“Momma! Momma, I’m through!”
Over a month after his death, even as I continue to go about the everyday business of life — reading, working, cleaning, exercising, hanging out with the family, cooking, emailing, and walking the dog — I find myself coming back to George Floyd’s cry for his mother again and again.
“All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his momma.” That poster, that choice of the word ‘summoned,’ captures it, at the gut level, in a way that no other word could have. Summoned. It has the depth and gravity of a Constitutional amendment, but also a universal transcendence that connects us immediately to every mother alive today and every mother who has ever spent even a fleeting moment on earth. This is a summons not from a judiciary (“You have been summoned to appear in traffic court”) or from a disapproving elder (“Get in here right now, young lady!”); it is not, as is usually the case, from a person or institution with more power to a person or institution with less. It is not from our constructed world at all, really, but from a place beyond the human-made system where morality and love and unbreakable bonds and everything foundational to our existence actually resides.
When I think about George Floyd, I think of that poster — ‘All mothers were summoned’ — and I feel it every time, in a way that cuts through the tangle of history, policy, learning, and unlearning with which so many of us are grappling. It doesn’t exempt me from that work, but rather refocuses me on its fundamental pulse. That summons makes no claim to abstract principles of justice and equality, but tethers all such principles to their source in our relationships with one another, and those relationships start, by definition, with the mother. I am summoned.
It came from George Floyd’s dying cry, but I also hear it as a deep, resonant, sustained tone, like the ram’s horn blown on the Jewish New Year to remind us to “correct our ways, follow God’s commandments, and act properly with others”: a primal sound that, in an almost Biblical way, defies physics and reaches, simultaneously, all corners of the globe. I picture, cinematically, older women laying their crossed knitting needles in their laps and looking up; young moms, chopping vegetables, placing their knives flat on the cutting board and cocking their heads to one side; and nursing mothers, gently cupping the backs of their babies’ heads, lifting their gaze momentarily away from those miraculous eyes and out through the window into the distance, knowing that this is somehow meant for them, too. Then, recognizing that the automatic images of motherhood that come to my own mind are both beautiful and profoundly, embarrassingly derivative of Normal Rockwell and all such cultural norms I’ve absorbed since birth, I intentionally scan my memory for supplemental files: mothers in headscarves, sweeping the perennial dust from the front stoops of my wealthy neighbors in Egypt, mothers in business suits commuting home from downtown offices, mothers in Africa, Japan and Mongolia like those depicted in that gorgeous movie Babies, mothers I met while knocking doors for my state rep campaign who mourned their opiate-addicted sons and daughters, and mothers, of course, who have been telling us and telling us and telling us that their Black children matter, that they are not safe, never safe, gone.
We have, it must be said, been summoned many times before; for many who have devoted their lives to this work, this call was no different than the countless others that came before: daily incidents of police brutality and gun violence, Newtown, immigrant kids in cages, Parkland, Flint, Pulse, and the hundreds of thousands of hungry children needing free breakfasts and lunch while many of our own kids debate between bagels, eggs, and freshly-made smoothies and kvetch about the chalky taste of vitamins. But when George Floyd called out for his mother, suddenly those other summonses — which had been very loud indeed but apparently not loud enough for a number of us — clicked into focus. Oh! That wasn’t just an alert on our phone to swipe away and attend to later, when we have time and energy. It wasn’t even just a call to DO something, to show up somewhere, though it was most definitely that: it was, above all, a call for a new way to be.
When you strip it all away, our incomprehensibly complex system is, at least in theory, designed as a mechanism by which we might best live and work together. That it has so egregiously failed to do so on behalf of a majority of our population is not, I still believe, evidence that it’s an impossible task, but rather evidence that so many of us have been elsewhere, distracted, doing other things, living our lives, and — like ad revenue pouring in from a website we’re hosting, or profits made on investments that were made on our behalf long before we were born — collecting dividends while we slept. And while so many of us slept the decades-long sleep of the privileged, self-contained world, of the work-family-kids-self circuit that defines our inner “pie chart,” many others were either wide awake and seeking power, wealth, and control with single-minded focus, or, by virtue of their skin color, shut out of the equation entirely. And, in our distracted fog and out of a sense of learned helplessness and an exhausted need for convenience, we yielded our agency to the rich and powerful on the backs of the powerless, almost without even noticing.
When George Floyd called out for his mother, we were startled out of that distracted fog. We heard, sat up, stood up, and listened.
The question I am asked so often, the question I ask myself daily and hourly as the news swirls around me and I try desperately to keep up, show up, process, learn, and attempt to “make sense of,” both for myself and for my kids, is: “Ok, we were summoned. Now what, specifically?”
There are as many answers to that question as there are bills to pass, seats to win, jobs to create, schools to reimagine, mouths to feed, beds to open, guns to get off the streets, dollars of police and military funding to redirect, international relationships to repair, atoms of carbon in the atmosphere to reduce, hurricane-devastated cities and towns to rebuild. As summoned mothers who not only understand but feel the urgency of each of these global crises, parsing the “what” from the “how” feels like separating water from wetness. It’s a paralyzing, almost one-hand-clapping kind of question, especially confounding for those of us who are wired to approach all matters great and small like problems on a math test.
It is becoming clear to me as I circle like a hawk around every issue, dip back into my ordinary life and prepare a snack for the kids, then swoop back into the heavy winds of whatever galling, scary development dominates the day’s headlines, that a first and crucial step in heeding that summons is to truly hear it, and then notice and set aside my programmed, knee-jerk translation of that summons-cry-ram’s horn into a concrete “problem”: these are not, in fact, problems on a test with “an answer,” and we will not get good grades for performing or “‘A’-for-effort” ribbons for trying. I will not finish and then skip outside for recess (or, for that matter, our adult version of recess, an evening beer on the deck). The whole way of life that I’ve internalized since birth, of performing physical and intellectual tricks for external approval and thus earning (at least a temporary, fleeting) sense of internal approval with its accompanying rewards is precisely the competitive, zero-sum, win-lose paradigm that has built this burning, broken world.
These crises are interlocking ecosystems of which we are each, tangibly and measurably, a contributing member. When “all mothers were summoned,” it was not just to a place or to a project but to an honest accounting within ourselves of how we live within and draw from those ecosystems. We are called to challenge our inherited beliefs about money, race, education and opportunity—about what constitutes a well-lived life—and reckon with the disconnect between what we heard and felt when George Floyd called for his mother and what our daily pie charts reveal about our orientation in this world. We are summoned to ask ourselves what we are, hour by hour, mothering into being.
If I am to be whole and show up with that wholeness in response to the summons (and what’s the point of showing up broken, tired, and full of self-pity?), then I cannot, as I often do, approach “fix the world” as an item on an already-overflowing to-do list. Even writing that, I see how true this is for me, and how absurd. As it stands, there isn’t much leftover juice to be squeezed out of our motherly pie charts; if we are to find the energy to bring a new world into being, it will not be by tweaking a bit here, adding a bit there, checking a few boxes and going about our business. That is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It will require asking ourselves deep, soulful questions about the people we want our children to be and the world we want them to inherit, and then organizing our lives accordingly.
The best metaphor I can come up with is to take our linear to-do list as a set of individual ingredients and, with love, creativity, and that pulsing, sonorous summons in mind, to make a new kind of sandwich. When I brought my kids with me to knock on doors for my campaign, for example, I was simultaneously spending connective quality time with them, teaching them about our community, exposing them to many new people they’d never have met from within our bubble, exercising their bodies, soaking them in Vitamin D, developing their resilience in the face of sweat, hunger, and mosquitoes, giving them a sense of non-manufactured purpose, showing them how to be polite, persistent, and persuasive, thickening their skin in the face of opposition and disagreement — people might not like or vote for my mom, and that’s okay! — and widening their lens on what participation in the world looks like. All of that, mind you, in the span of an hour or two on any given day. To achieve all of these goals individually would have required so much more of me: instead, I stacked them up and served my kids a healthy, nourishing meal.
I believe this is not only “doable,” but is also the only way we will, ourselves, feel truly whole. If the ever-growing “self-help” section of Barnes and Noble is any indication, the problem of the “self” is a rabbit hole that only grows deeper as we burrow, ever-inward, in search of meaning and connection. We have been stuck for a very long time in that tunnel, in a linear approach to growth, achievement, and contentment: “First I’ll do this, then that, then eventually I’ll get to the other, once I’m ready.” This linearity is as endless as a mathematical line, and just as lonely. When we widen the lens and see ourselves as part of a multi-dimensional network of choices, relationships, and communities that either invest in or detract from the health of our society, we will see that “self-help” section shrink like the size of MAGA crowds and replaced with a joyful, shared, communal “world-heal” section. When George Floyd called for his mother, we were not summoned away from anything at all. We were summoned toward a new way to live, with fewer lonely lists and more shared, satisfying sandwiches.