The Elegance of Being Woke

cropped-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-copy-of-the-simple-swan-7.pngI am a sixty-year-old white woman who lives in a small midwest town. I don’t have any social media accounts. My idea of pop music is the Macarena. I don’t know who is on Hollywood’s A-list, and I couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trends. I don’t try to be cool, but I do try to be woke.

I can hear the collective groans of people who think I shouldn’t be, or can’t be, woke. I am nervous about broaching a subject that is clearly out of my lane, and I am sensitive to the cultural appropriation of a term that is firmly rooted in African-American Vernacular English. However, unless you’ve been asleep, you’ve been hearing this word used and misused more and more in political, cultural, and social conversations.  

As a concerned and active citizen, I feel a responsibility to understand the origins of the word and its implicit and explicit meanings. To this retired English teacher, the word woke is the past-tense of wake, as in to wake-up or be awake. It’s easy to see how it could evolve to mean something more metaphorical and important.

According to several sources, the term woke emerged in the United States by at least the 1940s as slang within the black culture. A 1943 article in the Atlantic quoted a black mining official using woke related to social justice. By the 1960s, woke meant to be well-informed and politically aware, especially in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, the term was used in a New York Times article titled If You’re Woke You Dig It. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a commencement address at Oberlin College called Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.

While the term continued to be used, it hit mainstream vocabulary in 2012 after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young unarmed black man. The social media hashtag #staywoke appeared in 2014 and became associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

In 2017, an additional meaning of woke was officially added to the dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines woke as, “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Merriam-Webster similarly defines the concept as, “Aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice.” I don’t know about you, but I find ideas of equality and justice the ultimate in elegance. 

There are those who may be right in thinking I’m a wide-eyed Pollyanna who is oversimplifying a complicated issue. I will never know what it’s like to be a black person. I’m not in the minority by race, religion, or sexual orientation. However, I know these people as my relatives, my friends, my neighbors, and my brothers and sisters in humanity. How can I possibly close my eyes to injustices they face? Should I stop caring in fear of doing it wrong? 

I admit it’s my nature to strip down words and ideas to their simplest, most elegant, terms. By understanding woke’s history and meaning, I am more aware of those who conflate, politicize, and weaponize the word and more attentive to issues of racial and social justice. Unless someone convinces me otherwise, this retired, middle-class white lady will continue to do her best to stay woke. §

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”
~ John 15:12, New International Version

The Elegance of Getting Through Thorny Times

IMG_1671“I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden. Along with the sunshine, there’s gotta be a little rain sometime.” Lately I’ve been humming those lyrics from a 1970 country song. As much as this optimistic romantic wishes it to be, life isn’t always a bed of roses.

We all deal with difficult things in life. Personal challenges may involve our health, relationships, work, children, finances, grief, anxiety and a host of other issues that can seem more like a heap of fertilizer than a bouquet of flowers. I’ve learned there are things we can do to help us navigate those inevitable thorny times with elegance.

Seek professional help. First and foremost, realize if your needs require the help of a professional. There is never shame in seeking professional help. Caring people are trained to address our physical and mental wellness. If you don’t know where to start, call your primary care doctor, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or go to MentalHealth.gov.

Nurture yourself with nature. “Mother nature has the power to please, to comfort, to calm, and nurture one’s soul,” wrote Anthony Douglas Williams. The evening of my mother’s death, a friend texted me a picture of an impossibly brilliant sunset with instructions to go look out the window. That memorable sunset provided me deep comfort that I still hold in my heart.

Create beauty where you can. I was recently in the hospital for a few days and did everything I could to make my surroundings prettier. My husband removed the typical hospital clutter from the main shelf in my view and replaced it with some gorgeous flowers and a sweet gift from a friend. A nurse raised the blinds each morning to let in the sunshine. Classical music from my phone filled the room. One afternoon when I felt particularly gloomy, I pulled out a perfume sample from my purse and spritzed it around my bed. No matter where we find ourselves, there are things we can do to make our place a little more beautiful.

Pamper yourself. During that hospital stay, I also did what I could to make myself feel as well as I could under the circumstances. Since I was attached to needles, tubes, and beeping machines, my husband carefully shampooed my hair in the sink. Although it wasn’t cute, I made sure to put on a fresh hospital gown every day. I slathered my feet and legs with rose-scented body lotion. I filed my nails and kept my face and lips well-moisturized. I’m convinced all these little efforts helped me feel better and make a speedier recovery.

Take a break from the news. When we are going through a difficult time, we need to treat ourselves more gently. One way we can do that is by taking a break from the news which is almost always upsetting and depressing. World events will go on without us, and we can always catch up with it when we’re feeling stronger.

Lean into your faith. Times of crisis and uncertainty can be an opportunity for our faith to grow. Passages and parables can offer strength, encouragement, and understanding. A familiar hymn can take on new meaning. Martin Luther King said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Lift your own spirits. We all have simple, positive things we can do to brighten our own day. Maybe we enjoy watching a funny movie, reading a mystery, taking a long walk, playing the piano, or baking cupcakes. It’s good to know we always have the ability to lift ourselves up when we’re feeling down.

Help someone. Mark Twain said, “The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” Helping others gives us purpose, gets our mind off our own problems, and makes everybody feel good. Call someone you know is lonely, lend a neighbor a hand, or get plugged-in to volunteer somewhere.

Be grateful. No matter what we’re going through, we must still count our blessings. Remember what French novelist Alphonse Karr wrote in the 1800s, “You can complain because roses have thorns, or you can rejoice because thorns have roses.” §

Why I Asked My Community to Remove Confederate Flags

After three months of being cooped up due to the Coronavirus lockdown, we knew our nephews, who live north of Indianapolis, would enjoy a couple of days visiting our home in the woods of southern Indiana.

They filled their stay to the brim with boating, fishing, swimming and kayaking. Wide-eyed, they watched a deer amble into the yard early one morning. Under the setting sun, they saw four young foxes play with abandon on the shore of the lake. It was almost enough fun to take their minds off these uncertain, tumultuous and frightening times.

Almost.

When they arrived, the boys tumbled out of the car and asked curiously, “Why are there so many Confederate flags around here?” My heart sunk. I hoped they’d be too busy playing on their phones to notice the symbol that dots the hilly drive to our home.

Along the country roads, at least a dozen Confederate flags proudly hang from trees, fly from houses, stick to truck bumpers and decorate front porches. (Note that Indiana was not part of the Confederacy, and the ubiquitous design seen on the Rebel flag never actually represented the Confederacy.)

 While roasting marshmallows one evening, I asked the boys what the Confederate flag meant to them. My eleven-year-old nephew quietly said, “It means they hate black people.” His thirteen-year-old brother added so softly it was nearly inaudible, “They wish the South won the Civil War and that there was still slavery.” Despite the warmth of the fire, a chill went down my spine.

A few days later, something I read by Martin Luther King, Jr. demanded my action, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency.”

Fueled by the fierce urgency of now, I submitted my column to our local newspaper, unsure if it would be published, which read in part –

This is neither a history lesson nor a political discussion. Rather, it is a plea to consider what that flag means to the people who pass by your house or vehicle. Neighbor to neighbor, it is a huge and humble request to consider removing Confederate flags from your property.

The editor of the paper emailed me back almost immediately. She thanked me for my column and assured me it would be featured in the next issue. She also invited me to be part of a newly formed county commission for human rights and told me about an upcoming solidarity rally for racial justice to be held that weekend smack in the middle of Brown County, Indiana.

The Confederate flag has generated controversy and impassioned debates for 155 years. What makes this time any different?

Because right now we are emerging from the unique stillness of a quarantine. Thanks to the pandemic, we were forced to take a collective time-out. Without our usual distractions, we are in a heighten state of awareness to better see the realities of our country and ourselves.

The headlines aren’t any different. But we are.

We find ourselves in what may be a once-in-a-lifetime position to finally open our eyes to the causes of racial injustice, pain and division. It will take much more than removing Confederate flags, but it would be a tangible start to making positive, lasting change for our children and our grandchildren.

And for my nephews – smart, kind, beautiful brown boys – who simply deserve to run among the wildflowers, jump in the lake and feel welcomed when they visit the joyful rural countryside of America’s Heartland.