Today is father's day and not a day on which I typically do much reveling. My father has never been in my life and my children's father lives 500 miles away from me, and them. And yet I want to shout out that if you are out there doing a good job, being a good man and a good father, thank you.
Furthermore, if you are a good human being, doing your part to lessen suffering on the planet and to do right by others, thank you, whether you are man or woman or otherwise, parent or not.
So today I share with you some inspiration that came from my beloved and brilliant little sister who was asked to perform a mother's day sermon a few weeks back at a UU church. She humbly sent her writings for that day to me only after I begged the privilege to read her words. She felt she could have done better. I feel we all could do better, but that she is doing a fucking remarkable job. Thanks, Mimi. You inspire and honor me beyond description.
I was asked to speak today about the origin of Mother’s Day and I just about died. I feel like I know how Christian Ministers must feel on Easter or Christmas, preaching the sermon on the mount. Or how a relief pitcher must feel getting a call from the Bull Pen during a championship game. It’s a big day with big shoes to fill. A day when many of my heroes have stepped up to the plate. So I’m honored and a little terrified, but I’m channeling one of them: Julia Ward Howe, an ordinary woman, a poet, an activist and a mother, devastated by the carnage of the Civil War, who stepped up to the podium in 1870 to proclaim the first mothers day, it gives me goosebumps that can only mean that I’m in the right place.
“Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts,
whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!
Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by
irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking
with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be
taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach
them of charity, mercy and patience.
We women of one country will be too tender of those of another
country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From
the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance
Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons
of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a
great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women,
to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the
means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each
bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a
general congress of women without limit of nationality may be
appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at
the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the
alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement
of international questions, the great and general interests of
With these words, a great American holiday was born. One whose origin and meaning is as obscured by the magical erasing, manipulating powers of capitalism as Christmas. Yet a stern, disapproving reproach from a mother, especially a public one, as we all know, has a special power to plant itself firmly in the conscience and ring in our ears constantly and at the most inconvenient times.
I’m not a mother, so I don’t know the seeming alchemy that makes this work. I’ve often found myself in awe of how the moms in my life in a single statement can mix one part disappointment, one part anger, one part unconditional affection and one part absolute allergic reaction to excuses to let me know when I’ve screwed up and I can do a better job. I think of my sister, who as a single mom at one point working, going to college and homeschooling her two sons at the same time, has elevated domestic cooperation to an art form, a science. Her house is like a high-functioning direct democracy. I remember one incident when my nephew was 9 or 10, and she was frantically cleaning or making dinner and asked him to please find something upstairs. When he spent 30 seconds half-looking for it then moseyed back down empty handed she said something like, “Attention children: the excuse ‘I’m not good at finding things’ will no longer be accepted in this house. Please go look again.” Now anytime I am slacking my way through half-doing a task someone has asked me to do, justifying myself with the old, “This kind of task just isn’t my forte”, I see the look on her face when she looked at him. It’s that look that says “I know very well that you are capable of more.”
It is precisely that art of gentle persuasion, that x-ray vision into our souls to draw out our deep reserves of motivation and sense of purpose that I believe have preserved the true spirit of this day. In spite of Hallmark, in spite of 1-800-FLOWERS attempts to revise and re-sell us an apolitical version of Mother’s Day that assures big money for their companies (whose CEO’s, you can probably bet, are not turning profits over to mom for her troubles.)
The true spirit of this day has been followed by other fearless leaders like Cindy Sheehan (founder of Camp Casey outside Bush’s Crawford Ranch) and other mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq, who along with the Granny Peace Brigade and Code Pink, Women for Peace, are right now engaged in a 5-day camp out at the White House demanding a withdrawal from Iraq and an end to the bloodshed on both sides. Standing with them are veterans and their families, active duty service members, students and many other heroes.
In previous years on this day you had movie stars like Susan Sarandon speaking at the Million Mom March for gun control. In the spirit of Ana Jarvis, who first conceived Mother’s Day to call attention to sanitation conditions for poor Appalachians, Coretta Scott King led a Mother's Day march in support of poor mothers and their children as part of the Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Under the banner of "Mother Power," she exhorted "black women, white women, brown women, and red women-all the women of this nation"-to take up this ..campaign of conscience." In the 1970s the National Organization of Women employed Mother's Day to stage rallies for the Equal Rights Amendment, to promote access to child-care, and to hold their own "Give-Equality-for-Mother's Day" banquets. In the 1980s the Women's Party for Survival, founded by Helen Caldicott, held Mothers for Peace Day demonstrations. Others used Mother's Day to highlight their boycott of multinational corporations selling infant formulas to third World mothers.
Like good sons and daughters, many have responded to the grieving and outrage that gave birth to the Mother’s Day proclamation and absorbed the lesson, as we would a harsh reminder from mom to clean up after ourselves, wear our seatbelts, or share our snacks. The proclamation has taken root in America’s conscience and refuses to go away.
There was a man at a benefit for Iraq Veterans against the War in a crowded Irish bar in Manhattan where I saw Cindy Sheehan speak. It was standing room only, drinks were two for one, and as you can imagine it became quickly a very rambunctious event. Though the crowd was supportive, there was a lot of shouted interjections and what you could only call heckling. Cindy handled it all with amazing grace. Anyway this man interrupted her speech to say, “you’re a true patriot Cindy!” Without missing a beat she fired back, “actually I prefer the term matriot.” A little taken aback, the man simply shouted back, “I stand corrected!”
As Cindy implied, the patriotic or matriotic work of pro-actively striving for peace and feminism have always been intertwined. For it is in the name of women that war is waged. How many grieving 9-11 mothers and wives’ tears were exploited on camera to fuel the drive to war, first with Afghanistan and then Iraq? How many times did the Bush camp champion the cause of women restricted from work and mobility by the Taliban, only to leave thousands of them homeless, in need of food and water, many with small children in tow after the bombings?
Women are more likely to be displaced as a result of war, more likely to be the sole providers of children and the elderly and more likely to die of disease caused by lack of sanitation wars create. Women and children make up 80% of war refugees worldwide.
Yet, it’s easy to get used to this kind of grandstanding in your name as a woman. Easy to get used to paternalistic, trivializing prescriptions for your needs. You get used to people constantly making assumptions about what is too heavy for you to carry, too complicated for you to operate, simple machines like door locks and bicycle gears and audio visual equipment, used to getting unsolicited advice about where and when you should or shouldn’t go alone. If you stood up for yourself constantly, you’d be living a war eternally with your surroundings. You’d be written off as pushy, un-feminine, a neuter, a non-entity. If by some miracle your feelings in a given matter are taken into consideration, let’s say you take the podium like Julia Ward Howe, and you manage to overcome all of your internalized suspicions that what they say of you is true, that you’re not strong, that you should stick to what you were designed for, wifing and birthing and rearing and attending to others. And you stand up, and you let the words come through you from all the generations past, all your mothers and aunts and sisters and grandmothers who never had the occasion or the agency or the poise to speak them, and they come down torrentially, and they move others to act. They inspire and instruct and help others to grow. Well, the sad reality is that history will come for your very words, for your statement, for your story, like a thief in the night to hijack and annihilate. The sad truth is that even the websites you can surf onto that are maintained by Harvard, Cornell and even juliawardhowe.org, barely mention her proclamation, this major moment in American History. This day that theologians have called an “opening to women in the Protestant calendar.” A day when singing "Faith of Our Mothers" instead of "Faith of Our Fathers" in Christian churches and honoring the Virgin Mary as Mother of Jesus has become the norm. A day that activists have claimed as an occasion to challenge militarism by locking themselves to fences at air force bases and nuclear facilities for more than 100 years. A day that has made millions for everyone from corporations to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.
Who will remember your story? Who will tell it?
As I see it, to be small, to be poor, to be a woman, a single mother, a prisoner, an invisible, is to be erasable, even when your contribution is monumental. To truly revere mothers in our society, we must listen to them. We must learn to hear better and ask questions to discover their true stories, their struggles, and stand beside them. Sometimes that means buying flowers, or making breakfast in bed. Sometimes it means digging into the trenches beside them to fight for child care, job training, a higher minimum wage, parental leave. Watching kids or making sacrifices. Sometimes it means doing our own dishes, as I learned from my mom who begged us not to have parties in her honor, because she’d end up cleaning them up, or examining the assumptions and privileges we walk around with in this world. For basic rights to safety, mobility, autonomy, the freedom of choice, are not doled out equally. It means looking at a world at war and seeing that the costs are not shared fairly, and who is calling the shots, who is at the table, how did they get there? What assumptions and unearned entitlements got them there? It means going to the violent neighborhoods in our own hearts to wrestle openly with these questions.
If you are looking for a place to start, or to continue, I have 3 categories of suggestions. Stand with mothers to stop the occupation of Iraq and protect the children fighting on all sides of the conflict. Help to hold our leaders accountable. Hold them to their word, for example Nancy Pulosi recently stated, “When people ask me what are the three most important issues today in congress, I always say the same thing, ‘our children, our children, our children. Their health, their education, their economic security, their families, their environment… and of course, a world at peace in which they can thrive.’” Let’s hold her to that.
Support the growing GI movement in opposition to the war. Lt. Ehren Watada and Sgt. Ricky Clousing are two officers who have refused deployment to Iraq, and need the support of Americans that oppose the war on moral or legal grounds.
Lastly, of course, call your mother. And all the mothers in your life. Ask her what a true Mother’s Day would look like to her, if she had the power and the glory. Don’t assume she wants flowers. Most of them are picked by children, paid a pittance, and who are exposed to toxic chemicals while they work. Anyway, maybe she wants a membership to War Resisters League, or a copy of the War Resisters League 2007 calendar. Maybe she wants a ride to the CodePink rally. Maybe she just wants to sit and talk, to tell you her story, to complain, the gift of space to exist as an intelligent, complex being who, at any age, is still growing, still expanding, still full of surprises.
Whomever you are, parent, teacher, mother, father, street sweeper, arise. Whether your baptism be of water or of tears, whether your war is half a world away or right on your doorstep. Whether it is militarism or poverty or indignity, the dehumanizing forces of sexism, racism homophobia or violence that has come for you or your child in the night, it is time to forsake the plow and the anvil, leave all that is left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. A day of reckoning with a deep sickness that has pervaded our culture for too long. A day to refuse to pass on our own bad habits to the younger generation and set an example for them. To create new meanings of honor, without bloodshed; love without violence, possession, dominance, unfair and paternal usurping of self-determination.
If you need help, it is there. There are organizations of like minded people. There are study groups to struggle with our own internalized superiority and inferiority complexes. There are marches and workshops and books and mentors. There are your neighbors, like me, looking around every day for those with passion to match our own for justice, equality, true freedom for all. Looking to be inspired, to find relief and solidarity. And of course, there are the stories. Let’s not let the good ones get lost.
“Not only is another world possible, but on a quiet day, you can hear her breathing.” --Arundhati Roy
Mimi is also an amazing musician, and more can be found about her music at mimilavalley.com.