“You and I are in deep trouble,” she shakes her head. Sala Steinbach and I are leaning over my rewrite of her essay in which she, as an African American Zen student, discusses the workshops she is leading on “unlearning racism.” I had spent much of the weekend editing Sala’s words, splicing together several pieces she had written with excerpts from an interview I had done with her. She points at the paper between us. “It’s not me!”
Born December 28, 1944, in Chicago: Marilyn White (later to become Sala Steinbach), a brown-skinned baby girl to an educated middle-class African American couple—a young man of African American descent and a young woman of African American, Native American and Irish descent. Born January 29, 1946 in Manhattan: Barbara Gates, a white-skinned, blue-eyed baby girl to an educated middle-class couple—a young woman of German Jewish descent and a young man of English Unitarian descent.
We sit here now on my couch, coughing from time to time. A night wind blows chill from the Bay; I can feel the damp January cold seeping through the closed window. In my study Sala is bundled in a sweater and I in a blanket. During the months we’ve been working on this project, we’ve each had a nasty bout of the flu.
Trying to do this work, I see once again how I don’t like to talk about race, to write about it or to edit the words of others on the subject. It’s scary to focus on differences and separation. And of course, separation between people based on race is invested with power differences and with fear, anger and guilt passed on through generations. Paying attention to the differences, as we are this evening, seems at first to exacerbate them. I am only doing this because I believe that it’s crucial to experience the pain of that separation in order to move beyond it.
“It’s definitely not me.” Sala reiterates.
I notice that my chest is tight. I am uncomfortable, as I have been on other occasions talking about race with people of color, even when they are longtime friends. Recognizing my discomfort tonight, I am harsh on myself. I would so like to be at ease with Sala, a good friend of old friends of mine, a woman I respect and like, whom I am just starting to get to know.
Meanwhile my seven-year-old daughter, Caitlin, escaping from her bath, runs into the study naked. Suddenly demure, she crosses her arms over her nakedness and says she doesn’t want to show her bare butt. Sala assures Caitlin that as a midwife she has seen hundreds of bare little butts over the years—even several that day! Soon we are all laughing, jostling each other on the couch, being blessed with bath water.
As Caitlin runs in and out of the room, flourishing her towel, Sala is working over a sentence, making it her own.
I watch as she writes, crossing out one phrase and trying another, just as I have been doing this weekend. I begin to imagine how painful it may be for her—as it is for me in writing my own overview essay—to explore race and racism in her most authentic voice—to dig beyond familiar rhetoric for words and images that call up the rips and blisters of life.
I think of this peculiar kind of mindfulness practice I’ve taken on as an editor. The challenge is to pay attention so fully to the writer—to what is compelling for her, to what she is yearning to express, to her idiosyncratic mode of expression—that I can speak in her voice. Of course, it’s never completely her. In fact, at times I am painfully aware that even when I’m writing my own words about my own life, it’s not me. Words are approximations, and they can only point toward experience.
As I watch Sala test my words—and then her words—against her memories and insight, I am aware of her Blackness and my Whiteness. I imagine how hard it probably is for her to read the ways I have revised her words. And I feel how hard it is for me as an editor to take on the task of seeing through the lens of Sala’s experience as a Black woman—of “becoming her” so that in her voice I can fine tune her words. And after another bout of coughing, I notice in my chest a well of sadness that as we are doing this work we are experiencing the pain of separation not only of words from truth but of each of us from the other.
At first I had thought I would simply lend my editorial skill to the writing, but Sala asked me to join her to interview the members of the Zen community who had participated in her workshops and who, like myself, were White. “You don’t know the power of ‘Whiteness,’” Sala told me. “And I don’t want to be alone in these conversations in case someone—probably in all innocence—expresses unexamined racism that might be hurtful to me.”
At first I resisted participating in the interviews. But then I remembered my own discomfort with talking about race. I realized that my presence might provide a bridge. And I wanted to be an ally to Sala. So we conducted the interviews together.
We’ve met at odd hours, two women trying to schedule meetings amidst complicated lives—Sala’s as a nurse-midwife, mother, grandmother and hospice volunteer, and mine as an editor and mother. So we got to know each other “behind the scenes.” Sala came to my house one time when both Caitlin and I, sick with 102-degree fevers, were in bed in our nightgowns. After Sala and I read through some transcripts together, she listened to both Caitlin’s and my chests with a cardboard toilet-paper roll, a makeshift stethoscope for lack of a real one.
Another time, after doing interviews at Green Gulch Zen Center, we hiked to Sala’s house over the hill. As we climbed up and down, leaping over trees uprooted in the recent storm, Sala started gasping from an asthma attack. Afterward she told me how scared she had been that she actually might not make it up the hill.
As we have worked, I have sometimes watched my tendency to take over and my expressions of impatience with how long it is taking us to finish this project. At other times I have watched the ways I have curbed myself from expressing my frustrations. Have I been bending over backward not to offend Sala because of my uneasiness with my role as a White woman discussing diversity workshops that I didn’t attend, as a White woman editing a Black woman’s words?
On a night like tonight, when I am feeling tired and chilled and am finding it difficult at times to connect with Sala, to connect with myself, I like to remind myself of my intention. I am working on this project because I believe that language can catalyze transformation, both personal and societal, that shifts in language can lead to action in the world. In working with Sala and inviting Zen and vipassana practitioners to reflect on race divisions, I am listening for word alchemy, for images that embrace oppositions and arouse us to see and act without blame.
By their very nature, words label differences. Black. White. Male. Female. And too often in the language of social action, words like “victim,” “oppressor,” or “targeted group” can feel to me like an assault, polarizing “us” against “them.” But I am convinced that language has the power not only to polarize but also to help us to remember our underlying connectedness.
I have become increasingly wary of rhetoric of all kinds, whether in the language of spiritual books or political speeches. I have been thinking lately how so often we are dulled to familiar words and phrases. When I open a book about Buddhism and read that I should “take the spiritual path,” “search for freedom” or “celebrate the beauty of life,” I almost immediately feel anesthetized. Likewise, I am anesthetized when I hear familiar rhetoric about racism, or any other “ism.”
Yet I am deeply moved when Grace Dammann, a Zen practitioner, describes both Buddhist practice and being an ally to those different from herself: “We walk through birth and death with people.”
I like to imagine that through the language forged in these conversations with Zen practitioners, the teachings of Buddhism might be given fresh meaning through the particulars of actual lived lives. And perhaps the language intended to help us transform the suffering of racism might be recast through the nondual imagery of Buddhist teachings, freeing us to see and treat one another with more kindness and respect and to revamp our institutions to allow our diverse members to flourish.
So like a truffle-hunting hound, I sniff these words for pungency. I follow words which loosen our tightly cadenced fears of one another. I listen to the silences between the words. I chase for images drawn from life, images which shock us out of old habits of thinking and living, tapping into hidden reservoirs of tenderness .
As Sala and I finish reading over her essay, a naked Caitlin sails back into the room. Flashing hers, Caitlin asks “What’s the cutest little butt you ever saw?” Thank goodness we’ve had to do this work in the midst of our lives—spoofing with Caitlin, surviving the flu and an asthma attack, the great winds and rains and the uprooting of trees. I am grateful that as we write about racial differences, Sala can tell me we’re in “deep trouble,” yet we can keep on exploring together. She and I can remember that we are all living creatures in the cycles of the earth—who are born and know we will someday die, who have children, become middle-aged, act silly sometimes and tend to each other when we get sick. So these conversations on differences have been blessed with the bath water of life and braided into the complex weave of everydayness, of ongoingness, of commonality.