Friday, September 11, 2020

9.11.2001: 19 Years Later

I was on a panel today with architect/planner Mark Barksdale, who opened his remarks by recounting his experience of looking at the hole in the side of the Tower, knowing from his training that the building would collapse, and being helpless to stop it. He felt sick when he heard that people had been told to shelter in place rather than flee. His vivid image of the wounded Tower made me think of the many wounds to the social fabric of our nation. I often wonder these days if our society will collapse, and so do many other people. 

I was heartened by listening to Reverend William Barber II. Toby Horn, a college classmate, sent me a link to a Facebook Live event, Rev. Barber II chatting by phone with Andy Shallal of Washington, DC's Busboys and Poets Bookstore. Rev. Barber said to Andy, "We must vote this November. We must have people in office who will fight for the poor, the low-wealth and all who are oppressed and marginalized. And after we vote, we will insist that they do the right thing. Forward together, not one step back." This possibility filled me with joy.

And I also took heart from the University of Orange weekly newsletter, which told the story of NYC RECOVERS, a project my colleagues and I started after 9.11. Reading about the project reminded me of all we learned in tending to the social and emotional recovery of New York City, and most particularly the tasks of groups, which we named: Remember, Respect, Learn and Connect. 

Life is, after all, a conversation with the world in which we try to name the problems, try to remember when we've faced them before and then try to remember what worked. We can get lost in this process, and that's what friends are for. One of my friends, Doug Farrand, has spent the past five months reminding me that, back in March, I said we needed to turn on the love to get through this moment. His repetition of my advice is slowly sinking in.  This photo of a rock in Highbridge Park, which was the last slide I showed on the panel, captures this sentiment. Remember, Respect, Learn and Connect -- and TURN ON THE LOVE.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

What I have to say about Main Streets

Yesterday I got to celebrate the publication of my new book, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All.  It was a great party, aptly outlined by architect/artist Carol Hsuing, who designed the book's cover.  

I loved that Andy Merrifield, who wrote the foreword, called in from Cambridge, England, Michel Cantal-Dupart, to whom the book is dedicated, called in from Paris, and Hirofumi Minami, who invented the stroll-and-scroll method I used, got up early in the morning to call in from Japan.  

So many great friends and colleagues showed up -- as I noticed 121 people were in the Zoom at one point, I can't even begin to name them all!  

And we had extraordinary moments, like listening to Winston Nelson play a Bach arrangement he had made. Michael Lally read two of his poems he allowed me to reprint in the book, as well as tinkling the ivories to Thelonius Monk's "Easy Street," which Andy said was the book's anthem.  

A special part of the evening was giving "Might and Main" Awards to people who have contributed so much to making and maintaining America's Main Streets. It was a real pleasure that Mayor Barry W. Conaway joined us to receive the award for "Best Main Street" on behalf of his city. Tony Gonzalez received the "Best Spirit Animal" award on behalf of himself and the CLIMB team.  Winston Nelson accepted the award to the Ebenezer Gospel Choir for "Best Gospel Choir in the Circle." Peter Walsh accepted the "Love my 'Hood" award on behalf of Coogan's Restaurant, and pledged to fight for Main Streets and small businesses everywhere. While Robert Sember was not accepting the award to Johannesburg's Baked on Grant for "Best Poached Eggs on Rye Toast," he agreed that they were amazing.  

The evening represented what I have to say about Main Streets: they are made by our collective labor, the whole tangle of Main Streets is greater than the sum of its parts, and we need them now more than ever for their powerful centripetal force, pulling us together to solve our problems.  

Sunday, August 23, 2020

"We inter-are"

For weeks now I've been in the midsummer madness of my tomato vines, which want to encompass all of New Jersey. It's been terrifying and I understand why Shakespeare wrote that play. But the days are getting shorter and school is about to start. I have to turn my attention to my "to-do" list. As people who work with me know, I'm a devotee of the Planner Pad, one of those systems of productivity, guaranteeing flow from concept to product. I love products, which is why I've written over 100 papers and eight books, the latest of which, Main Street: How a City's Heart Connects Us All, comes out September 8th. 

This afternoon I was talking to Buddhist teacher Dr. Marisela Gomez, whose research team had started using Microsoft Planner, which I gather is something like my analog book. She was talking about going from buckets to tasks. "But Marisela," I asked, "is this maybe a neoliberal plot to keep us focused on little buckets instead of the big picture of what's happening to the ecosystem?" (We'd been talking earlier about the evils of neoliberalism, which is probably why I made that connection.) 

She reflected for a moment and then said, "Yes. We inter-are." She was taught by Thich Naht Hanh, who developed the expression. She had explained this phrase to me some time ago, that we do not live as isolated, atomistic individuals, but rather as an interdependent web of life. The reality is that we are not independent beings, we are interdependent beings -- "we inter-are."  In Thich Naht Hanh's calligraphy:

We talked about what an Inter-Are page might look like in a planner. I was so inspired by this way to open my frame of reference that I used the Design Sketchbook technique I learned from Dan Rothschild to make a collage about the Big Picture. I clipped some images that resonated: some graphs and text boxes from Shelterforce, and two images from the Times, one of a person picking cherries and the other of convict firefighters going to fight the raging fires in California. 

These captured for me the call from Rev Brian McLaren, one of my teachers at the Living School, that we strive to see and hear, “the other, the outsider, the outcast, the last, the least, the lost, the disgraced, the dispossessed.”

As the song, "Let there be peace on Earth," was earworming me, I added that. It makes a difference to look at the little buckets of work that lie ahead -- reading a dissertation, writing a paper, attending meetings -- with this big picture in mind. What if this were a practice -- to start my week on Sundays by looking at the stories that have passed my way and considering the Inter-Are of it all? Would I learn to hold this Big Picture without flinching, able to be a source of peace and love? Would I just veer off into escapist TV? (God, I hope not.) 

And what if all of us added an Inter-Are page to our planners? I am hoping the Dr. Gomez will invent a new planner for us, help us see that's it all more fragile than we thought, without being swamped by the truth.  

Friday, July 31, 2020

Coronavirus: Let's take it outside

Remember that old taunt? "You want a piece of me? We can take this outside." 
Guaranteed to induce most of us to back down. But now there's a new twist -- "You DON'T want a piece of me? Let's take it outside."  
People are inventing lots of new ways to take life outside. Schools are erecting tents with open sides, musicians are strolling around and performing on sidewalks and in driveways. And meetings of all kinds are assembling in parking lots with chairs carefully spaced apart. Historically, while fighting epidemics of tuberculosis, schools moved classes outside EVEN IN THE WINTER.  
The impetus for this is the clear evidence that the coronavirus is spread through the air, surely as droplets from coughing and sneezing, but likely as an invisible mist of aerosolized particles. If you remember the movie, Outbreak, in which Cuba Gooding, Jr., makes an antidote in a trailer in about a day,  you'll remember the great scene in the movie theater. An infected person sneezes, and the droplets go into the air and all over the movie theater, infecting everyone who's there. Obviously the infectious mist is invisible, so the special effects people colorized it for our fear and trembling. Now, every article I read about the invisible mist, I think of that scene. 
I, personally, don't want to go in anywhere. I have to go to the supermarket, and occasional doctor visits. That's enough. Everything else, I want to move outside. I'm considering getting a gas grill so that the great chefs of my acquaintance can cook in the backyard!
And it inspires a re-visit of the old taunt, "Coronavirus, you think you can get a piece of me? Let's take it outside!"

Monday, July 27, 2020

A bag of flour

I opened the paper this morning and saw a headline that said, "That flour that you bought could foretell our economy." That was very spooky because I had bought a bag of Maine Grains wheat flour and it was sitting right in front of me. I realized I'm a type -- the type with a yard and an oven, who has spent quarantine baking bread and growing vegetables. Disheartening, to say the least. But my ego issues, as always, were not the point. The article was trying to say that there is a way forward away from the madness of agribusiness, and part of it has to do with small mills that grind flour with local grain and local labor. King Arthur's Flour, though not so advanced as Maine Grain, has, the op/ed said, much the same spirit of small is better. I am convinced of this by no less an authority than Robert G. Wallace, who thinks that breaking away from agribusiness is key to preventing future pandemics, species extinction and other horrors. I wasn't thinking about all that when I bought the flour -- just how good the bread would taste. As to my garden, today I found a mega cucumber in my mega cucumber patch. And I will soon have more tomatoes than I ever dreamed possible in one-third of 4'x12' raised bed. Thank God for landscape architect Stephen Panasci, who is supervising my transition from theoretical to actual gardener.
My bag of Maine Grains Wheat Flour next to some produce from my garden -- including the giant cucumber I found lingering in the vines -- normal cucumbers for comparison.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Glass Box

I was thinking yesterday about the glass ceiling and how it has operated in my life. Then this morning I thought, no, for black women, it's more like a glass box. So I started thinking about the glass box and how annoying it is to hit the boundaries. I was asked recently would I like to apply for a job, but one of the criteria was NIH grants. Well, I might be a well-known researcher, but I've never been able to get an NIH grant. I am not alone in this, as science has shown that minority researchers are not funded at the rates of white researchers, in part because of the questions they ask. Of course, asking the government to fund you to look at why the government is bad is a "How long have you been beating your wife?" proposition. 

But then I thought not about the boundaries, but about the interior of the box. I am not in a solitary coffin. All the black, brown, red and yellow people of the world are in the box and we are really quite busy. Add us all up and we are billions. It is not lonely or boring or frightening. It is amusing and weird and joyful. It is home. 

All the people in box become our teachers, which is why Akeelah and the Bee rings so true. A white friend said he was sad that Ta-Nehisi Coates had to prepare his son to face racism. I thought, "Thank God." It's only the preparation that gets us on solid ground. 

As a teenager, I fought the acceptance of this fact with all my heart and soul. Like all painful truths, I had to pass through the depression that comes with painful truths, in this case, that I would hit limits not related to my abilities. But, having passed through that phase, I could relax into reality. I could embrace my possibilities and fight my limits. One of my father's many sayings was, "Lower your buckets where ye may," possibly a version of a line from Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Compromise speech. My dad did not accept racial injustice, but he knew he had to do what he could wherever he was. When I didn't get NIH grants, I looked around for other ways to study the crises of the ghetto. There were many. Much to my pleasure, I have been able to document how the government is treating us in eight books and more than a hundred papers. 

Thinking about my white friend, it occurred to me that most white people are not prepared by their parents. They can't see the racism, and therefore live in a delusional state. The consequences of this are terrible for them and for all of us. We can see this in the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, white people have decided that this illness hits black and brown people and they are safe to party on. This is not how it works -- concentration is not containment -- and their actions growing out of racist assumptions are having horrifying consequences for the nation. 

Like many other black psychiatrists, I think of racism as a mental illness. Unlike many other mental illnesses, this illness can be cured. I have known lots of white people who faced the lie of racism and rejected it. As Lucian K. Truscott IV wrote in the New York Times, visit Monticello. You'll see the whole story there: the Big House AND the slave cabins. Guides will tell you, as mine did, about Jefferson's psyche. He grew up with black children, one of whom became his stablemaster. When that man died, Jefferson simply asked, "Who will replace him?" No words of mourning for his childhood friend. This is not normal, and I say that speaking as a psychiatrist. Truscott invites us to move out of the delusion by taking down Jefferson's memorial in Washington, which is a one-sided celebration, and going to Monticello for the whole story. Imagine: not only is racism a mental illness but also it can be cured by tourism.

The glass box that has placed limits on my productivity has not been the last word in my life. But imagine the world we might have, the energy we would liberate, if we stopped boxing some people in and forcing others to live in a delusion? As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, 

In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.

There is hope for us. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 13:12, which taught,  "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known."

Monday, July 6, 2020

Coronavirus: Getting through the next loooooong phase

The Morning, a daily briefing from the New York Times, shared this graph, which I saw when I had barely opened my eyes. I closed them again and pretended I didn't see that. But when I looked again, it was there in living color:

Cases in the US are surging. The Washington Post reported that the Trump campaign hopes that we won't notice and can be convinced to reopen anyway, not to mention vote for Trump anyway.  

This is a shifting timeframe, and reordering of our hopes for a quick, decisive shutdown and quick return to normal. That is not happening. For many reasons and at many levels, the US was unable to do what so many other countries did, making it possible to return to life as they knew it. We can't just yet, and not for awhile.

What are the practices that will help us?

The Poor People's Campaign had posters that read: Stay inside, stay alive, organize and don't believe the lies. That was perfect for then. How do we adapt to now?

Stay inside -- well, actually stay inside your house when you can, don't go inside other spaces, like movies, malls, offices, and the terraces of bars. Let's call this "Avoid dirty air."  

Another news story about the high rates of infection among people of color had this graphic:

One of the reasons for the high rates of infection is crowded living quarters. People can't help where they live and they can't always help where they go. So the rest of us have a great responsibility for controlling our contributions to dirty air. We can call this "keep the air clean." It means wear a mask when outside your home.  

Stay alive -- we now know a good deal about the coronavirus. We have a few treatments that work. We know that early care is best and doctors now know much more about the warning signs. Covid-19 is a terrible illness, so prevention is the best cure, but early treatment is second best.  "Get care quickly" is perhaps what we need to go next.  

Don't believe the lies -- we have to do more than not believe the lies -- we have to have sound sources of information and we have to call out the lies. The Trump campaign promises to pile lies and lies. We have to speak the truth. My father, Ernest Thompson, pointed out to me how campaigns can attack the lies and win -- at that time we fighting to free Angela Davis, and we won.  So now it's "Attack the lies and win." Thanks and a tip of the hat to Dad!

Organize. I put this last because it becomes the core of the work. The reckless disdain shown by the current administration is killing poor and minority people at incredible rates. We must organize everyone who will listen, and have them make "Respect for all life" a part of all the work they do. 

So this is my advice for the next period of times:

Clean Air
Quick Care
Attack lies
Save lives!