“But she started it!”

That childhood (and childish) protest came to mind last week after a brief exchange with a woman I’ve known for some four decades. I was on my once-a-week outing to shop, properly masked, waiting for the clerk in a small store to run my credit card.

The woman approached me saying, “Look at this, Mary.” She was holding up a badge on a lanyard that apparently declared she was absolved from wearing a face mask. I didn’t care to read it thoroughly, because she was indeed not wearing a face mask. I stepped back, blurting, “Oh, but I believe in wearing a mask! It shows I care about other people.”

“Well,” she replied. “I guess I care about myself first.” As she moved away, I grabbed my purchase and credit card, called what I hoped was a friendly-sounding “goodbye,” and hastened out the door.

For many years I’ve been studying the Non-Violent Communication methods of the late Marshall B. Rosenberg. That brief conversation did not demonstrate even a basic grasp of the NVC process. Dr. Rosenberg encourages us to respond with empathy, with an attempt to understand the other person’s feelings.

“Are you feeling angry,” I might’ve asked, “because you believe the order to wear a mask infringes on your civil liberties?” Or,

“Are you feeling apprehensive,” I could’ve asked, “because you’ve seen or heard claims that masks might sometimes be dangerous?”

But I didn’t. I left the shop despairing of her selfishness. She was probably despairing of my prigishness, both of us judging the other, eliminating any possibility of mutual understanding. Rosenberg taught that a basic component of NVC is a willingness to spend time. With a pandemic raging, with case counts suddenly soaring in our small community, I didn’t believe I could afford the time to explore a route toward mutuality with someone standing inches away, not wearing a mask.

I believe Rosenberg would’ve approved if I’d simply said something noncommittal, like “How about that!” Or I could’ve affirmed that she was making her point clear with, “Appears you don’t believe in masks,” and just got the heck out of there. While I don’t know her well, I know enough about her life to be aware of setbacks and tragedies. She just wants to feel safe and free, as do we all––especially now.

“Yeah, but . . . ” you want to say. I hear you. So when there seems to be no right way to proceed, I harken back to Dorothy Day, the great social activist and religious leader. In June 1946, she was pondering the terrible state of the world: everything from atom bomb tests to housing shortages and global starvation. She concluded: “we face the situation that there is nothing we can do for people except to love them.”

Dorothy Day added a prayer: “ … dear God––please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend.”


In-Dependence Day

The quiet that descends after our raucous Fourth of July is a welcome break, a chance to take a breath before the campaign season assaults us with the inevitable fireworks of slogans and slander.

We especially needed July Fourth this year as a time to come together, metaphorically if not physically. It’s our annual paradox of celebrating “independence” while acknowledging our de-pendence on community. Where I live, people are especially protective of their independence, or as my husband liked to describe it: “As independent as hogs on ice.”

Still, I relish the way my community celebrates the Fourth, particularly in this time of social distancing. There are no commercially sponsored or organized fireworks displays. Instead, folks patronize the various fireworks stands that pop up in late June, buying up individual stockpiles of noise and glitter.

fullsizeoutput_24e4East Side Park, on the Colville Indian Reservation across the river from my home, is the designated shoot-em-up area for a DIY pyrotechnics show. The spectacle begins as the sky darkens, around nine p.m., and lasts until nearly midnight. There’s plenty of space in the park, some seventy acres or so, for people to spread out and fill the sky with a thoroughly impromptu but dazzling show.

Volunteer fire crews are on hand to quickly douse the small blazes that inevitably erupt. I figured this year’s show, given pandemic and economic concerns, would be smaller than usual. The newspaper reported the crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 people was smaller. Still, the show was as extravagant as always, especially with Mother Nature contributing a display of her own.

fullsizeoutput_24eaA full moon provided an elegant backdrop to the bursts of color. Not only a full moon, but one in “penumbral eclipse.” That, explains the Farmer’s Almanac is “when the Moon crosses through the faint outer edge of Earth’s shadow (the penumbra), making part of the Moon appear ever-so-slightly darker than usual.” I could not discern any darker shades of moon, particularly when it was illuminated by fireworks.

To accommodate the inevitable litter created by the event, dozens of large metal barrels are placed throughout the park to serve as garbage receptacles. Sunday morning as my dogs and I took our daily walk, I noted the barrels were filled to overflowing and a degree of litter was spread on the ground.

Monday morning, a city crew was tackling the celebratory residue.

“Thanks for your work!” I called out to the men as the dogs and I walked past.

“You’re welcome. Thanks for paying us!” one of them responded.

“My pleasure!” I answered, and meant it. My own independence is a fantasy. I get to believe in it only because I can depend on others.

A Fourth of July moon over the Okanogan River

How Flawed a Foundation

A firm foundation––often invisible, always essential

Builders laid the foundation this week for a new home four doors down the street from my house. One of the city’s oldest residences had stood vacant for years on this prime, riverfront lot. A local businesswoman bought the property, tore down the old house before it could collapse on its own, and is building her dream home.

Though largely invisible, foundations are essential. When my husband and I moved into our vintage home thirty-six years ago, we were aware there were some foundation issues. One bedroom had a floor that sagged so badly, we couldn’t use the room. We simply shut the door and pretended the problem didn’t exist. Until.

With visitors coming for the holidays, we needed that bedroom. We tore out the floor, finding very little foundation and what appeared to be a hole to China. Or, as my husband observed, “This house is hanging from its eaves!” Nothing that truckloads of concrete and a whopping big check couldn’t fix.

Now I’m wondering if our nation isn’t hanging from its eaves. With 2020 vision, we can no longer shut the door against our foundational flaws. The “independence” that we celebrate on July Fourth was utterly dependent on an economy fueled by the slave labor of Africans. The expansion of our nation required displacement and genocide of indigenous people who’d flourished on this continent for thousands of years. Racism was and continues to be built into our foundation like so much rebar.

Throughout my lifetime, our nation has struggled to address its foundational flaws: integration of the military, Brown v. Board of Education, elimination of Jim Crow, Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, first Black man to do this, first Native American woman to be that … and yet we are a long way from being able to wipe the dirt off our hands and declare, “Well now, that’s done!”

“Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work,” writes University of Washington professor Robin DiAngelo, “because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play; our learning will never be finished.”*

What with a pandemic, its economic impacts, and massive protests, we’ve hardly had breath or time to observe another significant 2020 event: the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women to vote––after an epic struggle. A hundred years later, women continue to be in the minority in government, a minority in earning power, and we have yet to elect a woman President.

We have protests and marches because––eventually––they’re effective. Notes historian Jon Meacham: “Progress in America does not usually begin at the top and among the few, but from the bottom among the many. It comes when the whispered hopes of those outside the mainstream rise in volume to reach the ears and hearts and minds of the powerful.”**

Those “whispered hopes” have risen in volume to shouts, screams, and wails of anguish that have echoed through our land for centuries. How much, I wonder, are we willing to invest to fix our foundation? How much of an economic investment? But more significant, how much humility are we willing to invest?

* DiAngelo, Robin, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
** Meacham, Jon, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”