What Comes After the Paint and Swastikas

(N.B. I originally wrote this for my congregation, but I figured some of the rest if you might benefit from the message, too.)

You almost certainly heard about the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids shortly before the election,“TRUMP” and “MAGA” spray-painted over the names of the honored dead.

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Maybe these pictures worried you.  Maybe they frightened you.  Maybe they embarrassed you—because, let’s be honest: it’s shameful to be bullied, to get the “Kick Me!” sign pasted to your back again and again, century after century.  

Or maybe you didn’t feel much of anything. Maybe you’ve grown numb; one more slap in the face at the tail end of four years of unprovoked suckerpunches, it can all sort of blur together. I get that.

I don’t exactly have words for how it made me feel.

I saw these pictures of the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, and I immediately thought back to the swastikas spray painted on Temple Jacob last winter, way up in the Upper Peninsula town of Hancock.  And I thought about the dozens of swastikas and slurs defacing our local skatepark back in 2017.   

(I go to that skatepark a lot.  It was hard not to take it personally.)

And I thought about the increase in anti-Jewish hate-crimes here in America over the past four years.  I thought about the increasingly violent nature of those crimes.

I thought about the bomb threats. And the synagogue shootings.  And the stabbings.  And the rallies.  And the men with guns in the capitol.  

And so on.

And I felt hopeless. And I was afraid.

So I emailed the rabbi of Congregation Ahavas Israel (who maintain the cemetery in Grand Rapids that was desecrated on election’s eve). I wrote to voice our support and solidarity, and ask what they might need to restore the cemetery.  

Rabbi David J.B. Krishef replied almost immediately:

“Hi Dave — the cemetery was cleaned by a small group of people who live around the corner and took it upon themselves to clean the stones without even letting us know what they were doing, and a few other people, including one from Ann Arbor, who drove in and decided to wash the paint off. We are grateful for all of the love and support and positive notes we’ve received.” 

It dawned on me that this second half of the story is rarely reported, but often the case:

A lone jackass skulks around smearing his petty foulness in the dark; the whole community—not just Jews, but people from all over the community unwilling to let ugliness linger—return in the light to set things right.

That’s what happened in the cemetery in Grand Rapids.  And when I went back and checked, I discovered it’s what happened at Temple Jacob in Hancock.  

And that’s what happened here in Ann Arbor, too; I know, because I saw it:  I went to the skatepark the day after it was tagged. The city had already power-washed away the paint. And unknown members of the community at large had come through with colored chalk and, evey place where there’d been a symbol of hate, replaced it with a message of welcoming and love:

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What I saw in Ann Arbor was not the exception; it was the rule, even now, in this time of widely reported “unprecedented division and unrest.” And maybe it feels like we’re mired in a time of unprecedented division and unrest because we only report the first half of the story—the smeared paint, the thrown punch, the shots fired—and then move on to the next catastrophe, without checking back to see what comes after the paint and the screaming: a nation of folks ready to take it upon themselves to fix whatever any single angry loner chooses to break.

SKATEBOARDING LESSON 0: The First Noble Truth

Sideshow Bob: [chuckling] Mr. Simpson, you are forgetting the first two noble truths of the Buddha.

Homer Simpson: I am not!

For those who slept through Buddhism 101—or failed to see The Simpsons Episode 8F20 (season three, episode 21, first aired April 9, 1992)—the First Noble Truth of the Buddha is this:

There is suffering. 

Which isn’t such a revelation at first glance, but like a lot of things with the Buddha, the big reveal isn’t in what he’s said, but what he’s omitted:

The First Noble Truth is not: There is suffering because you’ve done bad things.

     nor is it: There is suffering because you didn’t try hard enough.

     nor is it: There is suffering because you are a screw-up.

     nor is it: There is suffering because man is born of Original Sin.

     nor is it: There is suffering because God is dead!

     nor is it: There is suffering because God is a jerk!

     nor is it: There is suffering because there was never any God!

There is no “because” at all.  It’s a simple statement of fact that should be obvious, but which we all deny on a daily basis: There is suffering.  There just is.  Often with no one to blame.  Often for no reason at all.  And that’s fine; stop beating yourself up over it (which, handily, brings us to the Second Noble Truth—Suffering is born of craving and desire and clinging to How Things Should Be—which is important, but not really germane to skateboarding).

I bring this up because I need to share something with you:

If you are an adult person getting on a skateboard,

YOU ARE GOING TO GET HURT.

Full stop, no ifs, no becauses, no unless, no provisos.

If you are really careful… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.

If you always wear your pads… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.

If you are lucky or unlucky, careless or stupid, cautious or clever…YOU WILL GET HURT.

It might be minor or major, might land you in the ER or sit you on your sofa for an afternoon with ice on your knee, but one way or the other YOU ARE GONNA GET HURT.

… and that’s fine.  If is fine and just and right that you will be injured, because, as the Buddha and Sideshow Bob remind us, There is Suffering.

Every time I start talking to someone my age about the fact that I returned to skateboarding at 36, they voice admiration, and then something like envy, and always lurking around is the sentence “I’d break my neck if I tried that!”

And the thing is, while you will certainly get hurt, you probably won’t break your neck.  There is, as it turns out, quite a distance between hurt and crippled, and even a further reach to dead.  I’ve seen folks take tremendous falls and pop right back up, I’ve seen—and taken—minor falls that have turned out to be sprained ankles and broken wrists and concussions.  I’ve seen—and worn—bruises every color of any Michigan sunset in any season.  I’ve seen plenty of broken bones, but not a single death or black out.

So let me share with you something my doctor told me when I told her I’d taken up with skateboarding—on the visit I scheduled as a follow-up after a trip to the ER:

“Good.  Keep it up.”

Her rationale: If you are an adult American, than it is almost certain that you aren’t getting nearly enough exercise.  And—Noble Truth alert!—you aren’t likely to start getting more exercise as you continue aging.  So, in the absence of everything else, the choice here isn’t between taking a risk by jumping on a skateboard and playing it safe by not doing so:  Not getting enough exercise absolutely guarantees a shorter life with degraded quality.  Absolutely, with no exceptions.  Full stop.

Getting on the skateboard?  You’ll get hurt, but you won’t die.  And, hell, I regularly hang with a 70-year-old dude at my local skatepark.  Does he tear it up?  Nope; he cruises around, carving on the transitions, working on dropping on.  But he’s having hella fun, and I’ve seen him take big falls and pop right back up.

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