A Field of Endless Possibility

Image

Chicagoans are nothing, if not hopeful.  We spend every day of at least five months out of the year (and that’s being generous) hoping that the sun hasn’t crawled into an eternal cave never to be seen again.  We hope that our snot can last the five minute walk to the bus stop without completely freezing our nasal passages solid (yes, this is a true story).  We hope that the icy-slush-puddle that we are forced to navigate through is only an inch deep and not the rabbit hole that brought Alice to Wonderland.  We hope that our car, which is buried in four feet of snow, has steadfast determination to start on command and get us to work in the morning.  But above all we hope we survive this year’s winter to make it to spring and summer.

We live in a city where most of the year we are miserable so that a few months of the year are paradise.  And we are proud of it.  Put a long-time Chicagoan in Southern California during a “rain storm” as all the bleach blonde, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing hippies run around  in terror with their hoodies, Ugg boots and scarves.  Come to Chicago, the Chicagoan would think. You wouldn’t last a day, even a day in March. But why is it that most of us voluntary choose this torture when so many great cities have vacation-like climates all year round?

I was thinking about this hope phenomenon walking home from work today on this year’s first 80 degree day.  (And, as usual, I was thinking too much and too deeply about it, because I have a tendency to do that). But I kept going back to the idea that this hope is a similar hope that we all have or wish to have about our own lives.  Most of the time, life is full of suffering, pain, disappointment, loss.  Most of the time our life is spent in the winter.  Clinging to warmth and safety but hoping that another day, a warmer day, a brighter day will come.

Depression reminds me a lot of a Chicago winter.  You feel like you are trapped, constantly inside.  The cold and unwelcoming outside makes even getting out of bed a struggle.  You don’t care to look at anyone in the eye or even give a friendly head nod in their direction when walking down the street because even a momentary glance will halt your eventual escape out of the bitter cold.  Winter is about survival.  A survival in hopes that a spring will one day appear.

And right as we all begin to lose hope, spring arrives (as much as Chicago can muster a spring) and reminds us all that the winter is only a season.  Winter is only a season.  Depression is only a season.  While we always seem to hold in the back of our heads the reminder that one day spring will turn into summer, which will turn into fall, which will turn into winter once again, we know that spring has come.  Chicago comes to life.  Those of us that struggle with depression know that a good day, week or month is something to be celebrated and enjoyed but we are always haunted by the day we wake up and the cold has engulfed us once more.  But we revel in those warm days, weeks and months, just like Chicagoans spend entire weeks outside when the temperature is a mere 40 degrees. For we know that even spring is a season.

As I walked home from work mulling over these thoughts, I came across an open field, which had once housed the many public housing projects that were scattered on the near west side of the city.  Now this field is home to knee-high grass, weeds and gleeful dogs playing endless games of fetch with their owners.  I walk past this field nearly every day but for some reason as I walked past, feeling the warmth of the sun on my conspicuously pale skin, it gave me pause.

Scattered in between the neglected blades of grass were hundreds of dandelions swaying gently in the soft spring wind.  This is why we hope.  For dandelions.  When the fuzzy white tops of these flower-like weeds float or are blown away, leaving the stem naked and vulnerable the plants look like they no longer have meaning, no longer have life.  But what I have always found mesmerizing about these weeds is that with each white seed that disappears in the wind, another dandelion is planted wherever it lands. In seeming death, new life is created.  Before me lay resilience. Before me lay a field of endless possibility.

I paused to take a picture of this beautiful image and continued on my way.  But before I reached the entrance of my apartment, I thought: this is why we hope.  This is why we Chicagoans are crazy about our city, despite our weather. This is why we can survive chronic depression even though we know it will always be our unwanted friend.  We hope for new life, for renewal, for a fresh start even in the face of cold, death, and isolation. We hope in winter that we will just survive the cold, bleak conditions so that we can thrive in spring. For, even in spring, when winter feels imminent once again and even though the warm wind can strip us naked, vulnerable, alone, we can have hope in knowing that, with that strong gust of wind, resilience is built and possibilities are endless. Image

I Walk, I Do Not Run for Justice

20140428-105511.jpg

I walk, I do not run for justice
Oh how I wish I could fly.
Soar above the despair.
Yet, the burden is too heavy.

This load, this crushing weight
My own, my brothers’, my sisters’
Forces me to take slow, heavy steps
Forward, always forward

But I fall, often I fall
For justice is not perfection
It is a devastatingly human desire
Full of lust, envy and failure

So I walk, I do not run for justice
For each human failure
accepted, noticed, loved
Makes the steps easier, the burden lighter.

My stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters
Their stumbles bring healing
For me, for my brothers, for my sisters

For how can I run?
When millions struggle to simply stand
Under these structural burdens
For only my privilege lets me run.

But if I run, I stand atop these burdens
Freely, swiftly
Pursuing a lofty end of justice
While adding more weight to these burdens

So I choose to walk, to carry this weight
Not run above it, adding to it
For a justice, sustainable
For a healing, universal.

May we walk, not run for justice
Noticing people, dreams, failures along our way
Building community that chooses to carry this unbearable weight
Understanding our privilege to even dream about simply running.

There Is No Victor: Voiceless in Syria

There is no victor in this war
A boy not nearly twelve
runs down the streets of a village.
Screaming, yelling.
For days now the jets
have haunted his village
his family
his own mind.
This boy’s imagination,
the one sign of childhood still preserved,
has now even turned against him.
Every whistle or change in the wind
carries the threat of danger and death.
Even the loving call of his own mother
startles him from a numbed trance.
For such a call could mean another raid
on the horizon.
***********************
He used to have dreams of being a pilot.
Flying his family to far off destinations
and returning safely home.
But now the faceless, unknown enemy
has captured that vision as well.
Turning his jet into a weapon.
Now even this dream haunts him each night
as he prays to Allah that each sound he hears
isn’t the hum of that now-familiar jet.
***********************
For there is no certain tomorrow in this war
Each day, though, his hope seems to hobble forward
even as his village crumbles
because at least Allah has heard his prayers
and protected his family.
Each new morning he gasps
with his first conscious breath to make sure
in his now fitful sleep
he wasn’t named the next victim.
A moment of relief is all he receives
as he races to the bed of his family
hugging each still sleeping body
with the force of ten men
for he now knows Allah has heard his cry.
**********************
Yet, it wasn’t his imagination that betrayed him today.
Reality,
as much as this scene can seam real in his young mind,
floods in as single tears fall urgently
to the cracked dusty ground.
Even this pure nourishment is rejected
by the parched earth beneath him
for nothing seems to heal this war-torn land.
Today he has lost his family.
He screams and cries
loud enough to block out the thoughts that
maybe Allah had not cared enough to save their lives
and the lasting desire that his life would be taken instead.
************************
But there is no mourning in this war.
Men surround the child
each dressed in fatigues engulfing him in his new reality.
Tears will not bring back his family
and he is asked to quiet his hysteric yells.
His cries for revenge tell the story of this cycle of war.
For the fight for peace and a voice for the people
can rarely be distinguished from the ever-present
hum of the jet engines overhead.
When the mouth of the oppressed tastes despair
that cannot be contained any longer
it will cry forth for more bloodshed
in hope of justice not peace.
For peace will not be found
within this well-known cycle but
beyond its bounds.
For there are no victors in this war.

Omar

Every time I try to write this my hand won’t let me
won’t let my pen solidify in ink, which seems more permanent now than ever,
the fact you are no longer here.
Each word I try to suppress like the tears that I won’t let myself cry for you
but as my pen now confesses the truth that we all know
tears fall with aimless rhythm.
And I finally let myself cry
because you were a child
because you were a child
because you were [in some ways] for a year my child
———————
I wouldn’t let myself write for each word etched into
the tightly woven fabric of a page
felt like drops of your blood now forever confined within the concrete
the asphalt, black as death.
———————-
No I won’t let myself write because it can’t be real
but every time I pass that corner I’m forced to remember
It is reality. For this whole city. It is reality.
You are gone, ok? You are gone.
———————-
But I won’t let myself think of your face
the one that looked at me most of the time with the
assuming suspicion of an outsider.
It takes all of me not to wonder
if those same eyes that once looked at me
stared down the boy that held that gun.
———————
But I won’t let myself remember you that way.
You were a boy full of promise with a smile that everyone
everyone, felt like they knew.
Yet, you were the streets that raised you
and you learned too soon from that unforgiving parent that
a young man of color must put on toughness and resolve
in the same swift motion
that he instinctively lifts his hand to his hat
tilting it ever so slightly to the appropriate side
because a mistake with either instinct
summons a most definite punishment.
No, but you didn’t deserve that life…
No boy, no child ever does.
————————–
I won’t let myself believe differently
I do believe though that with these streets as your parents
like any obedient, loving child
you would have died
you did die
for them.
just like your brother that night
raised by the same streets would kill for them.
Your harsh and unrelenting parents
these concrete guardians
would be proud
but if only you were here to see it.
See, that’s the problem…
You gave your life to these dark streets,
your blood flows through the cracks in the poorly paved asphalt
your brothers mark you as a local hero
but, see, the problem is next summer
this memorial will be paved over fresh.
Fresh for a new boy’s blood to be offered to these streets
———————-
But I will not let myself forget you, brother
for when blood is shed
and at too young of an age
there must be more to the story
we must stop paving over the memorials of these boys
because I know one day in the place where the
bloodstained asphalt is the darkest
a flower will sprout its way through an unseen crack
And I won’t let myself stop looking for this hope
———————-
I saw a boy walking the other day
and I thought it was you.
Before I said anything, I slammed my lips together
so that my voice couldn’t form your name
because I remembered, it’s real…
you’re gone.
As I watched, the boy walked across that same
fatal, fateful street
your street
and with each step he took I prayed
that those feet would tread respectfully on that pavement
aware of any sprouting flowers
hopes or dreams
for on it Omar Castel, forever a dreamer
lost, gave, lived his precious hope-filled life.
RIP Omar Castel (1995-2013)

Image

I Pray the Lord My Son’s Soul to Keep

Now I lay me down to sleep…
as the news
hangs heavy around my bed.
A boy, with a face sullen and cold,
like the face of my own son,
was shot tonight.
…I pray the Lord
but, oh Lord, I pray much harder.
Much harder than I imagine my fellow mothers pray.
I pray for my chocolate-skinned son.
Long, silent nights. Alone. I pray.
My God you have blessed me
not with peace
but with this unbearable burden.
For the freedom and unending mercies
of each new day wrought from your word
seem not enough to release my son from this:
a life filled with violence at the hands of sons
of other mothers,
backs broken by the same humble position of prayer.
The weight of the minutes I endure
tick. tock.
when my son is late from school
crush my knees
calloused, bruised
even harder into the ground
once again burdened by a load not my own.
My soul unsettled by the guilt
that my very own flesh and bones
bore this young man into this
daily battleground.
…my soul to keep
from questioning whether with each prayer
I am stealing away the minutes from
thousands of other mothers
pleading for the protection of their children.
keep my soul, oh Lord
from questioning why some black mothers
both young and old
must devote hours, years, lifetimes
to this unbearable burden
when other mothers
yes, both black and white
can sleep in relative peace
knowing they can save their prayers
for such extraordinary things:
success, satisfaction, and happiness.
…and if i should die before i wake
I pray my Lord my sons life you will not take
and for the years that he may be alone
I pray even harder, even longer for
Lord knows
oh Lord, you only know
I am the one and sometimes the only one
that knows the value of the life of my son.

**This poem is loosely inspired by a recent movie I watched called Fruitvale Station, which shares the tragic and heartbreaking story of a 22 year-old black man that was accidentally shot and killed by a BART police officer a few years ago.  As I was watching my attention kept being drawn to his mother who, despite her many efforts and prayers, could not keep her son safe that night.

It’s Not Enough

Two young boys playing cops and robbers in the summer heat
How do you tell them it is more than just a game?
The dichotomy of good and bad, criminal and innocent are alive and real.

Sweat pouring down a young mother’s brow in labor
this moment of joy almost overshadowed by the fear in her heart.
Her future filled with conversations prompted by questions of why…
“Why does Billy’s mom not let him come over to play at night?”

It’s not enough to say things have changed.
To raise a fist, post a comment, write a poem.
It’s not enough.

A father fingers a wad of sweaty cash on the corner
waiting for the next round of fiends to pay him for the
single moment of peace he supplies.
All the while his mind ponders the familiar thought
How to teach his son another way of life.

It’s not enough to tell young men the way of their fathers
does not have to be their own.
To speak of education, bootstraps, and potential.
It’s not enough.

Brothers working two jobs, hustling on the side
providing money for their babies and baby mamas
hoping their babies remember their faces,
sweat dripping, wrinkles deepening
unlike their own dad’s unknown, empty silhouette.

It’s not enough to simply hope for men to become fathers.
To theorize about responsibility, parenting style, pride.
It’s not enough.

The smile of a baby born with the skin of his father.
The skin of his grandfather; like any other infant.
Now unaware that this same skin that carries the pride of generations
marks this child as different, other.

It’s not enough to be colorblind.
To claim the skin color of that child does not matter and in the same breath
dismiss the centuries of hurt, pain and journey experienced in that skin.
It’s not enough.

Such skin color reckons back to the generations of survivors.
Men and women born in quicksand with the screams of
“pull yourself up… and quickly.”
the only sound echoing through their conscience.
But they remain. But they persevere.

And each generation of young men playing a simple game
of cops and robbers faces the reality.
With each game, they are rehearsing life
but instead they never choose their role.
BANG!

Impossibility

I miss the warmth that I felt from my hands to my heart
as they carefully found the creases in your flesh
that had been lonely for years.
The pure heartbeat of your body connecting two souls
and creating an unlikely melody.
But within that deep stillness doubt creeps
Creeps under the pillow and between the strands
of tangled hair that fell all the way to the floor
Is this but a dream?
Is this what is meant by impossible?
Yet we dream
entangled in our impossibilities
Skin pressed so tightly so tightly
So tightly that even heaven cannot know the
difference between you and I.

Open Mic

The following poem tells the story of a special night on a retreat that I helped lead for middle school and high school students.  Each student approached a solitary mic stand without pretense but with maturity and courage and spoke vulnerably of past hurts, like gang violence, suicide, divorce, and illness.

A single mic stand
Lonely.
accompanied only by a single candle steadily burning
A sea of young faces staring at this lonely mic stand.
waiting for magic.

A boy steps forward.
Silence like that of a funeral procession
Death was present but its close relative dread was no where to be found.
Death was sought.
Not physical but emotional.
Stripping one’s soul, dying to others’ judgments.

A word.
A joke.
Uncomfortabliity.
All palpable.

Stories never told flowed like a treacherous river.
With each confession a new stream birthed from young kids’ eyes.
Then the magic.
Stepping away the boy was now a man.
The, no longer lonely, mic stand had a new companion.

With each child a new burden lay next to the mic.
As each stepped away, heart still racing but the weight gone.
United as the burdens looked similar heaped next to such a lonely mic stand.
Yet no burden the same.

Wilting Flower

Sticks and stones, sticks and stones
A daughter cries into her soft pillow
in hopes that it won’t turn her heart soft
Words thrown at her with the accuracy
of a NFL quarterback
But on the outside its an incomplete pass
because she shows no emotions
no hurt
Exactly how she’s learned to
Her daddy use to sit her on his lap
coach her about things like that
how emotions are for the weak
and if you have them you best hide.
So that’s what she did.
hide them all inside next to her true self
bitch, whore, slut, ugly…
rang in her ears
but this soldier’s much too tough to show her many tears
that she cries into her soft, soft pillow.
As she cries she envies this soft companion and holds it tight.
Shots ring out from across the hall
bitch, whore, slut, ugly…
Her daddy, her mommy.
How can he tell her to be tough while she sits on his lap
but then hurl bullets that ZING past her unbrushed curls.
But, her mommy plays it right.
A shield of stoicism wrapped around her
blocking even the harshest yells.
bitch, whore, slut, ugly…
When men are taught to shoot
and women taught to hide
We create this internal battle we both keep inside.
All flowers are meant to bloom
despite knowing one day they will die.
Yet with each stick and stone thrown at her growing mind
this young flower hopes for the day she can bloom
before the beauty born within her
slowly, quietly
dies.