Searching for the phoenix

“Burning Embers” is a close-up photograph of grape leaves in late autumn.

I’m searching for a phoenix. I’m searching for who and what will rise from the ashes of the year 2020. The world—every nation, every people, every one of us—has lost so very much this year.

Across America, people exercising their constitutional right to peaceful protest were shoved aside by police and federal agents with batons and pepper spray (with other, more sinister weapons on hand if “needed”). One of those situations took place in order to clear a path for the U.S. president to have a photo op with a bible. Oh, the irony. Many of these protests have seen violence and injury, almost never perpetrated by the protesters, but rather by extremists on both ends of the spectrum. If you haven’t heard of boogaloo, I suggest you look up the word. What the media don’t often report is that many of the explosions and fires were caused by law enforcement personnel throwing flares and flash grenades.

On another front, as much of the American west continues to burn, the media posts other-worldly images in vivid red and orange tones that show cityscapes, firefighters, and forests as black silhouettes. Fires are blanketing the sky with ash for hundreds of miles, and the atmosphere over the west coast is currently the most polluted on earth.

The destruction, the ashes, the fiery hues of red and orange and gold… I’m picturing a phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes in a blazing, powerful show of renewal and courage. Perhaps this is a chance for all of us to take a deep breath (if we have the air to do so) and to see the opportunity before us. Let’s each of us find our feathers and our courage; let’s allow ourselves to be the rising phoenix that is desperately needed. Right now.

Gone people

For me, it was personal, and it felt like a sucker punch when it happened. In the space of twenty-four hours, the world lost two of the really good ones; one was a longtime friend of mine. They both dedicated their lives to fighting for justice, and along with another of this year’s losses—John Lewis—they form a powerful triumvirate of moral clarity. Oddly, all three died of pancreatic cancer. This is my tribute to the three, great and gentle leaders all.

The olive has been a symbol of peace for thousands of years.

John Lewis

[Martin Luther King] said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

John Lewis, The New York Times, published on the day of his funeral

While attending the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, John Lewis helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1961, he became one of the original Freedom Riders; he organized sit-ins at lunch counters; in 1963, at the age of 23, he was a keynote speaker at the March on Washington.

In 1965, Lewis was in the vanguard of a group of people marching from Selma to Montgomery, and their path took them across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were met on the other side with billy clubs, whips, heavy boots and tear gas in an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. TV cameras were present that day, and the violence they captured shocked Americans into supporting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (which has now been largely dismantled).

Lewis was beaten and jailed more times than he could count, yet he kept going back, always with peaceful intent. During the 1980s he went into public service, and he was elected to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional district in 1986, a seat he never lost. He was considered by many to be “the conscience of Congress.” He spent his life in a steadfast quest for justice.

We see it outside our windows, in big cities and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, Blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.

And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.

What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while, and show us the way.

Barack Obama, eulogy for John Lewis

Queen Bouddica led a briefly successful revolt against the ruling Romans in Britain, around 60 A.D. Her rebellion ultimately failed, but she is revered today, and she is the very image of a bad-ass queen.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

She saw clearly who we could be & would not settle for anything less than that.

יהי זכרה מהפכה
May her memory be a revolution.

Kai and Fia Skye

After graduating from Columbia University, Ruth Bader married Martin Ginsburg. Marty was a reserve in the U.S. Army, which took them to Oklahoma, where Ruth worked for the Social Security Administration. She was demoted when she became pregnant (it was a forced and unpaid leave of absence), and she gave birth to her daughter Jane in 1955.

The young family moved to Boston, where both Marty and Ruth entered Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women in a class with 500 male students; there’s a story that the dean invited the nine women to dinner one evening, and proceeded to ask each woman what gave her the right to take the place of a man at Harvard Law.

During Marty’s third year of law school, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer; while he was home resting from his treatments, Ruth attended his classes in addition to hers, taking thorough notes that Marty could study from. Marty survived the cancer, and when he graduated, he accepted a position in New York. Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated tied for the top of her class; despite this, she had trouble finding a law firm that would hire her due to the triple problem of being a woman, being a mother, and being Jewish. One of the sharpest legal minds of our time couldn’t find a job.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg eventually became a law professor at Rutgers, where a few female students asked her to create a course in women’s law, thereby planting the seeds of a career working to find justice, most often for women. She founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. She was also clear in saying that she did not consider herself a feminist; she was working to liberate both women and men from old, entrenched patriarchal customs.

It was difficult, into the middle ’70s, to persuade judges who at that time were overwhelmingly male and white, to persuade them that there was such a thing as discrimination against women. Because their idea was, women are on a pedestal, women are protected by the law. And many women were finding out that these so-called protections were protecting men’s jobs from women’s competition.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on “Sunday Morning”

In 1980, Jimmy Carter nominated Bader Ginsburg to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a seat she held until 1993, when Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court.

And now there are The Hypocritical Ones, who are frothing at the mouth and rubbing their hands in eager anticipation at the opportunity of replacing the justice before she’s received the eulogies and the burial she deserves.

Shalom, Ruth, and thank you so very much for all that you have done.

Reggie referred to his wife and two daughters as his “she-roes,” surrounding him with their strength.

Reggie Robinson

I can still hear Reggie’s voice, calm, quiet, assured, yet full of life and warmth and humor. We met in college at the University of Kansas, where we lived in the same corner of the campus and shared an interest in student government.

We were so young, but Reggie was always one of those who could be counted on. His was a cool voice of reason during the various dramas of college life. He saw things clearly and always found a good path forward. His was the pure laughter of utter joy during a party or a beer break at the Hawk. He was the one who got things done. I’m picturing how he wrinkled up his nose when he didn’t care for something or wasn’t quite sure what to say (which was not often).

Reggie was one of the more extraordinary people I’ve had the blessing to know. While his accomplishments have been many, he would be the first to tell you that the love of his wife Jane and daughters Clare and Paige was the greatest of those. He traveled some during his career, but his compass always pointed him back to his home state of Kansas, where he did enormous good for untold numbers of people. He was patient and kind and generous, the kind of man you wanted to have a beer with and discuss world events or your kids’ upcoming soccer game.

Here’s part of the official list, taken from the website of the Kansas Health Foundation, where Reggie was the president and CEO:

[Reginald] Robinson received his undergraduate degree and juris doctor from the University of Kansas. He has served as president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, a faculty member at both the Washburn and University of Kansas schools of law, a White House fellow, special assistant to Attorney General Janet Reno, and deputy associate attorney general for the United States. Robinson also was an active duty field artillery officer in the U.S. Army.

Robinson has extensive public service and philanthropy involvement both in Kansas and nationally. He was appointed by Gov. Laura Kelly as facilitator for the Kansas Criminal Justice Reform Commission and was a member of several state juvenile justice advisory groups.

His community service includes serving on boards of directors for the Friends of the Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas Leadership Center, Douglas County Community Foundation, the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, the National Academy of Public Administration, and the National Organization for Victims Assistance.

You can see how he will be missed, and this list doesn’t even mention the myriad family, friends, and colleagues of his enormous circle. He was beloved by many. I’ll miss you, Reggie. Rock Chalk!

Calling all Americans! Please vote!
Stand in line if you must, endure the frustrations, do whatever it takes. If ever there was a time to vote, it is here, right now.

Now is the time to find your inner phoenix!

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