Mourning and Celebration

It’s been a hard week for the world.

Israel attacked the humanitarian flotilla to Gaza. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf, now the largest spill in US history, threatens entire ecosystems. A town in Arizona (you already know this is gonna be bad) is demanding an elementary school literally “lighten the tone” of the black and Latino children depicted in the school’s new mural. Wow, Arizona, you’ve surprised even Pat Buchanan with that one.

When I heard about Israel’s unprovoked attack on the ships headed to Gaza, and how they killed nine Turkish civilians, I was at a loss for words. I mean, I knew they would prevent the ships from delivering the food and medicine to the people of Gaza who so desperately need it, but shooting the international activists? Really?

Those are my comrades. That could have been friends of mine they killed. Shit, I’ve thought about joining groups that directly challenge the Israeli occupation,  folks like the Free Gaza Movement (which organized the flotilla) and the International Solidarity Movement. That could have been me.

When I went to the demonstration the next day at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, I saw an older woman standing at the outskirts. By herself and with a handmade sign, she did not look like a protest veteran. When I got closer, I saw the sign was a picture of her sister, who was on one of the Free Gaza ships. I saw the tears in her eyes, tears of outrage but mostly of fear, and I realized: she doesn’t know if her sister is alive or dead.

I thought of my brother Ben, back east in grad school and happy, and what it would be like if he was on one of those ships. I couldn’t imagine imagine a pain like that.

The next day, it came out that none of the Bay Area activists on the ships has been badly hurt. The woman’s sister had survived. But that means someone else’s sister didn’t. Thanks to the Israeli Defense Forces and their powerful, paranoid allies in Washington, someone else, somewhere in Turkey is in mourning. Not just politically outraged at the state of Israel, but deeply missing a sister. A mother. A wife.

In politics, we often try to stick to the facts. “Be objective.” “Know the history.” “Get that pie chart ready.” I’m not against facts…how could I be? I’m a huge nerd. But I’m not moved to action by numbers. I’m moved by people — by their love and gratitude, by their contradictions and chocolate cakes, by their loss. We can’t forget people. Names. Oscar Grant. Aiyana Jones. Rachel Corrie. And the brothers and sisters just taken from us in the Mediterranean.

Aiyana Jones, 7 years old, killed by Detroit cops in May

And at the same time, we can’t be bound by our grief. We have to find the joy, the celebration of life — and be willing to accept when it finds us too. At the same protest outside the consulate, as I was walking back to BART, I saw a guy wearing a t-shirt with the DC flag. Of course, I had to ask, “Ay man, are you from DC?” He said he was, and then we both broke into that “Oh shit! You too?” smile. (You never run into other DC folks out here.) We quickly started talking 202 life and memories: humid summers, fake winters, Marion Barry, Gilbert Arenas…the usual.

Then, when I told him I grew up in Mt. Pleasant and Tenleytown, he said, “Wait, I know a family in Tenleytown. Do you happen to know the Healeys?” I started laughing. “Yeah, I know the Healeys. I am the Healeys. Do you know the Healeys?”

It turns out he grew up playing soccer with my brother Ben. He told me his name was Badr, and then we realized we’d actually kicked the ball around together too once or twice — probably 20 years ago. Maybe this is just another small-world story, but at the time, coming from the rage and sadness of the Gaza protest (already thinking about my brother), we hugged each other, and couldn’t stop laughing and tell stories the rest of the train ride back to the East Bay.

Me and my brother Ben, last summer in Oaxaca, Mexico

Life is mourning, but it’s also celebration. Last month, my partner Esther (a midwife apprentice and all-around pretty cool chica) helped catch the baby of our good friends Marta and Cleveland. It wasn’t the first baby Esther had welcomed into the world, but it was the first of a couple who we consider family. Which is pretty fucking cool, if you ask me.

And this past weekend, I attended two graduation parties for students of mine here in Oakland. There’s nothing like a high school graduation BBQ, with grandmas and laughter and the East Oakland sun, to make me feel good about the world. One of the graduates, he told me at the beginning of the year that he wasn’t sure he was going to make it. Well, he made it, and is off to a damn good college too.

So today, I celebrate my students. I mourn the activists of the Mediterranean. And, like my students, I will try to learn and remember all their names.