These Things Happen

My cold got worse this past week and landed me on the couch for a couple days (not COVID-19, I got a negative test). On Monday I mostly slept, and when my daughter came home from school she told me there was a 7 pm curfew in effect.

That’s how I learned that Daunte Wright, a Black man only three years older than my 17-year-old daughter, had been killed by police in the Minneapolis suburbs. More protests. One thousand National Guard troops called in by the governor.

As the trial of George Floyd’s killer continues here in these Twin Cities.

As we keep tearing each other apart with guns across this country. (Yesterday I wrote this song. Today I recorded it. Between those two moments, eight people were killed in a mass shooting in Indianapolis.)

As the virus we’ve grown sick of fights to keep its place in the world.

This is a ragged haunted open wound of a song because that’s what I have this week. I am grateful that the sun came out today, the first sunny day in too long. And that I finally felt well enough to get out of the house. I filled bird feeders and poked around in my gardens. I still believe. In spite of everything.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

So another man dies at the public servants’ hands 
At the point of the weapons of the so-called protectors
And another mother cries on the screens in our hands
And weary voices rage at the racist military-industrial-congressional war machine

Yeah these things happen
But these things don’t just happen

We’re under a cloud here down in the muck
April is the cruelest month except for all the others
Maybe our hearts are in the right place
But our lungs keep breathing in these toxic fumes 
And we spew them out knowing not what we do
And pointing our fingers and shifting the blame
And the world’s on fire with a deadly virus
And our country’s the sickest cause we deny it

Yeah these things happen
But these things don’t just happen

These lumps of metal they make us hard
Steel our nerves and rob us of compassion
Our original sin keeps us weak
Exposes our skin and lies about what it means
Till we want to scratch it off

And the government tries and the government fails
And the people go mad and the people go numb
And we try to believe and we try to behave
And the truth eludes us and we lose our way

These things do happen
These things happen
These things happen
And these things don’t just happen


Race is a fabricated social construct. And. In my country, race is an inescapable reality, as plain as the nose on your face or the skin on your bones.

White is a lie. And. White is a hideous truth that kills and steals and destroys.

“Black is beautiful” is a powerful idea that many people have needed to internalize to arm themselves against the ugly face of white America.

People need to repeat and believe that black lives matter because white piously proclaims that it doesn’t see color, white forgets and ignores and excludes and overlooks (and kills and steals and destroys).

We can all dream a world where white and black and brown are no longer categories for people. AND. We must do the hard work of facing the living truth in the here and now – and those of us who got dealt the white card have the furthest to go in this, because we’ve had the least occasion to notice that anything is wrong.

Each one of us is the only one of us, exquisitely unique in all of time and space. And. Every one of us is, like every other one of us, completely and thoroughly human.

In our shared humanity, in our singular hearts and souls, we can untangle and break the horrific bonds of race. Not today, not all at once. And not if we don’t see it for what it is, and listen, and tell the truth.

George Floyd’s killers must be arrested, charged, and sentenced. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Here’s my song for week 22 of #songaweek2020:

White tears are decorative
White grief keeps its distance
White guilt is optional
White passion lacks persistence
White promises are broken
White skin is thick insulation
And a most effective cushion
To smother a human soul.

You can download the song for free here –


“Quiet. . . Julia Likes Black People.”

One afternoon, more than half my life ago, a high school classmate and I were riding in her family car. Her mother was driving, and now I don’t remember what she said – maybe the radio was on with news about the L.A. riots after the Rodney King story, and she said something about “those people.” But what I do remember, vividly, is my classmate saying to her mom in a half-joking, let’s-humor-this-silly-girl tone, “Quiet, Mom. Julia likes black people.”

Yes, in my terrarium of a Christian school in a lily-white southern Minnesota town, I stood out because I would sometimes speak favorably of black people, or occasionally ask someone not to continue telling a racist joke. But I didn’t really know anyone who wasn’t white. And so, not personally knowing anyone of color, I began to idealize non-white people, to paint their plight with a romantically tragic brush.

In my college years, I got to know a few African-American people, and “black people” went from being a homogenous symbol in my mind to the faces and personalities of everyday people I knew in everyday ways.

When Nathan and I decided to buy our first house, we chose a Craftsman charmer in North Minneapolis, which only a few years before was the central reason why Minneapolis was dubbed “Murderapolis.” We did this because beautiful houses were cheap in this neighborhood, and the sellers of the house introduced us to their neighbors, who actually knew each other and greeted us with a warm welcome.

And, personally, I did it because we, as white people, would be in the minority in this neighborhood, and I wanted to know, to understand; and frankly, because at least subconsciously, I thought this would somehow give me points with whoever was keeping score. In the year before buying our house, Nathan and I had become part of a Bible study that partnered a group from our suburban, mostly-white church with a group from an inner-city, mostly-black church. We studied and discussed racism, and attended services at each others’ churches. I was deep in the throes of white guilt, ashamed to be a part of the problem. At this moment of buying our piece of the American dream, I wanted to duck out of the system that was slowly smothering me; and I felt pretty heroic for doing it.

We lived nearly seven years in that beautiful house, welcomed our daughter into the world, shared it with friends and family and people who needed a place to stay for a while. We joined a church walking distance from our house, a remarkable place that was pretty evenly biracial, where people of all skin tones loved me just as I was – a shy, idealistic, recovering good-girl with a God complex. I was patiently and generously embraced right along with all the other sinners.

Thanks to the unconditional love of my church family, I began to humanize every single person around me – no longer idealizing or demonizing anyone – including myself.

In our years in Minneapolis, I witnessed a shooting through my front window and listened in shock as the police officer who came to question me flippantly broke the news that the victim had died.

I laughed with a young man whose low-riding pants fell down as he strutted the sidewalk in front of our house.

I smiled at a child who smiled back and waved at me, while his mother grabbed his hand, glared at me and spit on the sidewalk.

I rode the city bus or strolled to the grocery store with my baby girl who smiled and babbled at everyone she met, and people generally fussed over and adored her.

I watched through my front window one afternoon as a teenage girl ran behind the house opposite mine, pursued by two boys who jumped out of a car that pulled up; and reached for the phone to dial 911, until I saw her emerge from behind the other side of the house, soaking wet and laughing, the boys brandishing their Super Soakers and laughing too.

I paid down-and-out men who came to the door with a rake or a shovel, and they did good yard work for me.

I joined neighbors at Christmas and went to other people’s doors, where we sang carols.

In short, I lived, and the people around me (mostly) lived, and I didn’t do much to save the world, but I did gain a little understanding.

But only a little. And that’s why I’m writing all this – to emphasize that I can never understand, and if you are white in America, neither can you.

That’s bad news if you think that in order to love someone, you must understand them. But I have never agreed with that idea. Yes, seek understanding – that’s always a good idea. But there are some things you will never completely understand or be able to empathize with in the lives of other people, and racism, for white people in America, is one of those things.

Fill the gap that is left between your understanding of another person and the actual person with love, compassion, open ears and an open heart. I mean, it can’t hurt.

So when black people all over our nation are crying out under the weight of all these latest stories of police brutality, please, white America, zip it. Just close your lips and listen.

We the privileged ones are accustomed to having the last word, getting our point across, being heard. This stuff doesn’t come easily to many of us.

But can’t we just try it?
To borrow from my classmate, “Quiet.”

(Yes, I really did just end this serious post with a silly little rhyming couplet.)

PS – Last week I changed the price of an old song I wrote concerning racism to free, and I changed the licensing to Creative Commons, so that it can be shared, remixed, used to make videos, whatever. It’s called “Only the Fools” and you can find it here.