Saturday, November 24, 2018

"Satan's Last Stronghold"

THIS article by Julia Corderoy gives us the real story: not the 'murder' of a 'missionary,' but the anger and self-defensive actions by a traumatized indigenous people he refused to respect. I'm talking about John Chau, a 27-year old United Statesian who basically committed suicide-by-Indigenous people just before Thanksgiving. 

As the article states, Chau was killed "by the islanders [on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal], after he illegally paid fishermen to take him there in a bizarre plan to convert them to Christianity."

The Sentinelese (not their own name for themselves) live on this island protected by the country of India; no contact by outsiders is allowed, with boat and air patrols enforcing a 5-mile distance from land. This sovereignty has been enforced in large part after early contact in the late 1890s resulted in the kidnapping of islanders by a curious British naval officer named Maurice Vidal Portman. 

As Corderoy writes, Portman "took the islanders to a British-run prison on a larger island where he watched the adults grow sick and die." At that point, Portman returned the children to the island - creating who knows what kind of contamination from western illnesses, as well as a handful of traumatized children with a story that must have been of an incomprehensible terror. 

Corderoy suggests that this incident set the scene for the islander's deep suspicion of outsiders, and it's not hard for me to imagine that initial encounter becoming part of an oral tradition chronicling absolute terror. Eventually, India passed a law protecting the tribespeople, allowing them to continue their way of life as they desired.

Chau knew he was breaking that law, but felt he was obeying a higher law -- something missionaries have long claimed to excuse their legal and ethical law-breaking. 

Another sad part of the story is that this man was mixed-race (in another article, a diary excerpt by Chau claimed he was "an American citizen, part Irish, part Native American and part African and part Chinese and South East Asian").  In other words, Chau came from a family with histories that include earlier colonization by Christian missionaries - the Irish, Native American and African strands, certainly; by adulthood, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in evangelical proselytizing from a childhood and adolescence steeped in an ideology that dictates the inferiority of indigenous spiritual beliefs. He graduated from Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a well-known conservative private institution whose vision statement reads in part, "founded in the fires of evangelism and upon the unchanging precepts of the Bible." 

I feel deep pity for a boy whose spiritual leaders not only led him astray and to his death, but who did not, in the least, prepare him for the realities of the world, or human beings from other cultures. Chau wrote in his journal that he attempted to speak to the tribespeople using a few words of Xhosa (an African language) that he'd picked up. The tribespeople laughed at him, he reported with dismay.

What kind of magical thinking made Chau believe that ANY indigenous language would magically work on ANY indigenous people? For that matter, why did he feel compelled to bring safety pins and scissors as "gifts," or think that yelling "My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!" was somehow going to be magically translated into a language the islanders could understand?

What kind of magical thinking turns the invasion of someone else's land and world as "love"? 

Magical thinking called evangelical Christianity. And by that, I mean every missionizing form of Christianity; I'm hard-core here. As the descendant of peoples who were genocided by Catholicism as well as greed, I don't cut missionization a lot of slack. It sure didn't cut us any.

Now, those same organizations are calling Chau a Christian martyr. Maybe he is - but not the way they mean it. 

To me, John Chau is an example of what the trauma of colonization and missionization can do to people, and how that trauma can create spiritual and psychological damage so devastating that, sometimes, we then turn around and do the same to others. 

... which is not to say that I am not enraged by Chau's actions. I'm just enraged for multiply layered reasons. Some of his diary entries reveal such a simplified, narrow worldview that he actually sounds like a brainwashed cult member meeting up with the real world for the first time ever, with no authority figure to filter it for him or protect him from the truth. 

“What makes them become this defensive and hostile?” 
“I felt some fear but mainly was disappointed. They didn’t accept me right away.”  
"Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?"  
"Lord, is this island Satan's last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?" 

These comments reveal the shock of someone dealing, for the first time, with autonomous, sovereign, uncolonized human beings. These are the thoughts of an immature, narcissistic person. We often call that privilege. In this case, since it cost him his life, maybe not so much.

...on the other hand, privilege means being able to live without having to acknowledge other people's equal humanity. I'm not sure Chau figured out that these are people with a rich, complete, traumatized, fiercely beloved culture of their own, even at the very end, when they killed him for his ignorance and worse, his lack of respect for their world, their bodies, and their spirits. 

I'm thinking of the Spanish Franciscan missionaries killed in California during the missionization era. Theirs, too, was a mindset I can only describe as brainwashed. Intelligent men, determined to the point of obsession, who drank the Kool Aid. 

That was a choice. That was their choice.  

But the decision to force others to drink that Kool Aid against their wishes?

For some reason, we call that missionization. Proselytizing. Spreading the Good News. Christians have done it by bribery, coercion, force, violence, deception, on the pretence of 'helping' a culture laid low by colonial violence, and/or psychological and physical torture. And yet, missionaries are still surprised when their intended-neophytes strike back. 

A tragedy in all directions.

Whose Good Night?

(after viewing the painting, “Jesuit Martyr-Saints of North America”)

The Jesuits do not want to go gentle into their good night
even though it’s the fastest way to martyrdom and halos;
they hold up crucifixes to show they’re in the right.

Those wise men stand firm, let the tomahawk take a bite, 
say their prayers at the stake as flames nibble their toes 
but they’d rather not go gentle into God’s goodnight.

Pierced with Indian arrows still full feathered in flight,
struck dumb by wooden warclub’s brutish blows
they hold up crucifixes to show they’re still in the right 

See, already they ascend into heaven, a glorious sight 
treading soft fluffy clouds with their heads all aglow; 
already it’s worth it, going so gently into good night. 

Brave men far from home, faith your only might  
Let go, let God, above all let baptismal waters flow! 
Hold up your crucifixes of gold to show you’re in the right 

Attend your Father, your angels, look down from new height
Forgive us, we’re savages made simply, from clay.
We refused to go into colonization’s good night.  
We gave up our bodies, we’re martyrs too, right?

-- Deborah A. Miranda, Raised by Humans

Below: detail from "The Jesuit Martyr-Saints of North America" (see the entire painting above)

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Saturday, October 27, 2018


It's been Pride week on our campus all week - lots of activities, and small rainbow flags planted along the walkways in various places. On Thursday I noticed that a bunch of them had been torn up and thrown onto the ground, some of them into bushes, and the "poles" (plastic straws) ground into the bricks and splintered. Angry, I wrote a short blog about it, and online, challenged faculty and students to repair the damage. The good news? A few people did.

It's also been the week of pipe bombs mailed to high-profile Democrats. Every day. Wave after wave. 

And a Black man, a Black woman, shot outside a grocery store while a white man is given a pass.

Friday, the KKK came onto our campus and dropped a bunch of their fun flyers, this time including graphics of exactly who is human and who isn't, along with a recruitment offer and contact info for anyone interested.

Today, Pittsburgh. Shabbat services, a baby boy's bris (circumcision), and 11 dead by a hate-filled man with way too much firepower. 

All week I've been coming home wiped out from some bug I've had, and sleeping a lot. 

Today I alternated doing laundry, errands, cleaning out closets. I felt like I had to keep moving. Finally I lay down with Margo and we napped. I'd been awake till 3 a.m. the night before, wondering (among other things) how long it would be before we get targeted, personally. 

Tomorrow evening there will be a gathering at W&L in support of, well, everyone.  I'll go.  I'll go for the students who are hurting, and because I know it will do me good to be with other people. But at the same time, the University always does this - a vigil, a gathering, and then - continues the same bizarre traditions that encourage all kinds of bias and violence.

I've never felt safe holding Margo's hand in town, but since we returned from Provincetown this summer, where we reveled in that luxury, we've tried to keep it up whenever we walk together. As lesbians, as a Jew and an Indigenous woman, I've always felt like we have targets on our backs. I'm thinking about whether or not we'll continue trying that, and find myself shaking my head. 

Here's the really creepy thing I haven't told anyone.  I think I saw those guys, the KKK guys, on campus on Friday. I was walking back from my morning class to Payne Hall, and I saw two men holding plastic baggies with paper inside, walking around Payne. They saw me, and just kept looking up at the roofline and eaves, as if they were studying architecture.  I thought maybe they were contractors, there to do some work. Maybe they were. Maybe they had just found the flyers and were trying to figure out where they came from. The flyers (inside ziploc bags with birdseed, to keep them from blowing away), were distributed during the day, during classes.  I didn't hear about it until I'd been home a few hours. 

Nothing comes without a fight. I know that. Jews, Indians, lgbtq, immigrants.  We don't get to quit just because it's hard. We can't not be who we are -- although the stress has driven many to pass as Christian, white, straight. That path comes with its own burdens. I know.

My Literature of Poverty course spent this week reading Stephen Graham Jones' book Mongrels.  Jones is Blackfeet, and his genre is horror.  Mongrels is an allegorical story about contemporary werewolves, who are Indians, of course.  My students are fascinated. They love peeling away the layers of allegory, explaining "this means this, this stands for that."  Some of it, you'd have to be Indian to understand; some is clear. My Black and Asian students smile when I explain the scene in which the school janitor looks up, gives the narrator and his aunt "the nod." 

Then my students get to the one unmovable fact that they think cannot be unpacked: the fact that the werewolves can pass as human most of the time, but have the ability - sometimes the need - to transform into something inhuman, something hungry, something untamable. Something with super powers of strength, speed, and the power to slash. The students don't know what to do with that information. They are on the werewolves' side, you see. They are Team Werewolf. But they can't abide or come to terms with this core part of werewolf identity.

Most of the time, SGJ's contemporary werewolves only kill humans in self-defence, or because they are starving. Flat-out hunting humans for meat is one of those things they can't do like they did in the old days, the grandpa says. So they hold minimum wage jobs, work under the table, steal social security numbers, live in trailers or their cars, hunt deer and small animals, buy a lot of cheap meat. They move around a lot, because invariably, something goes wrong and they have to flee.  Sometimes there are clashes with law enforcement that don't end well for the officer. Sometimes, a werewolf ends up roadkill on a freeway, or just another naked drifter's remains found in a ditch. 

The narrator, a young werewolf boy who has not yet had his first "transformation," says wouldn't it be easier if people just hung a live chicken from their mailbox once a week, so the werewolves could simply scoop them up and be off, rather than having to hunt down domesticated animals, or people?  Help us out, he thinks, and then we could be who we are without resorting to stealing and violence in the name of self-defense.

"It's like the world wants us to be monsters," he thinks at one point, "like it won't let us live the way normal citizens do."

It's that core identity that can't be changed.  We cannot not be who we are: Werewolves. Indians. Queers.  Jews.  And to be clear, who we are is not a curse.  The curse is those who hunt us, fear us, see us as zombies, monsters, the manifestation of whatever is actually threatening their lives.

We must keep repeating that to ourselves. I am not the curse. I have been trying to believe that for a long time. The pressure of self-loathing becomes real when that is what surrounds us day after day.

What do you do when the thing about yourself that you cannot change is the very thing that the world around you hates?

Go mad, I think.  For many people, madness; or else a permanent state of rage (and that rage is different from righteous anger, the kind "loaded with information and energy" which Audre Lorde highlights as one of our strengths). Or self-hatred.

We always have a choice to choose love, too.

Even a queer Jew-Indian Werewolf.

I send my love to all who hurt tonight, all who mourn, all who feel unsafe, frightened, pushed into that corner. Who you are is not wrong.  Who you are is not a mistake. We are not monsters. 

The monsters in the world are fear, greed, hate.  Sometimes these forces possess the bodies of human beings. What are we to do?

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hateonly love can do that." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm going to keep giving love a try.

Friday, October 26, 2018


Yesterday I sat on a bench and counted the number of mini rainbow flags torn out of the ground and tossed onto red bricks, ground under foot traffic of students, ignored by passersby. 

I wondered how many of those busy folks might be lesbian, or gay, how many might one day seek their true bodies, how many averted their eyes so as not to be identified.  

Wondered how many of them call themselves compassionate, kind; how many came from homes with a plaque reading, "Do unto others..."

I wondered how many of them might have already kicked a flag over. 

I sat on a bench in late October sun while administrators and faculty walked past, eyes and minds on other important things. 

Light from the sun, I know, boosts serotonin in the brain, feeds the body vitamin D, strengthens bones, heals the skin of eczema, cures jaundice. But all I felt was anger, unfolding like a fall crocus, like a field of fall crocuses whose bulbs were planted years ago and multiply each season, crowded and lovely in their yellow fire. 

I wrote my anger down, sent it out into the world, where many responded with angry faces, but only a few from my own university.

And then, I tucked my anger away into the appropriate corner of my soul, walked home to my wife.

Last night, I dreamt this: not having received an invitation to a party, I planned to sneak in, wearing a disguise. Searching through dozens of drawers and cupboards filled with foundation, scarlet lipsticks, false eye lashes and the paraphernalia of beauty, I imagined how fine and anonymous I would look, but I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it and I couldn’t find it: that fat silver tube of privilege, a little dented from use, but still filled with the slick power to transform. 

It was a long dream, but I never put my hand on it, that tube with the designer label in a font called American Typewriter:  “Whiteface.”

Something there is that doesn't love a disguise.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Archive, Memory and Identity

If you know me, you know that I spend a lot of time with my nose in some archive or other, dusty reality or pixelly digital. I am fascinated with the stories found there, the stories NOT found there, and everything in between. While researching and writing Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, I came under the spell of the archive as a potent source of material, story, and justice. I've never been the same.

Yesterday I spent the entire day at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. I was lucky enough to attend 

Archives, Memory & Identity: A Public Symposium

held in the auditorium at the Rare Books School there. My colleague Julie Phillips Brown, an English professor at VMI, has alerted me to this opportunity earlier in the summer, and I could not sign up fast enough. After all, archives/memory/identity are what I DO. And this year, I'm also teaching with the archives in various ways in my creative writing memoir workshop.

Suffice it to say, the event was pretty much everything Julie and I could have dreamed of, and more. The lineup of individuals creating and/or using archival materials of every imaginable kind was brilliant. Of course, I have favorite presentations, and the best part of having my own blog is that I get to claim them: 

“The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal: A Model for Ethical Access to Cultural Heritage” Trevor James Bond (Co-Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries). This material, and the respectful, thoughtful collaboration between white scholars and Indigenous peoples from the tribes in an area of Washington, Idaho and Oregon who are linked by their relationship with the Columbia River.  Because time is tight as the term gets started, I'll cheat and paste in the info from their beautiful website, with some crucial information in bold:

The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is a collaboration between the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes Of The Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Native American Programs at Washington State University. This Portal is a gateway to Plateau peoples' cultural materials held in multiple repositories including WSU's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, the National Anthropological Archives and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. The materials in the Portal have been chosen and curated by tribal representatives. Each item has one or more records associated with it as well as added traditional knowledge and cultural narratives to enhance and enrich understanding to many audiences.

I found myself profoundly moved by both Trevor Bond's presentation of the project details, and by the voices, faces, and objects found on the website. I rarely cry over an academic presentation, but this was so much more than that: this was a rare, and painstakingly respectful illumination of an archive filled with Indigenous peoples' culture and spirit by those Indigenous peoples, for those Indigenous peoples. Even the home page photograph was chosen by the 8 tribes whose cultures are housed here; they said the photograph of the Columbia River was representative of how that river put them into relationship with one another, and with it.

Within this archive, certain materials are not available to the general public (a password protects them; family materials can also be uploaded to the archive but viewed only by family), while great care is taken to preserve protocols about gender, season, religion and so on. An immense collection provides resources for language research, maintenance and education; the mix of historic materials with contemporary Indigenous commentary and critique is a crucial addition that helps erase the old trope of the vanished Indian. Just browsing the site today, I found such a wonderful mix: baskets, videos of elders discussing the Northwest "Fishing Wars," and historical trauma; written documents from government and BIA and church sources; photographs; natural resources, old and new; arts -- and all of this catalogued, searchable, and well-organized. Trevor played one video in which a group of Indigenous women talked about an archival basket in their language, only switching to English at the very end; one woman holds, pats, and examines the basket with respectful hands, and observant eyes throughout. This scene brought tears to my eyes; as a whole, Indigenous peoples are separated from the works of our ancestors, and to hold a basket like that, to speak to it like a person, is a moment to be cherished.

Perhaps the most important work this portal does is what it UN-does: the voices are those of Indigenous people; the materials are chosen not by white curators and scholars and scientists, but by contemporary Indigenous individuals and communities whose expertise is both acknowledged and implicitly behind every aspect of the archive. 

Please take the time to explore this archive, and guide any young students you might know to it, as well. You will come away inspired by the meticulous archival cooperation and Indigenous presence.  In particular, Indigenous protocols and traditional knowledges are present and respected, right down to a privileging of the Native description of a basket over long-held social science descriptions. A small piece of the long, painful history of having our Indigenous sacred objects, or ancestral materials, stolen and withheld from us, and still another dismissive history of being told we can't have them back because "you don't know how to take care of them," are both dismissed with this project. The sovereignty and agency and dignity within this project is palpable, and joyful.

That was just session 1.  In Session 2, my favorite was:

“Moving Memorials” – María Verónica San Martín (Artist, Whitney Museum Independent Study Program; Booklyn, Inc.)

Maria Veronica San Martin is a book artist, a social justice activist, and a visionary.  Her bio reads: "The subject matter of her work derives from the violence in dictatorship Chile (1973–1990) vis-à-vis the United States and Nazism’s involvement in that violence, addressing memory as a pivotal factor for the understanding of the neoliberal, globalized present." But it is also true that Maria portrays the love, compassion, and determination surrounding the memory of those "desaparecidos" -- not just by their families, but in the Chilean national historical identity.

Here are a few photographs of the work she shared with us in a half-hour performance; afterwards we were encouraged to come forward to touch, move, and experience the books ourselves. Maria stated that she feels strongly that the act of remembering is also a physical, tactile act which creates connections between body and mind, thus diversifying and strengthening memory, and making it no long just her memory, or a Chilean national memory, but our memory. As members of a nation that enabled and helped create massacre and torture of innocent people half a world away, our complicity -- as her United Statesian readers -- must be acknowledged, and felt.

This next book is called "Make the Economy Scream," (President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to "make the economy scream" in Chile to "prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him," paving the way for Pinochet's brutal military coup). The book is housed in a copper box (copper mining being an economic mainstay in Chile) with those words engraved on the lid (very difficult to photograph!). Inside, fragile prints on clear plastic show the faces of desaparecidos, those "disappeared" and presumed killed by the military regime; these prints are stacked with sheets of vellum between them, and the whole deck is wrapped in a handkerchief printed with some of the phrases used about Chile in secret conversations between the President and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

As readers and handlers of this text, we are meant to come away with the stain of these deaths (and the memory of these faces) transferred to our own skins. At the same time, we see, and become complicit with, the inevitable "disappearance" of these faces through time and handling. 

Another of Martin's projects is titled "In Their Memory: Human Rights Violations, Chile (1973-1990)," a collection of photographs, names and biographies of the disappeared constructed as books within books within books. It could be read as a normal text, with pages turning from right to left; it could be read as many tiny books, each photo lifting up to reveal a story about where each person was when they were last seen; it could be read as a wide-open accordion book that floods the eye with faces pleading for attention, and stand on its own; it could even be rolled into a kind of spiral curve, an evasion of linear time. Finally, the back of the book was a long panoramic painting of the Presidential Palace in Santiago, where many of the disappeared were tortured to death. The implication cannot be escaped: their graves never found, these desparecidos are still being held within the walls of torture and silence.

 Julie's iphone's facial recognition app tried to give names to these faces, something which was extraordinarily disturbing.


Another accordion book with two sides, "Indignity and Resistance: In the Foothills of the Andes" is the re-creation of a torture camp. The book is housed within a case. When removed, expanded, and formed into a circle, with the original gate opening at the front, we are presented with the sur/reality of torture. The contrast between what happened inside the camp, and the beauty that surrounded it on the outside revealed our minds' struggle to understand such brutality and beauty being allowed to exist side-by-side. The contrast and dilemma are stunningly portrayed. As I viewed this book, familiar thoughts came back to me: if there is a God, how could such a being take no action against the horrors here? If torture can happen here, in the middle of such beauty, can't it happen anywhere? What kinds of delusions do we have to construct in order to deny our own inhumanity? How is it that we can be surrounded by the clarity of our homeland's landscape, and yet still torture the bodies of our own people?

On the prison scenes inside the book, Maria Veronica Martin sought to show both the cruelty of the torturers, and the ways the prisoners tried to care for one another, comfort one another, and show one another compassion in their worst moments. The indigo blue paint, for me, depicted a kind of eternal night.

One last book: The version we saw at the symposium was made of aluminum, but in later evolutions, heavier metal was used, along with hinges that can move 360 degrees (this version uses aluminum tape). The book comes out of a metal box cut in half along an unusual, jagged line; when the two pieces of the box are pulled just an inch or two apart, they form the stylized "S" used in the Nazi SS symbol.  

The book itself is almost a machine; there are times when Maria simply picked it up and let it fall into a shape of its own, and other times when it seemed to move, roll or collapse into a shape of its own design. The metal "pages" are cold, and lack the warmth or texture of her other books. In addition, the book makes an eerie sound when manipulated; a non-human clicking, clattering, metallic "ting" that is, honestly, creepy and yet fascinating. If you go to her website, linked above, you will see a later version, and be able to watch a video of Maria working with it. She said she came to this design in part because she had reached a point where she lacked the words for such mechanical brutality. The metal pages contain no words, and yet as she continues to manipulate it into shapes (like a swastika, a cross), the metal surface takes on scratches, dents, stains, and other markings. As a kind of puzzle, the pages are both intriguing, and repulsive.  I could not bring myself to touch them, though others did.  


It is not hyperbole to say that the symposium, as a whole, knocked me out; I learned so much about how archives work, the diversity of archival holdings out there. The specialization is intense: we heard about a Hip-hop Archive, saw materials from, and heard the process of, creating an archive of video footage from the Charlottesville violence of the recent Alt-Right rally. We met the founder of the "Historymakers" archive of the Black community, and explored the formation of the Digital Library of the Middle East, formed "in response to the tragic displacement of people, loss of life in conflict zones, and ongoing threats to the cultural heritage of the Middle East through destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking," with a mission to "federate Middle Eastern collections from around the world, creating a publicly accessible,  inter-operable digital library of cultural material."

There was more -- much more. The symposium's organizers left long stretches of Q&A planned into each part of the day, and believe me, we asked questions! The day was packed from one end to the other with stories of financial strategies, partnering with larger organizations, preservation techniques, archives that are "born digital" and archives that have real physical objects at their center; in fact, we talked about storage (both digital and spatial), collaboration with multiple communities, the hard-learned lessons of the past, and wildest-dream plans for the future.

I am not an archivist, myself (although I have my share of obsessive collections). I am a storyteller. An artist. And so it is Maria Veronica Martin's work, and the stories contained within the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, that most fill my heart. Mining the archive in order to tell the stories of voices silenced and/or brutalized, using the oppressor's archive to bring about justice, and creating, if we are persistent and lucky, a moment of beauty or compassion from these archives, all lead to creating our own archives to achieve balance in narrative; this is why I do the work I do. 

I cannot thank the Rare Books School folks enough for the event, for their fine choice of panelists and topics, for the delicious coffee and fruit in the morning, as well as the wines, cheeses, pickled veggies and breads at the end of the day reception. From start to finish, this was a day I will carry with me, that has fed and will continue to feed me. One of the archivists - I'm sorry, I don't remember which one - told us that one of the most important things to keep in mind as someone who is a safekeeper of cultural inheritance is to "Recognize the gift you are receiving." 

Yesterday was a gift.