fiercer. It's the very best thing I know how to do, and I really, really hope you'll join me.  

And you know, we live just down the block so if you ever need anything, just holler; and if you're new, we're so glad you're here.

- Sarah










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