Wednesday, July 8, 2020

I am sorry.

Spiritual Warprayer by Saba (2019)

This week’s piece is an apology. Like everything else I have written over the past 4 months, it is from the heart. That is the only place from which I know to write.

As we hear society suddenly “awakened” to the racism of mascots, statues, and even the food pantry’s pancake syrup and processed food rice, I hear a sentiment that goes something like this. “We have now come to realize that this image, this stereotype, this caricature of a group of people is racist.”

I don’t buy it, and it isn’t about pointing the finger at anyone.

I am certain that like me, all of white America has known and always understood that these images were about dehumanizing our communities of color. We just chose to do nothing.

Now, where it is socially safe and financially beneficial to act are we making change happen. 

But let’s be real. 
Let’s be honest. 
Let’s be humble and sincere. 
We knew all along that these images were part of a sick plot to dehumanize our beautiful brothers and sisters of color.

Change is good to see, but white folks like myself and institutions that are changing would do well to add an apology.

For healing on all levels, “I am sorry” matters.


Don Juan de Onate.

I remember when I moved to New Mexico, hearing the history of Onate from Acoma Pueblo and then trying to figure out why he and so many symbols of genocide are revered hundreds of years later in a land that claims to respect and value diversity. I saw that there was an Onate Hall on our UNM campus and had a hard time understanding how orchestrating a campaign of murder and torture on Acoma Pueblo earns you the right to have a building named after you. Or why one of the city’s nicest parks, tucked in along the Bosque was named Kit Carson after another murderer whose “scorched earth” campaign says all you need to know about his legacy.

As a white person, I didn’t appreciate the violence that statues and other signs of reverence perpetuate on people and communities of color. I chose to do nothing.

Imagine an Indigenous youngster with family outside of the ABQ Museum asking mom and dad why this person who tortured their ancestors is given a heroic statue. Or being a first generation college student of color at UNM and attending your ethnic studies class in Onate Hall.

I am sorry.

I also failed to realize what it says about our society that continues to accept this reality.
Here is exactly what it says:
1)      We value conquistadors and the legacy of violent, brutal conquest more than we value the original inhabitants of this land.
2)      It says loud and clear that we continue to tell a story of whose land this is and how it was obtained in a way that psychiatrists would label delusional (e.g. not based in reality).
3)      It says that white supremacy, a belief that white people are superior to those of all other races and should therefore dominate society, is alive and well, not limited to extremists and hate groups.
4)      It says that we think it is okay to keep people of color in a perpetual state of fear as a means of exerting power and control over them.
5)      It reminds me that white privilege blinds me from a large part of reality in this country (e.g. everyone’s reality who is not white) and that I need to listen deeply to what communities of color are saying if I want to have any bit of those blinders removed.

I am proud of my city, Albuquerque, that is on its way to removing all remnants of this delusional way of being from our midst. I don’t just want to see the statues and names removed – I want to apologize deeply for my inaction that kept these changes from happening sooner. I chose to do nothing, despite the moral compass that told me that Onate and Carson types have no place in the 21st century.

I am complicit in this violence of inaction.

I am ready to change our landscape, starting with my own mind and heart that tells me whether or not to stand up and act when I see others dehumanized.

I am sorry.

Randy Sabaque (Jemez Pueblo/Dine'), known in the art/hip hop world as "Saba", has always inspired me to see deeper through his art. I am honored to include these two pieces of his as part of this week's blog. The first piece "Spiritual Warprayer" in Saba's words, "shows little villages at the bottom fighting massive skyscraping structures sucking from the earth, from those villages. The rain and ancestors are working to cleanse the destruction."

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Celebrating Inter-Dependence This July 4th!

Having turned the corner into the second half of 2020, July 4th upon us, we have a unique moment in which to consider celebrating “independence” or “inter-dependence”. 

Inter-dependence has nothing to do with patriotism. It is about who we are as humans and our profound connection to each other, to all living things, to the air and land and water.

The pandemic has gently guided us to seeing how interconnected we are, while the mass demonstrations are a plea for recognizing and valuing each beautiful human being, a foundation to showing our inter-dependence upon one another.

I think of a hike I took not long ago with my brother Jerome in northern California. Sugarloaf State Park, to be exact. The area had been hit with devastating wildfires in 2018 and the forest showed its scars – burnt trees lined much of the hike. But as I scanned my vision upward, I saw something unexpected. I blinked to make sure I was not imagining it. 

Out of a blackened tree trunk vibrant green sprigs of leaves grew at the top.

And this was not limited to one “miracle tree”. This was strongly a theme, a pattern to the forest one year after the fires. Add in the moss and other growths beginning to inhabit the burnt trunk and it became suddenly clear this scene was much more complex than a deadened forest. New life, resilience now the title of the portrait.

Yes, even life and death show inter-dependence on one another, speaks the forest. The courageous audacity of life to think that it can spring up from a tree burned to a crisp is amazing, beautiful, inspiring. Within our lives, we can call to mind places of hurt, sorrow, trauma that then grew from that very branch a new leaf.

Life and death dance around each other in the wake of forest fires
Sugarloaf State Park, California

My friends, inter-dependence, once realized, changes how we treat those around us and the planet we inhabit. It changes how we see suffering in our fellow humans and in our natural world. May this year’s fireworks spark a celebration of inter-dependence in all of us.

Two additional items:
)    * What is 4th of July without some amazing food? Chef Joe Romero, my dear friend and creative collaborator, thought about a recipe that spoke about inter-dependence to him, and came up with Red Chile Viniagrette (recipe below). In his words:
Nature is abundant, it is diverse, and it has more varieties than we can guess. We need to grow and eat a diverse diet full of different colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. We also need to cultivate meaningful relationships with the diverse people that grow our food and the people that transform that food into love and culture, thus ensuring healthy bodies, healthy soil and a healthy mind. 

When I need my large dose of local organic produce I turn to a big salad. Nothing is so effortlessly beautiful and delicious as a bowl of mixed greens and chopped colorful fresh veggies. Next, the dressing to bring it all together; Red Chile Vinaigrette. I have not found a salad that this spicy sweet vinaigrette does not compliment well. Make sure to share with friends and family and total strangers.

* Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “inter-being”. I learned a good amount about this amazing teacher who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King in writing tonight’s piece. I found his 14 guidelines for Inter-Being to be quite grounding in thinking about how inter-dependence relates to my own actions regarding racial and planet justice. Given that no one was up at the 1am hour to grant me permission to re-publish those 14 guidelines, I have a link here to a 1995 interview of him that includes the guidelines.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Love for Community - the Emelia Pino story

She saw a community hurting, struggling.

She is from Zia Pueblo, sitting northwest of the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area. Zia was one of the first Indigenous communities to be hard-hit by COVID cases and deaths in a state where an alarming majority of COVID cases are among Native Americans.

She, is Emelia Pino, daughter of Charlotte and Fernando Pino. 

Emelia is one of 6 children, with four older sisters and a younger brother. She is a senior at Bernalillo High School who plans to become a pediatrician, and someone I got to meet over this last year as she was a part of Native Health Initiative’s Healers of Tomorrow (HOT) program.

Make no mistake: Emelia is a healer of today.

She saw a shortage of PPE in her community and set out to fix it.
“Our community is hurting. We have lost a few of our elders. Being that we are such a close-knit community, it really hurt me to see my community struggling. I don’t see youth taking a lead in my community but I felt it was time to stand up and make a difference.”

1,400 masks and a variety of sanitation supplies resulted from her standing up.

But she was not done. She saw youth hurting in a different way, isolated under Zia’s strict orders that those under 18 are not allowed to leave the Pueblo. The mandate is intended to keep these youth and the Zia Pueblo community safe. But, Emelia saw the way it has affected her peers, especially now that the school year is over.

So, Emelia Pino, healer of today, went to work. She wanted all 270 youth to receive an educational kit with age-appropriate books, games, and supplies. She wrote a grant, something that most folks twice her age shudder to think about doing.

As I write this, she is collecting donations of money and supplies and working to bring joy with these care packages over the next weeks. Not stressing about how it is all going to happen, or about the summer break ticking away. In fact, she is already thinking about how to inspire other youth to step up and lead similar efforts in their Tribes and communities.

Love for community – that is something we maybe have overlooked during the pandemic. It is something that Emelia reminds us a true way to actualize a gratitude perspective on coronavirus. Step up, stand up, and make things happen.

Emelia, I am now writing to you personally. Thank you. Thank you for showing us that all of us can be great, as all of us can serve. Thank you for reminding us of the creativity and leadership that youth have for changing our world, not tomorrow, but today, right now. Thank you for loving your community, Zia Pueblo, in a way that inspires me and all of us to greater service and action. (Emelia, if you blush reading this, that’s cool. No one is watching. They promised not to look).  

If you would like to help in our donation drive, we are accepting educational supplies this Thursday 7/2, 3-5 pm at the NHI Office, located at the UNM Law School. You can also make a tax-deductible donation toward Emelia's drive through NHI's website.

Two more goodies:
1) Emelia in her own words - click here.
2) A great article was published by the Albuquerque Journal 6/20/20 profiling Emelia's leadership and service during the pandemic - click here.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

"There is still normal" vs. "Nothing is normal"

Signs. Bagpipes. Cursing.

I approach the hospital, a real live doctor in a virtual world here to provide real live healing.
Like all of us, I vacillate between “There is still normal” and “Nothing is normal” each pandemic day. Arriving at the hospital, stethoscope gently embracing my neck, I try to convince myself of the former.
These three reminders shove me toward the latter.
Signs. Bagpipes. Cursing.
The line of signs make me gasp, all along entrance into the hospital. Some printed and professional. But the ones that induce tear ducts into action are the handmade ones. 
“For the time you spend helping me when I am sick, Thank You.”
“Whether it is a headache, fever or the flu, no illness stands a chance against a doctor like you!”
“Thank you for saving lives during these hard times. # You are awesome.”
I walk over to have a moment with the row of signs. Gratitude for this display of kindness we are seeing in the last months. Not just for health care workers. But gratitude for all who keep on putting themselves at risk to keep food on our table, all who keep our cities and towns safe and functional. Gratitude toward the parents-turned-school teachers and for the teachers and barbers and shopkeepers and neighbors, everyone who brings joy and meaning to our lives.
The signs - a signal of the wave of kindness this collective moment has inspired.
As I stand with the signs, I am not sure I am hearing right. Being a family physician, I immediately think of the most likely diagnosis: auditory hallucination. But the music continues. Approaching the hospital entrance, the bagpipe player comes into view.
Living in New Mexico, these Scottish instruments do not often grace our presence. Definitely not in hospital entranceways. I listen to the slow, mournful wailing.
The bagpipes speak very clearly to me as I watch a group of health care workers take in the melody. It is a moment to heal together, people needing strength to go back inside and care for those weakened by disease. Yes, we did have a few hospitalized with COVID, but the bigger population needing us are the non-COVID patients who lay socially isolated in scary hospital rooms, stripped of family members at bedside due to the pandemic.
The bagpipes a signal of the collective suffering to be acknowledged and the ways we find meaning in coming together to mourn, grieve, cry, and wail.
But I wasn’t in the building yet. A loud argument reaches my ears. Two cars, drivers shouting at top of lungs to each other. Seemingly, one had stripped the varnish off the other’s humanity by some move on the highway. (We call this “New Mexico Drivers Syndrome”). Do they not realize all of us can hear them? Do they not see the signs or hear the bagpipes in front of them?
I guess in a way this is a nice complement to the other two. A showing of raw emotion, escalated by the pandemic pressure cooker in which we all find ourselves huddled. 
Let it out. Curse it out. “This cursing could even be healthy healing in a virtual world without outlets for stress relief,” the Socrates in me ponders.
Now, I am really stuck. 
I have yet to even step foot in the building to hear what has changed since a week earlier. I have not even gotten to the part where I learn how my social etiquette for today includes things I never thought to do (or not do) just days prior.
I can’t even get there because I am stuck on signs of kindness, pipes of mourning, and stress-induced cursing. All three the raw emotions of the moment. Nothing needing to be processed or diagnosed. But simply gulped down along with the fresh New Mexico air of the day as something true to the moment.
Gathering myself, I step toward the front door, one thing cleared up for the moment – debate between “There is still normal” and “Nothing is normal” is quite clear.

Note: This piece was published first in McSweeney's, on May 26th. But in keeping with the tradition of this blog, I promise I wrote the piece last night and then travelled back in time to have it published in May, before returning to the present to share it here with you...Yes, an exhausting night it was :)


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Strawberry wisdom - growing strong roots today for future fruit

“I just want a few berries.”

This was my comment that started the earthy discussion. We were visiting with friends who have a thriving garden producing more than they can consume.

As we talked about the types of lettuce and greens in the neatly organized rows, I heard mention of strawberries.

No offense to the other things growing, but the mention of berries had me dialed in. Where? How many? Ready to pick?

We walked over to the berry bushes, new plantings this year and I got news that made my stomach groan. Literally.

“The berries won’t be here until next year. See, if you want a strawberry bush to put its energy into growing deep, strong roots you actually clip the flowers as they arise in the first year. You don’t want it putting energy toward producing flowers and berries. You want it to put its energy toward growing strong roots for lots of berries in the years to come.”

Many reading this will question why they are even reading this series, an author who doesn’t have a grasp of the simplest of growing concepts. An author whose quest for berries clouds his view of the bigger picture. Understood. Exit doors at the rear.

But, for those still reading, I ask us what these strawberry plants have to teach us in the bigger picture as we grapple with our twin pandemics of COVID and white supremacy.

Yes, we all want berries. Right now.

We want to find a fix to the pesky coronavirus reality that doesn’t quite have any quick, easy, right-answer angles. Open up society!!!! 😁😁😁 Open up society???? πŸ˜•πŸ˜•πŸ˜•Open up society!!!!???? 😟😟😟 Not sure what punctuation or emoji to give it, and I sense that most of us feel this way. And the deeper questioning from the pandemic - how do we want to be as communities and as a society once it has passed? 

We want to immediately produce berries to begin fixing a white supremacy problem that has grown deep roots over 500 plus years.

Maybe it is a moment not for berries, but for preparing for berries that will come in the future. That’s right taste buds, just hold tight.

And the strawberry plants remind us that sometimes life gives us a tough either/or decision. A decision my friend and I discussed right there in the garden, out of earshot from the strawberry bushes themselves. “Don’t you think we could just trick them into a few flowers, a few berries this year??” I whispered.

By focusing on the immediate moment (“Berries! Now!”), succumbing to our desire to taste that unique seed-laiden sweetness that leaks its scarlet juice as we munch, we sabotage the bigger picture for growth, for fruit in the future. We sabotage our own intentions and efforts toward change.

In writing today, I thought of two pieces of wisdom from some of the wonderful "gardners" in my life..

One mentor reminded, “The breath in stillness also invigorates.”

A mentee said it this way: “The pandemic and everything going on in our society is definitely exhausting but I find it a little easier when I focus on what I can do now as my own person and my own biases. Working on that is what will start change.”

These two pandemics of our current moment implore us to put energy into growing roots for healing and reconciliation with our planet, with ourselves, and with each other.

While a few berries might feed us in the present, the best gardening we can do now is to work for berries that will nourish in the years and generations to come.
A young strawberry plant, just added to our family. Initially, we wanted berries this year. Now, our attention and energy is to guide it to dig strong, deep roots. A few berries bear witness to our prior mindset :)

Friday, June 5, 2020

White Supremacy: Time to cure the disease

White supremacy.

I look at those two words and breathe deep.

Can I find healing in those words and what they represent?

Here goes.

Two initial thoughts to help frame this conversation.

As a physician, I know the importance of distinguishing diseases from symptoms. For example, pneumonia is the disease that causes symptoms of cough, fever, and shortness of breath. We know in medicine that treating the downstream symptoms without addressing the disease causing those symptoms is not effective. We don’t treat the cough, we treat the pneumonia causing the cough. 

White supremacy is the disease, racism is the symptom of the disease.

Second, a concept from systems theory: Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. This reminds us that moments like this week are not about who is “racist” and who is not. It isn’t about the police officers that brutally murdered George Floyd (RIP) or the deranged duo that attacked and killed Ahmaud Arbery (RIP). It is about the system that is perfectly designed for events like these to happen over and over in a systemic way.

Back to white supremacy.

White supremacy is the disease we still do not talk about. Especially as white people.

Racism is a symptom of this disease. It pervades our societies and globe where white supremacy thrives.

Allow me to define white supremacy. It is not goons in white hooded robes burning crosses and terrorizing communities of color as most of us have been led to believe, a convenient way of letting the rest of us white folks off the hook. White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races and should therefore dominate society. It is behind such concepts as manifest destiny and the genocide inflicted on brown and black populations of the globe as white Europeans decided in some pseudo-religious hallucination that the world was theirs for the taking. 

They didn’t need to state as they pillaged and raped people and their lands that this quest was “in the name of white supremacy.” Look at the results, so clearly divided along the lines of skin color and it becomes crystal clear that the system here is white supremacy, perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

White supremacy, through its symptom of racism, leads blacks being killed by police at a rate three times that of whites. It is why the shootings of black men and cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, in a repeated and predictable way, seem less important to investigate.

In this pandemic, white supremacy is behind communities of color bearing the biggest burden of death during COVID. American Indians make up 11% of New Mexico but account for an astounding 57% of our COVID cases. When we look at factors leading to this high rate, white people seem suddenly appalled to learn about sub-standard housing and rampant poverty and unemployment in our Indigenous Nations. They feign shock and dismay at hearing that 30% of houses on the Navajo Nation lack running water.

White supremacy places these communities, these brown lives as less important. As a white person, I am responsible for these conditions that lead to a very predictable outcome when a pandemic or other natural disaster hits.

Look at our prisons, look at our communities with the worst schools and least job prospects, look at our communities who live sickest and die youngest, look at places where the toxic waste dumps are put. We all know too well the color of those populations and it ain’t white.

As a white person, I must own my complicity in this being our current reality.

My healing begins here, in owning white supremacy as something that has gotten me into doors and places I didn’t deserve and as something I inflict through my whiteness and through my actions on people of color around me. As a person whose whiteness has given me un-earned privilege each day of my life, this moment gives me and people like me a chance to truly work for a cure to white supremacy. Forget support groups and self-help books about how to be less racist – I want to be a part in curing the white supremacy disease that causes racism.

I challenge my white colleagues to join me in having tough conversations with ourselves and our inner circle of family and friends. RobinDiAngelo, a scholar who coined a term white fragility proposes that whites are “socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement that we are either not consciously aware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.” Let’s break out of that paralyzing place and start thinking and talking about white supremacy.

But that improved insight will change exactly nothing. Turning that into actions that over-turn white supremacy in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our systems. This needs to be our commitment. No more asking people of color to cure the disease that whites created and need to fix.

White supremacy.

I am still trying to get comfortable with saying it and acknowledging my part in its devilish, racist plot.

But if we, white people, begin there, it is a great start.

If we start to understand, we can begin to act.

And in understanding and acting, that is where, my brothers and sisters, healing begins.

Note: I want to credit and thank one of my mentors in all things social justice, Tonya Covington, who gave me needed insight on white supremacy that led to this piece. Thank you Tonya!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Flow with it

About this picture: Taken in Arches National Park (Utah), it reminds us in a very real way of the healing power of movement. There is a saying “dogs and kids are happiest when running”; here you will see our 3 year-old son Bah'hozhooni running after our dog. My corollary to this saying is that our goal as adults is to keep the child within alive. Movement = Medicine.

Slow. Sluggish. Feet dragging. Legs heavy.

The run was not the effortless morning wake-up I had envisioned when I sat on front steps tying the shoes. The gazelle I had envisioned, gently bouncing over the trails, had turned into more of a hippo waddling along.

Then, around 15 minutes into the run, I remembered a friend’s wisdom. “Don’t fight the current. Find it and flow with it.”

So, flow with it became my mantra.

As a competitive runner, flowing at an admittedly pedestrian speed is sort of new.

But then again, I am a competitive runner 3 months into a pandemic, exhausted from work as a family physician to support others in movement and health. I am a runner whose competition has become measured by resilience more than by mile pace or race times/awards.

It took some effort, but over the next miles of the run I repeated flow with it and let the run take over. Suddenly, the trees seemed more present. The flowering plants of our New Mexico landscape became more fragrant. The sand beneath my feet that had earlier seemed a culprit in my slow pace now welcomed my every step with a grainy cushioned embrace.

Before I realized it, I was in that wonderful space that running offers us, escape from pandemic and all of life’s stressors. I hardly noticed that my pace had quickened.

Flow with it.

That’s my prescription for us all. Let your movement be medicine on all levels – mind, body and spirit. Let your runs/walks/hikes/dance/gardening/etc. be a way to connect with yourself and nature in a way that we know is deep in our DNA as humans: running. As we see a world suffering, dedicate your movement to the healing of those infected and all of us affected. Flow with it.

And in the fine print of the prescription, I might also add that flow with it means to take care of being gentle with ourselves in this moment. Your movement is a chance to make space for yourself, but make sure that space is healing, loving, uplifting. Flow with it and appreciate your body for what it is doing, not what it isn't doing. 
On some pandemic days, gentleness with ourselves is going to mean throwing out the pace or mileage goal for the day; instead, focusing on being present, giving thanks for the moment and gratitude for your body that allows you the gift of that day’s movement. 
As we say in our Running Medicine program, “Breathe deep, forget all worries, and get your medicine.” 
May your movement be wonderful and healing today. May you have the strength and presence to flow with it