Monday, March 15, 2021

Split Ends


Bright spring sunlight
pours into bathroom window - 
revealing split ends.**

Last week Wednesday was the one year anniversary of my last live class before moving entirely online, where I continue to teach to this day. 

Today is the thirty-first anniversary of my father's death.

The pandemic anniversary date snuck up on me fairly quickly; of course I've seen North American and European folks* posting about the year anniversary of many aspects of the pandemic in social media. Of course it's come up in personal conversations and in my classes. And yet, I am deeply affected by anniversaries (as regular readers of this blog know) and this one is striking me quite deeply.

Monday, January 25, 2021

This Year

Amaryllis this year, in front of painting by Mom from her early adolescence.

On Friday January 24, 1997, early morning, I stepped out of the Blue Bus STD Clinic on the UW Madison campus, my negative HIV test results in hand. Out of what I thought was relief, I turned quickly to a bush and threw up my freshman dorm breakfast.

I was in an open relationship, my first, with a woman and a man, both of whom had other lovers. I had been unsafe a couple of times, and was convinced I had contracted HIV. Feeling deeply relieved, I took my time getting home, walking in the sunny crisp winter day.

Back at the dorm, my roommate looked at me morosely and told me to call one of my brothers before doing anything else. Just then, the phone rang, and I knew something was up. It was one of my oldest friends, calling to ask if I’d talked to that brother yet. She said to call him then call her right away. Neither the roommate or friend would tell me what it was about.

Ten minutes later, I sat on the floor of my dorm, aghast after a quick exchange with the brother. My mother had died of an aortic aneurysm that morning, just as I was leaving the clinic. I called back the old friend. When I started an ugly, angry cry, she was confused and asked if my test results had been positive. In utter shock, I had forgotten she was waiting to hear the results. 

The roommate left as soon as the old friend appeared with a bowl of requested mac and cheese from the cafeteria. I poked at it as the friend made plans to get me home that evening, Super Bowl weekend, when a bunch of our other  friends from Appleton were headed back anyway.

Once I was back, I wandered around my childhood home, now rendered a brand new place due to my brand new orphan hood. I talked in low voices with my brothers and godmother. I looked at all my mothers plants, a hundred or so, and began wiping them down, paper towels and bowl of warm water, cleaning dust from their leaves. It felt good to help something non-human but living.

When I got to the end of the plants, I found my mothers prized amaryllis, bright red. Every year my mother tried to get it to bloom around Christmas; it was late this year. The last of four blooms had just opened that morning.

Today is January 24, 2021. For a few years now, I have tried, and failed, to get an amaryllis bulb to bloom around this time of the year. They always leaf out, but never with stalks or buds. This year, I bought another one and it took off immediately. On January 20, the first big bloom opened, and every day since, another has opened. Today, the fourth bloom opened.

Mama, we had a hard run of it. But I have grown to miss you and wish you could know my wife, my life. I feel more connected to you now than ever. This is for you - four blooms going, and a second stalk budding, as if to make up for years of bloomlessness. I celebrate you on this 24th anniversary of your death.

As I mourned, and still mourn, those in my community killed too young by the AIDS pandemic - but more dead than should be because of discrimination and negligence - I now mourn those dead from the ignorance and denial of the COVID pandemic. 

When you died, Mama, I didn’t know any other orphans. Now I do. Now I know I am not alone in traumatic loss, whether from oppression or isolation. I am finally feeling out the difference between the trauma from loss, versus garden variety grief. 2020 was a rough year for death, for me and so many. And so it is I need this amaryllis bloom more than ever this year specifically. It is helping me remember to celebrate as I weep.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Letter to Dad on Father's Day

Dear Dad,                                                                                                     Father's Day, 2020

Michael Amos Hall, my father, at work, where he often was, 1987ish .

You have been dead for just over 30 years now, since March 15, 1990. You died ten days before your 53rd birthday. Sometimes, I would hear Mom say "work killed Dad"; it seemed to be a trend in our family to blame outside forces for deaths: I heard Mom say that her mom was "killed by that modern monstrosity the neighbors built next door".

Besides a deep abiding love of puns and an affectionate nature, workaholism is one of the characteristic I inherited from you. I used to find comfort in a the false control overworking can bring me. Over the last fifteen years in particular, as I have practiced and taught Buddhism, alongside writing and photography, I have found the insidious grasp of overworking to help calm any doubts I've had about the worth of my work and myself. But I have also learned to push back and recover from overworking, as best I can, one day at a time.

You were a different generation, and you were male. You grew up in a house with two women; one of whom was able-bodied and single mothering you and her sister, the other woman, with crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis. So certainly, you got a lesson from Alberta, your mom, my grandma, about working hard - it was necessary for survival. Your father, Amos, whom you write about in the few journals of yours I have found, was intensely overbearing, a distant man, 100 miles away who worked (and lived, it seemed) as a judge. You had it modeled from both lines in your family.

My mom didn't work most of her adult life, and the few jobs she had early on in adulthood were adjacent to yours: scanning Fortran cards or filling out paperwork and/or correcting papers with you. By the time us three kids came along, you were living the home-owning, single income, three kids life promised to white middle class families. Except you seemed to believe you still had to prove yourself.

Monday, June 01, 2020

An Open Letter to Fellow White Buddhists

Dear Fellow White Madison-Area Buddhists,                                               June 1, 2020

I am writing this letter specifically for Madison-Area white Buddhists, but it is very relevant for white Buddhists everywhere, especially in the United States.

I write to you as protests and riots for justice around the deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and too many other Black people fill our streets and newsfeeds. I feel in myself a curiosity and hope for change for the better, matched with a fear of status quo resuming, or changes for the worse. There is so much grief to feel, every day. It is a time where I can easily open and connect and feel, or just as easily, shut down and despair.

Though I began my early years as an anti-racist activist, and remained one into early adulthood, I accept that in my first ten years after taking refuge in the three jewels as a Buddhist, I took refuge from anti-racism. I used the peace-seeking of Buddhism to cover up my natural conflict aversion. Anti-racist work seemed paradoxical, the violence too incongruent with my relatively sheltered white life and desire for global peace. I feel sick writing this now, but there it is.

It was an entitled take, one that lots of white Buddhists take, because we can, and because the way we have interpreted Buddhism seems to support personal refuge from violence. I feel grief about that take now, and I also understand it.

I invite you to pause, as you read, and feel how separate you feel from efforts to fight anti-Blackness. Do you worry “they’ve gone too far”? Are you averse to the violence and feel there must be some other way? Are you feeling overloaded by the news and words? These are inherent gaps, and our tendency as suffering human beings is to take one side or the other, and decide we are right and others are wrong. Instead, I encourage you to feel the gap. Is there guilt there? Confusion? Fear? Anger? If you can feel these, see if there’s any grief underneath? Grief is where we can enter and begin to make personal and societal change.

When the police killed 19-year-old Black youth Tony Robinson on Willy Street in Madison Wisconsin just over five years ago, something in me shifted. I found myself impatient with focusing only on practices of loving-kindness and Tonglen, with an emphasis on an equanimity that was suspiciously similar to ignoring the systemic issues. This was not the response I needed mirrored in Buddhism, while facing the slaughter of Black people in our own community. I knew the practices were relevant. I knew Buddhism could help. I didn’t yet – and still don’t always – see how.

Gradually, humbly, I have found (and continue to find) a personal connection between interbeing and racial justice. Mine has been an ugly path, strewn with harm and confusion, hope and fear. In particular, I used to feel quite angry at other white people, especially fellow white Buddhists, because I didn’t understand “other” white people don’t seem to want to do this work. Now I understand better how hard it is, and feel how sometimes I don’t want to do it, either. I feel the heartbreak we have to work through in order to commit again and again.

Increasingly, I am determined, for the long haul, to see what change I be a part of, especially alongside Black people who also engage in Buddhist or Contemplative practices. This means personal action – study, reflection, contemplation – and also larger scale social action, which quite a few white Buddhists are especially averse to.

I want you to join me. To take a step over the perilous-seeming edge, out of the safety of white Buddhism, and into a more interconnected world, where we explore together the shadows of interpreting Buddhism to uphold White Supremacy, in the most subtle and insidious ways. The grief here is fathomless, wide and deep. It is uncomfortable as hell. But we are in here together, interrelated and holding one another up. It is a far richer place to be than in our separate ivory towers of conceptual practice. 

Buddhist practice has prepared us for this kind of work. 

Because of purposefully availing myself of many Black Buddhist teachers, I am becoming more and more directly aware of the interdependence between Black Liberation and spiritual liberation. Upon reading statistics that still blow me out of the water every time, I still feel shock and wish to turn away. But I can no longer turn away, and explicit acts of violence against Black people are making it impossible to not speak up. When I try and ignore the grief of the damage my role in whiteness plays in anti-Blackness, I only feel worse. 

I’d rather stay awake.

I hope this sounds fundamentally familiar to you: a hallmark of Buddhism is to realize ignorance is not bliss, and in fact, feels worse than really seeing what is. White Supremacy begs us not to look, not to feel, not to feel connected, and it has its claws sunk into white Buddhism. As much as we know we need to pay attention and stay awake, cultivating mindfulness and awareness, a siren song of passivity encourages us to spiritually bypass.

It is especially important during this time of the uprising of Black leaders and allies, that we step in. Not out of reaction to a particular incident, but out of a desire to help support the ongoing visions of our Black leaders and all Black people. We have been silent far too long.

Fellow white Buddhists, please act now, in ongoing, sustainable, community-building ways. Don’t hold back because you can’t participate in, or are not comfortable with marches, riots or protests. There are other, more contemplative options. For starters, you can deeply explore your own relationship to racism via writing with Leesa Renee Hall or Layla Saad. You can take courses with Resmaa Menakem, Rachel Cargle or White Awake. You can follow/read/listen to Black dharma teachers like Lama Rod Owens, Reverend angel Kyodo williams Sensei, and director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Katie Loncke

Does ending violence against Black people sound like too big a goal? Please consider your vows – your Bodhisattva vow in particular, if you have taken it. If Buddhists and Bodhisattvas in training are prepared for anything, it is to dream the impossible and bring it as close to reality as we can in our lifetime. Not individually, but collectively, and with commitment and dedication for the enlightenment of all.

In particular, for folks in Madison, I invite you to join me in the writing letters for the Campaign to End Violence Against Black People, which is being organized by the Transformative Action Network, a Black-lead organization that explicitly combines meditation, contemplative practices, and racial justice and abolitionist work. 

In particular, writing these letters stretches our tendency to shrink away from taking stands, encourages us to see the deeply interconnected violences of anti-Blackness and our privileges as white people, and makes demands of our white leaders that may not feel safe to demand. Why? Because it is scary to put our names and voices on the line. But we must do that in order to be active co-conspirators in taking down violence against Black people. If our commitment is to end suffering, then aiming at the anti-Blackness is a powerful root to cut together.

The demands TAN has compiled are direct, powerful, and specific. They are specifically for Madison-area, but applicable to any community. They come from voices of Black people who are horrified by being repeatedly dehumanized. We, too, should take the time to really feel horror about this dehumanization. Join this campaign, so you too can add your voice to the choir.

Demands from the Taskforce to End Violence Against Black People:
· Support restorative justice approaches which are empowered with 360 degree accountability for structural, cultural and physical harms as manifested in mass incarceration. 
· Support and fund a committee designed to address needs of repairing damage around racist violence in the form of structural, cultural and physical impacts
· Using the recommendations of the committee, launch a public awareness campaign to decriminalize Black adults and youth 
· Support reparations that repair the damage of white supremacist culture through creating alternative culturally enriched schools for marginalized youth and other autonomous or black-led cooperative efforts 
· Support reparations for black land trust and other remedies for gentrification and hyper-segregation
· Create a truth and reconciliation process to replace the punitive criminal justice system with restorative justice
· Adopt the demands developed by the Movement for Black Lives
If you feel at all ready to begin exploring your own relationship to anti-Blackness, white supremacy, and your role in the perpetuation and liberation of both, please begin acting now. Listen. Learn. Watch. If you feel resistance to what you are being told, sit on the cushion and give it space. Watch for a tendency to demonize violence. Hold non-duality, the both/and of this all. Paradox is truth, and a larger picture is needed here to shake us out of complacency.

Please, take some time – but not too much time - to consider, reflect, and contemplate how you can commit to looking at these issues as part of your practice. Get involved now, in whatever – even small – ways you can. Invest in the long haul of unpacking of whiteness in Buddhism, and towards group actions for the liberation of all, which only comes when we honor Black lives.

May this letter benefit all beings,  
Miriam Hall

Monday, March 23, 2020

Control and Chaos

Collected wisdom from my Return groups during this time.

Hello. It's been awhile since I have posted here. I fell out of habit, then I began my Patreon journey to post a chapter from my book-in-progress, Being Writing, each week.

But this week, as most of the United States and Canada has dramatically adjusted to COVID-19's impact, and my students from all over the world - really, all over the world - have reported in via live classes, and as I have watched and read social media and news media, there are some trends and insights I hope will be helpful for me to share here*.

Plus, at the end of this post, I share a link to a half hour audio practice called "Four Step Practice: Embracing the Energy of Emotions" from Karuna Training, which I offered for free on Sunday, March 22 on Zoom.