I was born in Philadelphia to two young parents. They were on food stamps after my dad naively quit his job over having to wear a tie. My mother, who grew up with greater hardship, knew the foolishness of this decision but everyone told them that babies bring good luck. Sure enough, he got his next job and was able to pursue his dream of becoming a psychologist. We moved from our city apartment into a suburban townhouse and then, when I was six, we moved to a big house in the farmlands of Bucks County, about an hour north of the city. My brother and I were the only Jews in most of our elementary school classrooms. We were among very few kids with parents from the city. And our parents also held the minority political affiliation in that small rural town. What Bucks County offered was a chance for us to play outside in nature and attend a world class public school. I benefitted from an excellent education with phenomenal teachers who “won the lottery” by getting to teach in the Central Bucks School District.
While my family might have been a little bit different from most who had been there for generations, I rarely felt alienated or “otherized” by neighbors or peers. We were welcomed and included. I might have been the only Jewish person some people knew, but my friends were interested and intrigued rather than anti-Semitic. I knew who had Democratic or Republican parents, but that didn’t define us nor divide us. We were welcome in each other’s homes and free to form our own opinions on all manner of issues.
I did feel isolated in that town due to its size and was eager to escape to a college that would broaden my horizons, but I am grateful in hindsight for the opportunity to grow up there. It is common for people to move back to Central Bucks when they have children of their own and care more about opportunities for their kids than a city life for themselves. While we didn’t move back to Central Bucks exclusively for the school system, it was definitely a factor in our decision to move closer to family when my mother’s cancer was progressing. We bought a house in Doylestown with their help, rented it out, and promised to move there as soon as we could settle our affairs in Baltimore.
We’ve been in this town for over 4 years now, with frequent trips back-and-forth to Baltimore. And like many parents, I didn’t pay much attention to the school board until decisions about COVID-19 policies were being made. Since then, our small quaint, now suburban town has made national headlines for the toxicity of those board meetings. This has been escalating for some time, with a major and well-funded political effort to keep the schools open without masks or testing or stay-at-home requirements. But this post is not about public health measures. It is about how people have been treating each other at those meetings ever since the spotlight was shown on them. It is about the venomous speech toward fellow community members and the blatant bigotry on display toward Black and Brown families, religious minorities, and those with political differences.
When hate speech is spewed in these meetings, there are cheers from the crowd of attendees. Anyone trying to stop it is threatened, and the board itself does nothing. After months and months of repeated comments, there might be an official statement that is signed by only a few members and threads the needle between free speech and civility. This is the place where decisions are made about my children’s education. This is what we’ve come to, and it’s happening all over the US, if not more broadly. And our kids are watching. Our kids are seeing what is okay and not okay, what gets cheers and what gets silenced, who is celebrated and who is derided.
This is not yoga. It can be easy to get caught up in the war over the masks, or the book bans, or the funding decisions. But there is something much bigger that is being lost with these fights- our common humanity. We have lost the ability to see the light within each other, to come to a table with different perspectives and truly listen to understand, not to speak back. When we are caught in the battle, we fail to look sideways and see our children learning from the sidelines. It isn’t just happening at school boards. it is also happening at holiday gatherings with extended family, if we can even be civil enough to have those anymore.
How can we fix this? How can we bring the true meaning of yoga, of interconnectedness, back to our towns and our families? We can show up as the light in the room. We can set an intention to find the good in everyone, even if it is buried under fear or resentment. We can be kind to our neighbors and show our children that we do not withhold kindness toward those who are different from us. We can model compassion even while working for justice.
This holiday season, I wish for more bridges. I am not leaving this town because it is broken. I will pick up one brick at a time, in partnership with my willing neighbors. We cannot flee from the brokenness of the world because we will find it everywhere. It is our job to put forth steady effort. In my tradition, we call it tikkun olam- putting the broken pieces of the world back together. In yoga, we might call it tapas- that consistent effort in the direction of wholeness for ourselves and the world.
In order to do this work in our communities, we have to start with ourselves. We have to be whole to bring wholeness to the world around us. Get on your mat or your cushion or your chair or your nature walk and then bring that yoga into every interaction with the world around you. It might be small, but we can bring light to the darkness one moment at a time. Whatever holidays you might celebrate this time of year, they are all about shining a light in the darkness. This seems to be a universal cultural impulse and not for nothing. A single lamp has the greatest impact when it has fallen most dark. Let’s all turn on our inner lights and shine the heck out of this winter season.
Love and Light and Happy Holidays,
PS. For those of you in the Southern Hemisphere, we need your light too, even if the sun is shining! It takes all of us.