Courtroom Sightings

I have spent my share of time sitting in the Warren County Justice Center courtrooms and am always interested in the cross-section of humanity who ends up there. Some of them, like me, are family victims of a range of travesties. Others are family or friends there to support the travesty-committers. And others are there to clear their names of something they did or didn’t do. I suppose there’s a small minority of people who are there for entertainment.

This week when I was there, the docket was full (as usual), so we had some time to wait, and I recorded this observation:

In court, the same scene as always. In front of us lawyers talking (some with normal volume, some in hushed tones while leaning into someone’s ear). They lean across the table or pace back and forth. One is talking about an unreliable witness who keeps changing her story, something about blood tests in Cincinnati. Another is joking behind a cupped hand. Their constant motion makes it difficult to hear the judge–the charges, the responses, the consequences. Sometimes the lawyers all stop, seemingly of one accord, and then I know that something interesting is going down. My son leans over and whispers, “They all look like douche bags.”

I am sitting three rows back in a sea of rows–10 long rows with an aisle down the middle, about 10 or so on each side, a capacity of 200. The t-shirt on the man in front of me reads: Sturgis: Home of the Full Throttle Saloon. The artwork is red, grey, and black–two skulls face each other screaming, their brows furrowed as if they are enraged. Wings lift from their exposed temples. Beneath the image it says, FTS x World’s Largest Biker Bar x. To his right, Kentucky Speedway July 9, 2000 – History Starts Now.

Behind me a woman with receding lips and I’m guessing no teeth is talking normal volume, complaining, along with the two people, a man and a woman, who sit next to her nodding and chiming in. (I catch glimpses now and then as I look around.) People are more fully clothed this time than last. Perhaps because it’s a cool day. Judge Wilson has not yelled at anyone for disrespecting his course, and not dressing in their “Sunday best,” at least yet.

Most of the people stepping up to the podium (with or without an accompanying attorney) are white. One grandmotherly woman pleads guilty to taking over $10,000 from her church. She was the treasurer and it was apparently too much temptation. Most others are white men–except when the orange suits are brought in. One is a white woman, one or two white men, but 5-6 are black men. One of them saunters and leers, and I’m surprised the Judge Wilson does not call him out, as I’ve seen him do this many times. Once he must have been unusually sensitive or cranky, because he yelled at at least 10 people who came up–pants around their knees, tube tops falling off boobs. I had to admit that it was a lot of not very good eye candy.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney in Warren County tells us that there are two kinds of people, those who give to the community and those who take, and he deals with the latter. Such a job must necessarily skew one’s view of humanity. I guess all our views are skewed. Most people are stupid, I hear. Most people are good at heart. Most people only care about Number 1. Add a modifier here and there, and all kinds of trouble begins. Most people in Court are —-. Most people arrested are —–. Most men who sag . . . most women who dress like —-s are…

I try not to judge these people I don’t know. Meeting that old white woman on the street, I’d never think, “There goes a thief.” Would I if it were one of those Black men in orange? Here in this setting, it’s hard to think that they’re all innocent until . . .

And yet, we hear Judge Wilson say over and over, “The right to a jury is the highest principle we hold.” He says to each person who pleads guilty–and there are a lot today–the same thing: “What is your level of education? Are you under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Do you have a mental condition that would prevent you from understanding? You have a right to a trial. You do not have to plead against yourself. And if a jury finds you guilty, you have a right to an appeal.” Then, after reading off the agreement: “Is this what Atty —- has said to you? Are you satisfied with the counsel you have received? As anyone offered you money or promised you anything for this plea? Are you certain that this is in your best interests?”

All of them, including the grandmother, respond, “High school [or 10th grade or 3rd grade]. No, no. Yes, yes, no, yes.”

There is more, but this is Courtroom B, Warren County, July 22, 2013.

Trayvon Martin and My Son

Yesterday I attended the march and service to recognize with others in my town the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death. I found the march and service very moving for a couple of personal reasons, and so this post is just one person’s thoughts–better commentaries are noted at the bottom.

I had read several commentaries about Trayvon’s death and particularly about the racial elements that lace through everything–the stalking, the fight, the shooting, trial, media frenzy, and also the hard thinking and desire to act that have emerged and so often do emerge after such an awful loss. I have gone to many of the MLK ceremonies and am always better for it, and I knew in my heart that white people had to show up at this, not just to “show up,” but to join in the grieving and look for insights into ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Here’s my one shot of the march–the people in front of me–mostly Black folks. I walked with a white colleague for awhile. I saw maybe 10 of “us” there. I couldn’t help but notice. “Race” was there. It’s not like I was judging anyone for not being there, but I was grateful that those who were there had felt motivated as I did.

Some of those who attended the march in honor of Trayvon Martin

Some of those who attended the march in honor of Trayvon Martin

I also felt a pull to Trayvon, the teen-ager in the hoodie, shot by a vigilante. Like my son, a wearer of hoodies, shot by a white vigilante/survivalist. I find the photo of him poignant–you can’t miss the look of sadness around the eyes, along with a certain determination and questioning tilt of the face.

The ubiquitous image of Trayvon Martin

The ubiquitous image of Trayvon Martin

I have a picture of Casey in one of his hoodies, but this one shows him wearing another of his typical headgear, a backwards cap. I keep looking at these two young men–17 and 20–and there’s something in their eyes that seems to be expressing the same sort of emotion. What is it they are saying? What would they say now? Would Casey be friends with Trayvon, in the same way he was best friends with another African American boy in our neighborhood. I remember Carlo calling to ask if it was true, what someone had told him, that Casey had been shot. When I answered yes, he said, “Ah, no, no,” holding the phone away from him, coming back, his voice broken and thick, “I have to hang up here.”

Casey, trying to look mean and direct

Casey, trying to look mean and direct


As I look at these two pictures, I recognize what Casey was trying to do with his. Look mean. Manly. I think he took this picture himself, perhaps for a Facebook or My Space profile picture. But I know that those eyes would tell us a lot more about meanness and what is to be a man, if they could.

On the back of the program is a picture of Trayvon with his arm around Emmett Till (I could only find the originator as revcom dot us). There’s no mistaking the similarities in the circumstances of their deaths–at least in the way their innocence–mere presence–was so criminally re-constituted as danger.

Trayvon's arm around Emmett

Trayvon’s arm around Emmett


I know that my son’s death was not racially motivated, though race was almost certainly a part of the worldview held by the man who did it–in his survivalist thinking. But as the excellent pastor said at the service, “This could have been anyone’s son.” As long as we can shoot with impunity, any paranoid with an urge to act out can point, shoot, kill.

The purpose of the MLK Committee-sponsored march, according to the program we were given at the State Street Baptist Church, was to “show support for the Martin family for the shooting death of their unarmed teenage son Trayvon. We seek to gather together grieving members of our community in a peaceful protest against systemic racial injustice evident in the trial of George Zimmerman. In addition we would like to bring awareness of Stand Your Ground Laws in 33 states including Kentucky to challenge state and local unjust laws/policies and to amplify the voices for change in the voting booths in 2013 and 2014.”

Tomorrow we go back to the Court House where Leland Burns will have his sentence commuted to 7 years. We have requested a meeting with him, and that meeting will happen tomorrow as well, as I understand it. Can I face him? Every time I even think of it, tears fill my eyes and Casey enters the room with me. Will he apologize to us? Will Zimmerman ever atone, even share his deep regret with Trayvon’s family? Will it matter? I think it does.

This commentary is good on the trope of black male as fearful: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type&id=1874&fulltext=1&media#article-text-cutpoint
And this one is good as the thoughts so many of us share, of utter sadness:

http://myemail.constantcontact.com/From-My-Heart-to-Yours–Buddy-Stallings-s-e-Letter-from-St–Bart-s.html?soid=1100773447561&aid=JFW84ZSrfnc

This is Rita Dove’s poem:
http://www.theroot.com/buzz/trayvon-redux-rita-dove

Meditation 101

About a 6 weeks ago, upon the advice of Alice Walker, I ordered one of Sandra Saltzberg’s books, Lovingkindness, and began trying some of the metta (lovingkindness) exercises. They begin with a focus on oneself and then move outward to include all beings. There are typically four phrases (easier to remember), and you can adjust them so they are right for you. Saltzberg also has a CD series (3) by the same name, which is pretty much the same as the book without the exercises, but I found the repetition good.

The four go something like this: May I live free from danger. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease. You can adjust them–one I like is “May I make friends with my body” instead of “May I be healthy.” For some of us this has enormous (no pun intended) consequences. I like the idea of repeated phrases, mantra like, because you can do them anywhere, anywhere. In the midst of a committee where some ego-stroker is going onandonandon, you can a) get annoyed as hell and begin wishing he’d go jump, or b) practice metta, thus rejecting all the negative energy and focusing instead on his common humanity his internal desire to be happy. As Salzberg would say, “This is an eternal law.” I suppose there’s a combination of a and b, a sort simultaneous hope for happiness while he takes a jump in a cold lake.

In a typical metta meditation (as I understand it), one begins with “I” then moves to a series of others–a benefactor, a friend, a neutral person, a difficult person. Then to groups: all female beings/all male beings, those enlightened/those not enlightened, and I add my own depending on where and what I’m doing: everyone who lives on my street/all who do not live on my street, all people who are healthy/all those who are dying. When I think of all the males and females in the world, my mind goes to boys and girls beaten and threatened and violated, and usually I think of someone on the other side of the globe, or down in Peru, where I have been and love the people there. When I think about anyone else, it’s just a group, a conceptual entity of beings. Only the little boys and girls leap into my mind with faces and smiles and tears. What you are doing with metta is eliminating the us/them separation, you are seeing the life force in all, recognizing that all beings “just want to be happy.”

A couple of weeks ago, I was driving to work, approaching the light at Veterans, when a woman in a van cut in front of me. I saw her looking at me in her rearview mirror, so I made a gesture–raised my hands in a wtf way or like I was throttling someone’s neck. She returned the gesture to me, and I said, “May you live free from danger. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.” It was automatic, and I found myself saying it out loud and then, as I drove on, thinking, so what was that all about (meaning me throttling her nonverbally in the mirror), and then laughing a little, because before I started metta, the last word, so to speak, would have been the gesture. Somehow that seems an ominous way to begin a work day.

Since then I’ve continued to try to meditate–I won’t say I’m bad at it, as that’s not the point. Instead, as Salzberg says in another book on mediation (28-day plan), the magic of meditation is the coming back. Everyone’s mind will wander, it’s impossible for it not to. But whether we get lost in it or pull our attention back (to breathing, metta, or whatever) is the distinction between mindfulness and monkeymind.

At a retreat last week, our outstanding retreat guide suggested that given my tendency to analyze, metta may be too “heady” (my paraphrase) and that I need to go for the heart. That gave me pause. I am still practicing metta, but I am thinking (analyzing?) what it might mean for me to also get down and dirty with the heart. It’s not like my heart isn’t in my mouth a lot of the time, because it is, but it’s just possible that this one on occasion uses her mind to restrict access to certain truths or realities that it might be good to embrace or feel or whatever the right heart-word is. And, I’m guessing, so do most of us. May I be happy. May I make friends with my body. May I live with ease. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Retreat, “re”treat

Is this retreat a turning back after defeat? An opportunity to “re”-treat the self? Or, a turning inward to the hidden self, there always, but not always accessible–or perhaps, there always, but waiting for the time it’s safe to (re)emerge? Or, there always but unseen, unheard until the gaze settles just right, a gaze not judging or harsh, a more loving kind of gaze, recognition. There you are.

I’m here with my cousin Bette in Yellow Springs, Ohio, starting our second day at Creative Explorations, a women’s retreat led by the wonderfully talented Jenny Horner. The first day we drove for about 7 hours, including stops, and I was weary of the interstate by the time we pulled into Yellow Springs. Yellow Springs and I have history, good history, so it was a good feeling to pull into this little town with its vibrant main street (Xenia). Jenny was standing in an available parking spot saving it for us, so I stopped, did a perfect 2-move parallel park and clamboard (how the hell do you spell clambored) out. A couple was passing by and the man called out, “Nice parking job!” I laughed and hollered back, “Yes that’s one thing I CAN do.” Then greeted our host, grabbed our bags, and followed her into the old house, snugged between neighboring businesses.

We settled in, got the tour of the serenity-designed apartment–one bedroom for each of us–and fairly quickly got started with a shared session. (I had my private session last night and Bette will have hers today.) Our session focused on our drawing with a piece of art crayon, eyes closed, with our non-dominant hand. She guided us a little, but mostly we were to let the hand do the work without our left brains judging and guiding. Then we thoroughly explored the images that emerged in our drawings, through writing and explaining. We helped each other see more that was going on, animals, symbols, patterns. Fascinating and surprisingly revealing. Both our drawings seemed dead-on for each of us, and seeing more through their eyes helped make the whole process very collaborative. I didn’t have to see what they saw, but often I did and then it would seem so obvious.

So, what am I doing here? What kind of “retreat”? On the one hand, I wanted to do this “for Bette,” my hard-working always-giving cousin who just lost her father, my uncle, after a long slow decline. He was 91. Alert and brilliant to the end, but oh so hurting from arthritis and old age, he wanted it to be over. After 10 or so years of care-giving, her house now feels empty. Loud with his absence. I know that feeling, have heard that silence. But even though I wanted this for her, I also wanted it for us, and for me.

I suppose in the end this two-day stay is a bit of all those meanings of “retreat” and probably others I haven’t thought of. And, no, I’m not going to google it. Oh, well, okay. “Withdraw from enemy forces as a result of their superior power or after a defeat.” Thanks, that’s helpful. But let’s see, don’t just dismiss it. If we stop thinking of “enemy” as some national military entity but as something more Buddhist, along the lines of “difficult people” (like oneself?) or perhaps as one of the five hindrances, maybe even this army-sounding definition has some bearing.

But I like the “re”-treat idea better, and the notion of returning to the authentic self that one has been ignoring or has forgotten is even there. So overshadowed by our public must-be selves, our private protect-me selves, our hateful, fearful, hurt and angry selves. A former, eternal self is in there, retreating from the illusions that the public self has embraced, biding time for the right moment to come forth–a hand, a voice, a word. Come back.

Birthday Girl, 5

On the morning of the day we’re celebrating Leah’s fifth birthday, I’m thinking about memorable birthdays I have known. I figure, including my own, I’ve probably celebrated some 500 or so birthdays over the years, from baby parties where the celebrant has not a clue to crone parties (though I’ve not been to one where they decorate with black, tg). In no particular order, then:

Galen’s first birthday: I labored over individual chocolate cakes baked in special molds and then drizzled with even more chocolate sauce. Several adults hovered over him and someone had the camera (probably some dumb disposable) on hand. As he took his first bite of chocolate his face screwed up as though we’d made him suck on a lemon. The rest of us ate up the cake.

One of the boy’s birthdays the first year in Berea, when they were 3 and 4: I went to a lot of trouble to invite kids–children of my new colleagues–and had games planned, party favors, gifts, and so on. I neglected to think about the fact that none of the kids knew each other, so when one of the boys (probably Galen) ran off to the bedroom in tears, I realized what a fiasco I’d created.

Ken’s 50th: surprise party at Katie Ward’s house (which she graciously loaned us for the occasion), with friends from WKU, HCC, and Ken’s church. Fortunately we were old enough to get along with people we didn’t know. I hired a guy to come up and lead line-dancing, which was a lot of fun. Success.

Line Dancing, there's Barry, Jane (not me), and Karen, a little bit of Libby.

Line Dancing, there’s Barry, Jane (not me), and Karen, a little bit of Libby.


Ralin’s 1-2-3-4-5th birthdays, always at our house because of the pool, always a lot of fun, the house overrun with his various families. We have a picture of him at one sitting on the concrete, his disposable diaper puffed up with pool water, looking like a happy Buddha.

Omni’s 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8th birthdays, or most of those–always a dinner out at a restaurant of her choice, always with something special her mom made, like a pink castle cake. High quality cameras documented them all. Here’s one where we spent the afternoon at Jackson’s Orchard then came home to this masterpiece:

Omni's 2nd

Omni’s 2nd

My 60th, where we went to The Tribe in Nashville, ate at Yum Yum’s, watched a drag show, then danced to the incredible loud and never-ending disco. So much fun. And here is Molly’s a couple of years ago–singing and playing at Wha-Bahs:

Molly singing at Wha-Baa's

Molly singing at Wha-Baa’s

And then we have today’s, for Leah….First, fun in the pool, then serious consideration of the candle-lighting pre-blowing.

Leah's 5th party, pool fun with friends

Leah’s 5th party, pool fun with friends


Leah's cousin Omni with friend Ralin racing to get out of the pool first--Ralin won, though it doesn't look like it here.

Leah’s cousin Omni with friend Ralin racing to get out of the pool first–Ralin won, though it doesn’t look like it here.


Friend Elizabeth climbing out

Friend Elizabeth climbing out


Should we all blow together? A serious decision. Yes is the answer, but if that doesn't work out, it's okay.

Should we all blow together? A serious decision. Yes is the answer, but if that doesn’t work out, it’s okay.

Backyard Volunteerism

We have an upstart sunflower with one little head growing beneath one of our bird feeders, the one that holds black sunflower seeds. A second, about half the size, has started growing beneath a second feeder, the one that holds an assortment of fatty seeds. I imagine that in a few weeks, the taller of the two will block our view of the sunflower feeder as it pushes that growing head of seeds up toward the sun. Maybe they both will, as they look healthy. Here’s a close up of the emerging head, in which you can see a little bit of yellow.

Volunteer Sunflower

Volunteer Sunflower

Similarly, we have a peach tree growing beside our propane tank, which is now, though slightly pushed southward, is full of 1-2″ peaches. By our front door, squeezing out in front of one of our overgrown bushes, is a weed of some sort. It’s going to blossom soon and I can’t wait to see what kind of flowers emerge. Among our more annoying volunteers are the grasses–crab and jamaica–that sprawl along the undergrowth like gnarly knuckled fingers clasping at whatever grows there. I think they rather diminish the meaning of volunteer. Among humans we think this is what builds community. This is what builds character.

Last night, Omni and I watched Chimpanzees, a movie-fied true story about a chimp whose mother dies while he is still just a youngun. The other mothers reject him (rather nastily, I might add), the other babies seem to pull away. The last “person,” I was going to say, that little Oscar turns to was the leader of the tribe, Freddy, a tough old loner who has no time for the antics of lesser beings. But Oscar follows and Freddy changes. He becomes Oscar’s volunteer mother, carrying him around on his back, teaching him how to survive, grooming him (in some of the more touching scenes). No one anticipated that Freddy had such nurturing in him, such tenderness. It seemed more likely that Oscar would waste away, ignored, losing weight, no one to pick the ticks and lice from his little body. I was reminded of Jane Goodall’s David Greybeard, and for a moment forgot I was looking at a community of apes.

Then this morning, I found a new sort of volunteer outside our window. It hangs from a branch that holds a third bird feeder, for thistle seeds. This branch is like a skinny hand with many twigs where birds like to land, if fleetingly, and take a look inside (or so I imagine). I don’t recall seeing spiderwebs on this tree-branch till today, but with the dew clinging to the threads, it was impossible not to notice.
DSC_1207spiderweb

This week I’m a volunteer child sitter, something I raise my hand for whenever I can. Yesterday was pretty boring for my good 8-year-old, and I appreciate her patience. She goes to work with me in the morning, where I occasionally have to remind her to turn down the youtube volume, and sometime around lunch we head home. Today she hopes to see her cousin and get in some swim time. I may agree to that. I mean, what would Freddy do? WWFD.

Jump, all fours

Jump, all fours