The morning after

I woke up today – like half of America – with a hangover from an election party I didn’t enjoy and a fear that the sick feeling could last a long time.

With a strong cup of coffee at my side, I read news reports and answered anguished Facebook posts, consoling especially my young friends of color. There were calls to action. One friend pledged to get off his complacent liberal duff. Another proposed a Million-Woman march on Washington.

Afterward I sent three messages:

  • To tell my brother, a Trump supporter, that I know he has a loving heart, not one filled with hate.
  • To assure a Latina friend who has lived and worked without papers in the U.S. for a dozen years that my heart is with her.
  • To remind 9th graders I mentor that high school isn’t just about algebra and biology. It’s also about learning how to be citizens and  doing our part to make this a fairer, more united country.

Then, I ordered a book by Arlie R. Hochschild, professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley. Hochschild has made a distinguished career of exploring with great care and compassion the people displaced and disoriented by our radically changing culture – workaholics, Filipina nannies, two-career families.

Hochschild’s latest book — Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right  — stems from five years she spent with Tea Party members in rural Louisiana. In the preface, she pays tribute to the Tea Party woman who first introduced her to the world of rural factories and profound mistrust of government. The woman’s trust and outreach that helped the Berkeley sociologist begin construction of what she calls an “empathy bridge”:

“We on both sides imagine that empathy with the other side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

My Facebook feed is a symptom of what ails us: Among the dozens of posts I read this morning, there was no relief that the seething frustrations of white, blue-collar men have been heard at last, that for better or worse, the complacent, polarized paralysis of Washington has been upended. I move in a world of college grads, journalists, writers, not the world of less-educated whites, where life expectancies fell by four years between 1990 and 2008.

When I look at the sharp divisions in yesterday’s vote – by race, education, geography, gender, income –  I recognize how wide these gaps are and how difficult they will be to close. The divides also demonstrate how important it is to begin.


At the monastery there is always singing

Last week, I visited a friend – a Benedictine sister – at her monastery near St. Cloud. Some years ago, when we worked together on social justice issues, I savored her energy, lively sense of humor and commitment to hard, incremental work. I admired too her private critiques of priests who sought to rule their parishes and female colleagues with princely sovereignty.

Like me, she grew up Catholic during a tumultuous time, when many institutional doors were opened to change and subsequently closed halfway or slammed shut altogether. Unlike me, she committed her life to the service of that church.

My friend is in Rome this week, and I thought of her yesterday when I heard the disappointing, though expected, news: Pope Frances, richly compassionate and refreshingly open-minded on so many issues in society, told a Swedish reporter that the Catholic church will likely never ordain women as priests. His reason: 2,000 years ago in a traditional Jewish culture, Christ chose only men as apostles. Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed that exclusion.

Aside from my general disappointment – haven’t the past 50 years demonstrated in field after field women’s capacity, gifts and calling to lead? – I feel a particular discontent on behalf of my friend and the other women who live as religious sisters in the U.S.

Over the past half-century, between 1965 and 2015, the number of American nuns fell from 180,000 to fewer than 49,000. The number of priests fell as well, but far less precipitously: from 59,000 to 38,000.

Religious sisters are a dying breed, without the new recruits essential for survival. According to researchers at Georgetown University, 91 percent of religious sisters in the U.S. in 2009 were 60 or older. Only one percent were younger than 40.

Much of this is due to vast number of opportunities that are open to women. Equally important: The daunting challenge in today’s ferociously secular world of vowing to live under the constraints of poverty, chastity and obedience.

But some of young women’s lack of interest in religious life is surely due to the stubborn constraints on how women are allowed to serve in the Catholic Church. Countless women, from Jesus’ mother Mary to Mother Teresa, are venerated by Catholics. But only men are allowed to administer sacraments as Christ’s representatives on earth.

For 12 years, through elementary school and high school, I was taught by nuns. Their exoticism fascinated me. I admired their intelligence, craved their approval, feared their ferocity.

The days of sisters providing cheap, abundant labor in Catholic schools and hospitals are long past. At convents and monasteries these days, nursing homes are growing. Leaders plan for the day the last sister turns off the lights for the last time.

Last week, as I joined my friend and a few dozen grey-haired sisters for noonday prayers and a simple meal, I recognized how much these women still have to teach me. How to live in hope in the face of aging and disappointment. How to live in community, with prayer, hospitality and work at the center. How to share old talents in new ways. How to listen for what else God has planned for us.  How to plan for our own extinction.

I was struck by the girlishness of the women’s voices as they sang, without the strain or cracks that often come with age. My friend had a simple explanation: The sisters gather for prayer four times a day. There is always singing.



Rankine and Robinson: A conversation on compassion and community

When they go low, we go high, Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention. Wednesday night, as the presidential candidates reached new lows in their final debate, I went instead to hear two of the country’s most profoundly reflective writers — poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marilynne Robinson — in quiet conversation before a packed house at the University of Minnesota.

Both are students of the intimate gesture that wounds or heals, divides or embraces, what Rankine calls “the small things we do to take care of strangers.” Yet at first glance, their work seems so dissimilar. Rankine, a black poet who won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2014 and MacArthur fellowship this year, limns the emotional toll that racial fears and isolation take on black Americans. Robinson, a white novelist, examines the fierce bonds, loving care and emotional distance within families and communities in white, small-town America.

Wednesday’s conversation – the University’s annual Esther Freier lecture  – allowed these two artists to explore how their work resonates. The theme that emerged was our shared longing for community and the possibility of creating a place where people care for each other regardless of differences.

Robinson challenged the notion that the darker forces of America’s history are inevitable. A student of history and religion, she recalled that Iowa had schools integrated by gender and race in the 1830s. “America has a history of being good to each other. Every good thing I know comes from watching other people.” These shining examples get lost in collective memory – and not by accident, she said, for there are always some who benefit from our divisions.

Rankine too spoke of possibility: “We all have the capacity to fail each other. We have to actively reroute the habits of our culture.”

There was none of the defensive, divisive language of so many conversations about race. Instead, we witnessed two writers working the way improvisational musicians might – listening closely and responding with sharp, refining intelligence.

So Rankine proposed: “If we could see people as human beings we could love them.”

And Robinson responded: “If we could love them societally, we don’t have to love them individually,” for it’s impossible to love every person we meet.

Asked questions about optimism and anger, they claimed neither, reaching for the subtler, more complex reactions that lie below the surface emotions. Rankine said: “I don’t think of myself as describing anger. I spend a lot of time being disappointed.”

Asked what they would tell black teenagers on the east side of St. Paul, Robinson offered not advice but sympathy and a challenge to the more privileged: “Start out with a strategy of general alleviation. Poverty means feeling insulted in the day-to-day condition of their lives. The one thing they have easy access to is awareness of more privileged lives. The exclusion must be terribly profound.”

I’m challenged to convey the salving tenor of that evening — how Rankine and Robinson listened intently, responded thoughtfully and paused at length to think and leave room for the other to speak first. Among writers these days, there is much talk about cultural appropriation — whether one has the right to write about identities and experiences that are not one’s own.  What Rankine and Robinson demonstrated Wednesday was the importance of working to understand another’s experience and to build community based on caring for one another. And so beautifully, the writer’s role in helping us accomplish that.





Hope in small doses

With the presidential campaign fallen to a form of mud wrestling, I’ve largely tuned it out. What a welcome surprise Tuesday night to hear some fresh perspective and a dose of hope from three young foreign journalists who spent the last nine weeks crisscrossing America talking to people in newsrooms, think tanks, political offices and on the street.

Yasmine Ryan from Tunisia, Aurelio Tomas from Argentia and Nino Bucci from Australia  have toured the U.S. thanks to the World Press Institute, a small St. Paul nonprofit that brings 10 foreign journalists each year to the United States to experience what it’s like to work as a reporter here. I was fortunate to moderate a discussion with them Tuesday night when the three spoke to the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota at the Minneapolis Women’s Club.

Fueled by caffeine, curiosity and adrenalin, WPI fellows Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota studied for three weeks at the University of St. Thomas before taking off to visit nine cities across the country and two small towns – Tracy and Ely – in Minnesota. They dug deep into selected topics – presidential politics, police-community relations, nuclear security and the struggles of American journalism.

Their final U.S. trip was to St. Louis for last Sunday’s presidential food-fight. I expected them to describe is with head-shaking astonishment and despair.

But no. Tomas likened Trump’s appeal to the populism Juan Peron brought to common people in Argentina in the ’40s and ’50s who felt ignored and abused by a wealthy political elite.  Trump offers an answer that is bigoted and misplaced – attacking immigrants, Muslims and political insiders. Going forward, the answer is not to shame and demean Trump’s supporters, Tomas said, but to address their genuine problems — loss of jobs and status and a sense that they’ve been forgotten.

Yasmine Ryan talked with Bernie Sanders supporters and was struck by their commitment to work for change at the local level, where politics is less polarized and paralyzed than in Washington. Nino Bucci too sees the power of Americans can-do spirit, the way people recognize a problem and come together to find a solution.

They all remarked on the disproportionate role that money plays in American politics and culture. They turn on TV and are besieged by drug companies’ ads touting their wares. In St. Louis, the free buffets, beer and bags of swag for journalists, all underwritten by corporate sponsors, blew them away. Tomas was even more shocked to learn the price tag to attend Washington University for a year: $65,000 for tuition, fees, room and board. How can opportunity be equal when the cost of college is so high and the distribution of wealth so uneven?

In the appalling scrum of this election, it’s valuable to be reminded of our strengths and the ways money in politics, high college costs and income inequity have distorted our society. Thanks to Tomas, Bucci and Ryan for that, and safe journeys as they travel home.

Explaining horseradish to a 12-year-old

Certain plants have a way of getting away from the gardener who invited them. On Saturday, Christopher — the son of a friend — helped me do battle with woodruff, horseradish and snow on the mountain that have commandeered sections of our backyard garden, overwhelming less assertive plants aside with military determination.

As we tore off the yard-high leaves and hacked at the deep, hard roots of the horseradish plant, I tried to explain the plant to Christopher. It’s hot but not like chili peppers. The smell alone can make you cry. A pinch can flavor a whole bowl of  potatoes. Like wasabi? he asked. He’s not tasted wasabi but learned about it in a video game where the hero had to wear wasabi rather than eat it and found that it burned his skin. Christopher was both intrigued and repelled by the notion of a plant that causes pain.

Why do we grow the stuff? Every year, we grate a root or two and it sits in the refrigerator unused until spring. This year, I grated a root with vinegar and gave it to a friend who’s a great cook and brave enough to use it.  I learned that it’s been used in traditional medicine for colds, urinary infections and joint pain and might try a poultice or tea. And Thanksgiving’s mashed potatoes and gravy will have an extra kick this year.