GUEST POST

Have you ever been in the situation where someone in a group of people with whom you are chatting makes a racist statement and you ask yourself, “What should I do now?”

Guest blogger, Neal Lemery, author of Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings From My Garden, shares a chapter from his book which deals with this very dilemma.

Chapter Twenty —An Awkward Conversation

 

Sometimes in the garden, there is a new condition that arises, one that threatens the welfare of the garden. It can be a disease, sometimes an infestation. Sometimes it is a toxic, dominating plant, known as a noxious weed.

In that situation, we go into crisis mode, availing ourselves of all our tools and wisdom. We take on the intruder, working hard to save the entire community, even if some of our plants perish in the struggle.

Such noxious weed situations occur elsewhere in our communities, and we need to take them on, to call the intruder what it is, and rid it from our lives.

Often, the elephant in our community living room is racism. It is an ugly disease, and I think we need to take it on, call it out for what it is, and rid it from our lives.

It was an uneasy moment. I was at a social event at someone’s home, talking to the homeowner and several others. We politely chatted, about the event, its popularity, the good weather of the day, and how we admired our host’s attractive home and its setting in the country.

My gardener’s soul was being nurtured by the beauty of the land, and my admiration for my host’s skills as a gardener, his devotion to creating a place of beauty and peace. I was at ease, I was with people with like minds, and with the same appreciation of nature and the good things that life has to offer. Or, so I thought, in my naivety.

Someone asked if there were other people who lived farther up the country road that ran by my host’s house.

His response, out of the blue, was a racial diatribe about “them”, “those lazy #*!s, and “damned illegals”.

I was stunned, not knowing how to react. Someone else artfully tried to deflect the comments, yet the host persisted, supplementing his comments with some additional racial slurs, and then launched into an attack on the truthfulness of another neighbor, whose alleged sins were not racial ethnicity but a difference of opinion on good farming practices.

I fell silent, not wanting to respond to either the racial comments or the ability of the other neighbor to be truthful a good farmer. My gut churned, and I wanted to run.

I certainly didn’t agree with him, yet I was at his home, and part of me wanted to still be the polite guest. And, part of me seethed with rage at this thunderbolt of bigotry and hatred.

I also wanted to be true to myself, to my values, and to my friends who were of a different race, a different ethnicity.

I wanted to be true to my grandfather, an immigrant who struggled to learn English and to be accepted here. He, too, was a farmer, just like my host, just like “those people” down the road. My other ancestors were “those people” in their day, just like the ancestors of my less than gracious host and everyone who heard him.

The comments pushed a knife deep into my gut. I’m not a believer in racism or prejudice. A good friend of mine happens to be of the ethnic group he was badmouthing, and I view racist comments and politics as a poison of our national soul.

How should I respond? How should any of us respond?

 

The website —

http://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people

has these suggestions:

Things to do:

  • Convey disapproval or discomfort, without becoming defensive;
  • Convey your feelings;
  • Question their fear and ignorance;
  • Don’t get triggered;
  • Compliment them on something;
  • Speaking up is good for the bystander (actually doing something), for the victim (gaining a sense of belonging and being less damaged); and even for the offender (learning that their comment and belief is not the norm and they may become less willing to express their belief).
  • React towards the issue, not the person
    • (Buddha: when someone fires an arrow into you, concentrate on removing the arrow, rather than on who fired the arrow into you and why)
    • avoid calling someone racist;
    • beware of professional racists, who spend their lives being undercover racists;
    • point out what breaks social norms, letting them know their comment is not the social norm;
  • Distance yourself from the comment and the emotion;
  • Tell them God loves every color, which is why God made so many of them.
  • Don’t follow your initial emotional response:
    • Control your anger;
    • Consider them “learners”;
    • Remain calm. Anger is a weapon only to one’s opponents;
  • Don’t react at all:
    • Don’t waste your energy;
    • Focus on other things;
  • Don’t educate:
    • Avoid teaching, preaching;
  • Expose the racist act, if you are comfortable doing that.

It is quite the list, a good place to start. And, I’ve found that I’ve applied every one of those ideas at times to different, and difficult, situations. After a fitful night, it is a list to come back to after I’ve anguished over how I should act, how I should respond. The answer is never clear to me; I’m often left hanging on the horns of my dilemma.

There is some small comfort in knowing that our nation, our culture also doesn’t quite know how to handle racism, how to have the “difficult conversation”. I do think we are better at it today than when I was a kid, a young man growing up in the era of Vietnam, civil rights marches, and the riots in Watts and Detroit, and most other segregated American cities.

Back then, I got involved in the discussions and debates. The deep conversations I had in college and law school about bigotry, our society, helped me flesh out what my individual role could be in this conundrum.   Reasoned debate doesn’t put out this fire, and today, these questions again burn through communities and our national conscience.

We talk about race and prejudice more now, though I’m not always sure that we listen any better than we used to.

I’m troubled, conflicted, and unsure of not only how I should respond. A greater concern is wondering if inside of me there is that man and his comments, his ideas, his view of the world. Are he and I more alike than I dare to admit? It’s a disconcerting, disquieting look in the mirror.

After all, I am a white man, a person of privilege. Unlike President Obama or former Attorney General Eric Holder, or other parents who happen to have a skin color different than mine, I didn’t need to have “the talk” with my kids, about how to act “appropriately” when stopped by the police. I haven’t had to worry about the color of my skin instantly labeling me. Having someone’s preconceived idea of where my ancestors might have lived causing me to be judged instantly as a lesser person is not my experience.

I’ve never been one of “those people” down the road, who are often judged merely by where they came from or the color of their skin, or by the language they learned as a child.

Yet, the racism, and the fear of “the others” that is a poisonous undercurrent in our culture, affects me, and is, if I am honest, something that I need to think about, and to recognize. It affects who I am, how I think, and how I regard my neighbors, be they the man who speaks out with his racist comments or those “others” who live on that farm next door.

We are uncomfortable in this conversation. I am uncomfortable. Perhaps in all of this unease, this “dis-ease”, we can strive to be honest, and have some real conversation.

 

STUNNING GARDEN FASHION

STUNNING GARDEN FASHION

 

October is a bridging month, stuck between the actions of growing, harvesting, weeding, picking, and the action of nesting indoors, organizing everything in sight. Closets, mainly. Because there is no inoculation for the organizational frenzy, the virus has me in its grip and I’m getting sicker by the minute, straightening this, tossing that.

Here’s what I noticed when I looked in my closet, deciding where to begin: gardening has overtaken my closet. I was shocked (well, maybe not) to learn I have five storage drawers full of gardening clothes!

What comprises gardening clothes, you may well ask? Those lovely denim jumpers and pristinely white tee shirts you see in ads for nurseries? Pastel pink capris, and pink clogs, with matching pink plaid camp shirt? Maybe in catalogs, but not in my closet.

Let me describe my gardening clothes for you. There is one whole drawer full of roomy but ruined tee shirts. I have one favorite purple tee shirt encaptioned “We Be Jammin’” emblazoned on the front that I purchased in Jamaica way back in 2002 when my friend Cecilia and I took a cruise. For a tourist tee shirt, it has had an extended shelf life, especially since I have worn it at least once every week after I got back home. It’s getting thin in places and I’ve mended holes where fabric and binding thread disappeared, but it’s still going strong and it feels so right.

Others of my tee shirts have stains all down the front that no amount of washing can remove. I’m sloppy, all the time, everywhere. I forget to wear my aprons. Or I choose not to because I don’t want to get them all stained. Go figure! I have more tee shirts unwearable in polite society than good ones. When I get tired out in the flower bed, I can look down and see several kinds of memories to make me happy—where I’ve been, what I’ve done, and what I’ve eaten.

I have a drawer of shorts, ugly things of piled fabric and soil stains, or behemoths I have to secure with a belt from when I was a bigger gardener. In really hot weather they are perfect! In addition, I have two drawers of pants for varying degrees of gardening weather and comfort while bending. A couple pair I wear because they give roomy a good name. They have pockets for extras and I can bend and crouch without cutting off blood flow or oxygen. That’s important to a living, breathing organism. Others are light and stretchy, also good for hot weather when I don’t feel like using sunscreen on my legs. While they are also bendable, unfortunately, they don’t have pockets, so I have to make other arrangements for hankies and phone and other detritus I usually carry in my pockets, like seed packets, pretty rocks, or weird, dead insects to show the insect expert, Evelynn.

One larger drawer is an amalgam of all the others, plus more. Here I can find my dirt-stained-no-matter-how-many-times-I’ve-washed-them-socks, my dirt-stained-no-matter-how-many-times-I’ve-washed-them-headbands (How does dirt get clear up there anyway?), and two sleeveless, also-stained tee-shirts for the two or four truly hot days around here when I decide to offset the great farmer’s tan my arms have going. There is a pair of paint-stained, dirt-stained jeans for early spring when I need anti-cold weather and misty droppings support. Finally, rolled up in the corner is a pair of warm, wool socks for when I still have to wear my Wellies outside in the muck that amazingly turns into garden come summer.

Does my selection of garden clothing sound anything like yours? Or are you one of those lucky few I admire who never attract an ounce of soil (wet or dry), insects, or sprayed substance while gardening? If so, I don’t know how you do it. I feel sorry for my neighbors who, because they rarely see me in nice clothing with my hair combed, don’t recognize me when we meet at the store.

So now that I’m nesting and organizing, I’m faced with a conundrum–I have to toss some of this perfect clothing in order to make room for a new garden fashion arrival. For the first time since 1981, I have bought myself a pair of overalls, a gardening clothing option that actually makes sense—there are plenty of pockets, room for bending, and the ability to match with either short or long-sleeved shirts. I have followed Neal’s recommendation for the overalls even though the neighbors will have a tough time telling us apart next spring. Except for one thing. I’m the one wearing a muddy-finger-smudged floppy hat with an inoperable chin strap.

The Mended Pocket

This afternoon I finally sat down in my living room chair, took up the black thread and needle I’d dug out of the plastic storage boxes where I store them deep in my closet, and I sewed up the hole in the pocket of my six-month old rain coat. (Don’t you hate it when you buy something new and then right away it grows a hole or a button falls off or a zipper breaks?)

 

The coat had been hanging in my closet since I’d discovered the hole because I hadn’t found the time or taken the time to round up the necessary equipment, sit down, and sew. It’s the same with so many small things that need doing, but you have to assemble the equipment you need, or you have to go to a specified place to do them, or any number of minor conveniences out of the normal routine of an ordinary day. Finally, a space opens up and voila, you can no longer procrastinate because all conditions are perfect for the accomplishment of the task.

 

I felt great after I sewed up the hole because now I can wear my coat again, and just in time for the fall rains. And of course, I wonder why I didn’t do this a couple of months ago right after the hole appeared.

 

Certain aspects of our relationships are like this, too, especially keeping up connections. When we have time to write or call, we are too tired, or too busy, or it’s too late, or our daily schedule is full. Or we don’t have the time, our schedule so full there’s no squeezing one more thing in to be had.

 

When all conditions arrive at the same point and we make our connections, we feel just like I did mending my pocket. Like all things with us are set straight. Like we can go on and play the banjo tune all the way through without a bump.

 

Today I had time to write a small e-mail to my brother-in-law who is recovering from a stroke. I hadn’t heard from him for a few weeks because he probably hasn’t had the perfect conditions for writing to me. I wrote to my friend Liz who was having health problems the last time I heard from her, along with tons of company. I’ve had tons of company and out-of-town commitments myself.

 

Just as with the mended pocket, I felt great sending out a tendril of connection to family and friends today. But more fell into the slots as soon as I emptied them. I haven’t heard from another friend for a few months. I know she is busy with her grandchildren in the summer while their parents work. I just received my own copy of another friend’s poetry book which I want to respond to, so every day there are needs for connection but I can’t always get to them despite my intentions. It’s as if I were the last person in one of those long lines in ice shows. The last person has to go the fastest and cover the most ground and if she lets go, she’s flung out into the void of the ice rink. I’m skating as fast as I can but I have a hard time keeping up with the rest of the line. I just do my best and feel good when I’ve made another circle in the rink.

 

Making these connections in a timely manner is important to me because at my stage of life, people can disappear before you have time to fulfill all your intentions. Actually, that can happen at any stage of life, now that I think about it. Because of that, I’ve been opening up my schedule and being careful about what I put in the slots that are now open again. I need time for me so I can get things done, like sewing up a pocket hole. I need time to be free so that I can get in touch with a friend, or go have coffee or lunch or dinner. Living a fulfilled life is crucial to the story of myself.