The first day of this month was the 54th anniversary of the first day of lunch-counter sit-ins in the segregated South. At the very tail end of January, in the course of my volunteer book-shelving at one of the Sonoma County libraries, I came across a children’s picture book called Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down, by Andrea Davis Pinkney. I had already decided to check it out when I noticed the February 1st synchronicity. So when I took the book home I put it aside to read on the anniversary day.
“Is it going to be scary?” Vinca asked me, when I said I would read it before bed that Saturday night.
“No, it’s not scary,” I said, though she is so sensitive that I am sometimes surprised by what scares her.
“Is it about war?” she asked.
“No, it’s not about war,” I answered, uncertainly.
For it was, really, another kind of war, wasn’t it? Yes. And no.
Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond sat politely at the lunch counter, Davis Pinkney tells us, and ordered “A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side….
…They were college students with a plan. They sat straight and proud. And waited. And wanted.”
While I was reading the story, Vinca’s questions came fast and furious (with 4-year-old Milo in the background saying “I want a doughnut and cream!”): What does she mean by “A sign of the times – whites only”? What’s segregation? But why is the waitress black? What does Negro mean? What’s hatred? Why was Martin Luther King a doctor? Are you crying, Mom?
And the feelings were coming fast and furious inside me. And especially the thoughts: What would I do? Could I really sit like that? How can I explain this to my children?
“Keep your spine straight day and night, and do not let your courage flag,” wrote one of the Zen ancestors about sitting with the famous koan “No” (also know as “Mu”). Does a dog have Buddha nature? a student in the koan asks. No. Says the teacher. No. And then in some versions: Yes.
Notice what you want, without any expectation of fulfillment, my teacher said to me while I worked with this koan. I realized very quickly that this could be unbelievably difficult, but also magical; that when you sit still long enough to see what you really want, without saying yes or no, it’s like opening a door and letting the light shine purely through.
The students in Greensboro “sat, in silence. And waited. And wanted.” And when the fires of hatred came to town, “The students wanted to lash out, but couldn’t. They wanted to strike back, but didn’t. Sitting still was so hard.”
Mom, milkshakes in their faces? Ketchup in their eyes?
A few nights ago Milo handed me his bedtime book choice, and it was Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden. It’s a picture book about a boy who wanted something different (but just as simple as a doughnut and coffee and cream); he wanted to learn about airplanes. That’s something Milo can relate to.
Just like the Greensboro Four, Ron “had a plan.” It was 1959, four years after Montgomery, two years after Little Rock, one year before Greensboro. The boy was Ron McNair, a real African-American boy who really wanted to learn to fly. He walked to his South Carolina public library and sat on the counter until the librarian, and the police, let him check out his books with a library card.
It’s such a simple story. But where did nine-year-old Ron McNair get that kind of courage? I can’t know, but I have a feeling it was by watching others sit down, stand up, live the lives they were born to live, claim their full humanity. (Eventually McNair not only learned to fly, but became only the second African-American to fly in space, and has a crater named after him on the moon. He died in the 1986 Challenger explosion.)
Unlike Rosa Parks, Thelma Mothershed, Ron McNair, or Joseph McNeil, I sit and walk in privilege, with mostly just my own deep fires of desire and confusion to walk through. But sitting still with the questions of suffering, with the everyday anguish and mystery of life, is really so hard, no matter who you are.
Also unlike Parks, Mothershed, McNair, or McNeil, I don’t really have a plan. I especially don’t have a plan for how my Zen meditation practice will play out in my life or the lives of my children. “It’s none of your business, really,” one of my teachers seems to say an awful lot. I just know things are shifting for me; I feel kinder and closer to the ground.
And I also know this: I want my children to know that it is always possible for people to sit down, stand up, live the lives they were born to live, and claim their full humanity. I want this fact to become part of the fabric of their lives. I want sitting still in the midst of real life, sitting straight and proud to face the truth of suffering, and daring to dream big dreams, all to be part of their “normal.”
Years after “Ron’s big mission” in 1959, his brother told NPR: “Ron was one who didn’t accept societal norms as being his norm, you know? That was for other people. And [eventually] he got to be aboard his own Starship Enterprise.”
No matter what your plan, no matter what your dream, no matter what your practice, put your whole, true self in it. “Now, I want to ask you,” said another Zen ancestor, “How will you carry it out? Employ every ounce of your energy to work on this [‘No’]. If you hold on without interruption, behold: a single spark, and the holy candle is lit!’”
Sitting with No long enough may eventually get us to a holy Yes. Today I sit in deep gratitude for all those, of all ages and all colors, who have lit the holy candle of freedom and mystery, and shown us this way.