Time…And Consistency

Wow. I can’t believe it’s been 6 months since I wrote! What happened?!!

I won’t beat myself up about it. Life happened.

Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

There’s been lots and lots and i will soon write about it, I’m sure.

In the meantime, it’s interesting that as I have been clearing out and organizing my basement storage area in anticipation of my daughter (who lives with me with her 3 and 8-year-old) closing on her new home on Friday (11/21/14) and moving out the next day, I have come across items that have taught, or reminded me, of things I’d forgotten about myself.

For instance, I have learned that I am nothing if not consistent.

Bags – When I travel, I buy practical things . I don’t like cluttery mementoes. I’d rather have something I can use in my everyday life to give me a pleasant little reminder of my travels. I have come across bags I bought in every country I have visited. Just seeing the bags, alone, was a trip down memory lane! Aruba, Costa Rica, Kenya, Ghana, a Carnival Cruise, Disneyworld, New Zealand, Oxford, Australia, Alaska. There were over 30. I needed a storage tub just for bags! And I haven’t carried an actual purse for years! These aren’t purses (except a couple). They are carrying bags. I only use them to hold my knitting when I travel. But they are there. Lots of them are there.

Tissues – They were present in nearly every bag! I always need tissues. I read recently that premature babies often have respiratory issues during their lifetime. I know if that is true now, it was probably certainly true 63 years ago when I was born and the doctors told my parents not to count on me living. Maybe that’s why I can rarely be far from a tissue.

ChapStik – Yep, that was there too in the bags I carried. I hate not having the things I know life and experience tells me I will need. I always carry tissues, ChapStick and nail files. Don’t you hate needing a nail file and not having one? It is SO annoying! So, I do.

All this, and I haven’t carried a bag, as in purse, in at least two years. All I carry is a small credit-card-sized woven pouch that I bought in Costa Rica. Best investment I can think of having made in a while. It carries my money, credit cards, a tissue, half an emery board, my drivers’ license, car registration and insurance. And I carry it right in my bra. Ooop! Should I not have told you that?! My bad! :-)

I also found date books and calendars going back to 1976 when I worked at the White House Domestic Council. Can you imagine?! And there is one for virtually every single year! What a find! Just the lunch dates alone are a gold mine! Of course, since it was 38 years ago, I don’t know who half the names are, but there are great familiar ones—people I haven’t thought about in eons. It’s like looking at another whole life.

There is the storage tub filled with photos. Thank heaven I had the presence of mind to know this day was coming and I dated them and gave names and ages and places. When my last paternal family member died, my Dad’s brother, I ended up with a trunk full of my Grandma’s photos of people about whom I was clueless. I mean I knew maybe 2 people out of hundreds of photos. I swore then and there that I would never do that to anyone. As painstaking and time-consuming as it was, back before digital photos, I religiously wrote all the identifying information on the back of each photo. It did not matter that the info was on one and there were obviously similar ones. They could get separated, so each had to have its own information. Thank heaven digital at least gives me a time and place. I still want ages there because that’s the sort of info you want to know when you look at a photo.”Oh, you were so cute! How old were you in this picture?!” It came in handy when my 8-year-old granddaughter was with me, looking at things as I sorted them, and she could see for herself how old her Mom and aunties were by just turning the photo over. Neat!

Fabric/yarn/wool for hand spinning – I still have fabric from dresses I made for my girls 30 or more years ago. That will come in handy, as I also see that some of the early quilts I made for each of my three daughters (now 36, 34 and 27) need patching and I have the original fabric I used. I noticed that for the most part, I chose fabrics that I still love today, 30+ years later. Amazing how consistent I am. I also notice I like blue and white bedrooms. Nearly 40 years later, it is still my favorite color scheme. In fact, I was having the bathroom attached to my bedroom redecorated as I was going through this and the color I had just picked out was the same blue. I’m not in a rut. it is just the color that best soothes and calms me. The color I can best live with. I love lots of other colors, but I guess there’s just no fighting it: this is my live-with color.

Advent calendars – There is a storage tub of nothing but our advent calendars over a 30+-year period. The girls still get one every year (which reminds me that I need to order them for our December 1st festivities next week!–we’re having them a bit early since everyone will be here for Thanksgiving). I love being able to see them. They don’t mean anything to anyone else, but I love seeing them and they don’t take up much space. They can throw them away after I die. Somebody tossed a couple a few weeks ago. Luckily, I found them and saved them. :-)

Clothes – I don’t think of myself as caring about clothes, pretty much at all. Turns out, I guess I do. I found some. In fact, I found lots of them. Lots. Three tubs of African clothing, alone. And lots more. Some of which I just washed and re-discovered for wearing. Neat! Timeless (my daughter says they aren’t… :-) )

And that’s just the beginning. But, I have to go now. Maybe that’s why I haven’t written since May. I forgot how time-consuming it is! :-)

Being a Mama

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Happy Mothers’ Day to all it fits.  Mothers rock.  Where would we be without them?  As a mother, I know the minute to minute sacrifices you make for your kids each and every day.  No matter what your circumstances or how you do motherhood, I applaud you. As Oprah says time and again, it’s the hardest job in the world.

Being a mother was one of the things I am absolutely certain that I was put on earth to do.  

I cannot remember a time when I did not want to be a mother.  It was just always a part of me.  It doesn’t mean I always did it right.  Not by a long shot, I’m sure my three daughters would say.  But it was clear that being a mother was truly, truly important for me.  Motherhood took on an even greater urgency after my own mother died when I was 20.  I had my first daughter at 27, my next at 29, and my third at 36.

I don’t know whether the draw was in getting to pass on what my mother gave to me, or wanting to have a captive audience for which I could bake fresh bread, pies, cookies and other goodies, make clothes, cook delicious meals, grow fruits and veggies for, make quilts for, read to or snuggle in front of the fire with and watch old black and white movies with.  Maybe it was all of the above and more.

Whatever it was, I wanted to do it and I could not be more proud of the three incredible women I ended up being privileged to mother.

As a mother, I quickly learned that my daughters were not put on earth to be extensions of me.  Rather, I learned that they were on loan to me to love, protect and guide, but that I had to allow them to be who they wanted to be rather than who I might want them to be.

My girls having the freedom to be who they wanted was extraordinarily important to me.  If you can’t be yourself, then what’s the point of being?  Our children are not our second chance to try to “get it right” and have them live some version of a life we wanted for ourselves but did not quite manage to achieve.  

Wanting to be a mother from such a young age, by the time I had my first child at age 27, I had thought a good deal about it, about what I wanted for them, what I was willing to do for them, what I could bring to the table as a mother, and how I could help them be all they could be. I consciously made the decision to treat them a certain way that I thought would be best for making them the best, most loving, productive, courageous people they could be.

I was always extremely aware of what I passed on to them.  I understood that even though they might not seem to be listening, they were.  Though something might seem situational to me, for them it might be a memory they held and used as the basis for their own actions.  If I acted afraid of new things, they would be too, and it would make their world smaller.  If I was accepting, they would learn to be too, and take on the world rather than reject it.  

But, I did not raise my daughters alone.  In addition to a loving family comprised of my Dad and siblings, and their families, they had a father who, though we are not still together, is the only father I have ever wanted for my daughters.  They also had another mother.  We were together for virtually all of the girls’ lives and still parent them together.  In fact, all three of us do, and the girls get something distinct from each of us.  She was the calm, steady presence.  Having had a difficult teen passage when I did not and I did not understand it, she was their perfect refuge.  She got it.  Having somewhat different values about some things than I did, they knew there were things they could better tell her than me.  She was the perfect foil for me.

I’ve written about my daughters before.  All three of them are totally different, but share a set of core values any parent would be proud of.  

I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to be their Mama and to pass on to them the incredible gifts my own mother gave to me.

Thank you, my crazy, wonderful girls.  Thank you, Ma.

 

The next level

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Aside from the fact that I’ve been buried trying to get grades out for graduation, which was yesterday, I have not yet been able to write about my daughter’s performance at Beach Brawl last weekend because I’m not sure I’m quite finished processing it.

Beach Brawl was a 3-day, 3-sanctioned bout women’s flat-track roller derby event held in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.  This year was the first time for the event.  My former partner, my daughter’s other mother, put it together.  It was extraordinarily well done.  So much so that the governing body rep asked her if she would do the upcoming nationals tournament.  It was held at the Ft. Lauderdale Civic Center and was the first official 2014 Team USA derby event, with a contest between Team USA and a team made up of international skaters.  Over the weekend there were two tracks, live streaming on YouTube,  and, as the banner announced, 3 continents, 6 countries and 24 teams.  Each US team got to play against an international team and there were no eliminations. It was awesome.  And I’m not even what you would call a derby fan.  It’s just that my daughter plays.  

I should have known this was going to be special when I walked into the event and there stood a near life-sized cut-out poster of my daughter in her Team USA uniform. Neat!! 

In addition to the Sunday night bout she skated in for Team USA, my daughter also skated in the three bouts for her Ft. Lauderdale team. Since she belonged to the host team, she also had to volunteer doing work during the event. I can’t imagine how tired she must have been.  Nevertheless, her team won 2 of its three bouts, and Team USA won its bout by over 400 points.  

But, my daughter was truly the star.  I am not just saying that because I am her mother.  Watching her skate and manage her way through packs of women determined to not let her through to score was exciting for everyone.  On Saturday night, the night before the Team USA event, my family watched the Mayweather-Maidana fight to unify the welterweight championship at a popular Ft. Lauderdale Sports Bar.  It was packed.  I thought the $10 cover charge was pretty low.  By the time the fight was over, I felt it had was overpriced.  As someone who was used to seeing people like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Mike Tyson, I thought the Mayweather fight was boring.  It never really got to the point where it was good and either fighter showed what made fighting exciting.

The next day, watching my daughter skate, I realized my assessment of the fighters had not been my imagination.  They could fight, but they never made the fight exciting by showing any real skill.  I realized this as I watched the Team USA bout. All the skaters could skate and do derby well.  To get to the point of being on Team USA, they were great.  

By my girl took it to the next level.  She made watching it absolutely exciting. That’s not to say that there were not others who played well also.  But my daughter stood out.  She made it worth driving ten hours in a Volkswagen Beetle worth every mile.

Contrary to what many believe about roller derby (including me before she began to participate), it is not made of up fringy he-women brawling it out on wheels.  These are hard working women who are doing things that run the full range from being doctors and lawyers, to working on their masters degrees, to working minimum wage jobs.  Their movements may look random and aggressive, but players are tightly constrained by the rules as to how they can contact other players.  In all the bouts I’ve attended, I’ve never seen anything even approaching a fight on the track.

After lining up at the starting line, five per team, one person on the team, deemed the lead jammer, must be the first to break through the pack to become the one who earns points for the team by getting through the pack as she comeback around the track once again to the pack.  The number of points depends on the number of players she gets through to continue skating around the track.  Keep in mind that if you are the lead jammer, your team is intent on guarding the other team’s players to allow you to do what you need to do to get through, and the other team is intent on not letting you get through.  All while the other team’s lead jammer is trying to gain on you, overtake you, and become the point-maker for her team.  

As you can imagine, as a lead jammer, getting through a pack intent on not letting you through can be absolutely daunting.  These women have practiced untold hours just to keep that from happening.  The courage it must take to even skate up to the pack and attempt to get through is beyond the pale.  The strategy it takes to find a weakness in the pack and exploit it within the rules to make your way through takes tremendous vision, concentration, determination, strategy and skill.  The determination to keep trying even though you are blocked at every turn is extraordinary.  

To manage to do it all with so much panache that you make it look easy is taking it to the next level.  

That’s what my daughter does.  

You watch her go up to a pack and before you can fix your eyes good to try to see where she can get in, she’s through them all and the ref is holding up his or her hand with five fingers extended, indicating to the scorekeepers that she has gotten past all 5 players on the team.  Seeing her agile enough to go around a block, or jump over a fallen player, or use her hips to powerfully push someone blocking her out of her way is amazing.  No wonder other teams hire her to come in and conduct boot camps.  She is great.

When she straps on those skates and steps onto the track, she is in another world.  Her aching body doesn’t hurt.  Her confidence knows no bounds because she knows without a doubt that she will do what she needs to do. She is, and always has been, tremendously competitive.  She hates to lose and will do what it takes to position herself and her team to win.  When she is in a bout, her ability to strategize, lift team spirit, and find a way to put points on the board is all that is in her head.  She does what it takes to make that happen.  

She doesn’t just play. She plays hard, she plays smart, she’s not afraid to give up the body, though she strategizes to keep that at a minimum because she knows it is her equipment and instrument, and she does not make excuses.  For every move she makes, she has practiced and practiced and practices to perfect it.  I have watched her do it over and over and over again ad nauseum because she wants to get it right.  How she does it, I do not know.  She goes long past the point where I would have given up.  In fact, approaching a pack of women intent on keeping me out would make me head in the opposite direction.  Not my girl.

All of it is part of why she beat out 600 other great skaters to be on Team USA.  That spirit and performance and determination is why the crowd reacts so supportively toward her.  

She doesn’t just skate.  She takes it to the next level.  

And that, is exciting to watch.

The importance of ceremony

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I went to commencement at my university today.  I didn’t just go this time.  I actually participated.  I hadn’t done that in ages.  I rarely even go.  It just didn’t seem worth the effort.  Shlepping over to the bookstore to rent and pay for regalia, finding a parking space when thousands are competing for it, fighting the hordes of people, sitting in the hot sun in the stifling yards of cloth and the silly hat.

Aside from the inconvenience, commencement is also really sad for me.  I try to forget that the students are leaving. I just tell myself they just aren’t taking a class from me this semester.  Last week I saw a student who said she had me 20 years ago.  That made it hard to keep up my mental charade. :-)

Rather than think about what the occasion meant for the students, I selfishly only thought about how sad it was for me to see them leave.

When I decided to retire this year, I promised myself I would do all the things I don’t usually do.  This was one of them.  Even though I decided months ago not to retire after all, I decided to keep the promise.  Especially after receiving the email that they were trying to get more faculty to attend by paying for parking, regalia rental and serving a table-cloth dinner beforehand.  I figured if they could make all that effort, I should too.

I have to be honest and say that it is really also hard to choose to be in a setting where your minority status is so blatant and obvious. It’s hard enough to be in that position when you have to, so when you can avoid it, you  do. It’s one thing to be in your own college or classroom, where the minority numbers are small enough.  But, somehow it gets magnified when it’s the whole university you’re dealing with.  Even though you’ve made the choice to be there, what you go through every day to do your job is pretty trying. Seeing it on an imminently  grander scale is even moreso.   Of course, this is a double-edge sword, because minority students feel the same way–  which is a big reason why I should be there to support them.  They want to see me too.  In fact, probably everybody does because even majority folks want to feel like they are in a racially diverse setting.

So, today, I bit the bullet and went.  I can’t tell you how unbelievably comforting it was to see other minority friends from other colleges across the campus and sit with them at dinner.  What fun!

And so was commencement.  The speaker was inspiring, the students were awesome, and the fireworks at the end were a delight.  The administration was even kind enough to place a goodie bag  of a bottle of water and the program in our seats. The students started clapping when they saw faculty filing in and I realized how special our being there in that silly academic regalia going back hundreds of years made the occasion feel for them.  At our earlier college ceremony, three of them left the line going up on stage to come and hug me.  It didn’t happen with any other professor I saw. It wasn’t even the minority students.

I feel blessed that I could have touched them so.

And I feel ashamed.

I should have been thinking of the students rather than myself all this time.  With as much as I care about them and their lives that I will forever be a part of, I should have been there for them at one of the most important ceremonies they will have.  Of course, they’re not crying into their beer over it, and probably didn’t even note it, but it would have been better had I been there.

Duly noted.

The importance of little reminders

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I am a huge tea fan.  There’s just something about it that I love.  It calms and soothes me and puts me in a place I like.  I have collected tea pots for years and have quite a collection, each with a story.  The bright yellow one my first husband bought me when we were in law school, and the Chinese set he bought me while we were married.  The bright yellow one (can you tell yellow is my favorite color?) my sister made for me. The musical one that played “Tea for Two” that my step-mother gave me one Christmas. The gold-rimmed flowered set my partner gave me.  One of my favorites is one I received for my college graduation from my then-boyfriend’s family 42 years ago.  I also love tea kettles.  I usually use a glass electric one that was a gift from my nephew, Christopher.  It’s beautiful and efficient and gets the job done quickly. However, recently I began using once again a tea kettle that I picked up in Egypt (where I met and married my second husband) 13 years ago.  There’s something that is pulling at me about it.

This morning, as I poured the boiling water into my giant tea mug, preparing for a day of intense grading of papers and other end-of-the-semester madness professors go through, I realized what it is.

I needed to slow down.  My Egyptian tea kettle won’t let me quickly make my tea.  I have to heat it on the stove rather than plug it in, and when I pour the water into the cup, the spout is cleverly made so that I cannot pour quickly.  I have to take the time to let it flow.

That is a giant irritant. I’m trying to hurry through and get to my grading. My work plate is really, really full, and I’m in full-speed-ahead, I’ve-got-a-lot-of-crap-to-do mode.  My sister scolded me just yesterday for not answering her phone calls.  But, I know that when we speak, one of the reasons I love it is that it is for hours at a time, and I just don’t have it right now.  Everything is rush rush.

But, not my boiling water flowing out of the tea kettle spout.

I have lived my life long enough to understand that when something like this happens, something else is going on that I need to address.  There is a message I need to tune in to.  I’m being told something I need to listen to.

So, I wondered, what is the lesson here?  Why is this happening?  I’m making tea, for pete’s sake.  What lesson could there possibly be in that? Why am I even using this tea kettle when I could so easily use one that heats and pours my water more quickly?

Then, it hit me.

Because you need to.

Slow down.  You’re moving too fast.  Everything will get done when it needs to.  It always does.  All is well.  Everyone has the same number of hours in a day. Chill out.

Got it.  Thanks for the reminder.

 

The importance of community

Yesterday was Lavender Graduation at my university.  What a glorious occasion.  It is the event put on for the LGBTQ students, open to all.  Before you wonder why they would segregate themselves and have their own graduation ceremony, or why a university would allow such a thing, keep in mind that they can, and do attend the big graduation for all students.  This is a supplement.  Read on if you wonder why it is even needed.

It has been my experience that most students who are LGBTQ come to college without having ever even admitted that to themselves.  This happens for several reasons: 1) for fear of rejection from their parents, 2) fear of rejection by their friends, 3) fear of physical harm for being “different,” 4) lack of knowledge of what it means.  I’m sure there are other reasons I’m forgetting, but those are the biggies.

Once away at college, away from their parents, and away from the group of friends they may have known all their lives, they are free to explore the world on their own.  They had not realized how much their reference group had shaped for their entire lives, what they thought they knew, liked, disliked or cared about.  While they thought they were essentially free agents, they realized that their world had actually pretty much been dictated by forces they never really knew or questioned.

Once on their own and free to explore their exposure to new ideas, people, places, things, it opens up whole new worlds to them.  The world is no longer bordered by the county lines they grew up with.  They are free to roam the world during study abroads and be exposed to cultures and people and language far more different than anything they ever dreamed, even though TV, movies, books and the Internet brings these world to them.  They meet people who are no longer just the insular groups they may have grown up with.  These new people are from all over the world, all over the country, many from communities quite different than their own.  They sit in classes where they are exposed to and learn ideas that challenge their very idea of who they are, how they fit into the world, the value of ideas they may have thought were cast in stone in their heads as unassailable.  Such is the nature of education.

In this process, they begin to understand how much they have been impacted by the normal flow of life up to this point and what it means for what they think they knew.  Once out of that normal flow, they come to realize that things can and are different for different people, places and things.  They discover it in big ways and small.  For me, it was a group of us freshmen going to a ice cream shop in Ohio from my home in DC and ordering sodas, only to have them place ice cream sodas before us.  Turns out, in this part of the country, soda meant ice cream sodas.  What we thought of as soda (carbonated beverages) was called “pop.”  Who knew?  Why would we? Light bulb moment.  

One of the things students are often exposed to for the first time in college is others who are open about their LGBTQ orientation.  It is a real wake up call to find that what was whispered about in hushed tones in their hometown, or the basis for vicious ridicule, can be just plain life as it is lived elsewhere.  They come to learn that they are not foreign, awful, shameful, a loser, or an embarrassment.  They discover that there is a community of others like them who value each other for who they are and what they bring to the table rather than the insignificant, though, in some ways profound issue of who they love or are attracted to, or what body they feel more comfortable in, or what gender they present as.  They learn that though these things may tie them together as a community, they are only one small part of what creates that supportive community.  They also learn that there are others who support them and accept them for who they are.  Period.

By the time they reach graduation, that community has become an incredibly important part of their lives.  In a large university like mine, even one that takes inclusion very seriously and works every day at making everyone feel included, there are still pockets of resistance that the students have to navigate.  That makes their community, and sometimes family of choice within that community, even more important.  Nearing graduation, this takes on even greater importance as they realize they are moving from this supportive, protected environment into the “real world” where they may not have the same support system available—that is, until they create it.

All of this comes to the fore at graduation, when you want and need the support of those who truly understand that your struggle to get through the university has not been the same as that of other students without your life-altering self-revelations and all that inevitably came with it.  The broken hearts, the false starts, the challenges to who you are, the search for finding where you fit, the fear over being able to find a job where you are accepted for who you are rather than requiring you to fit a template, the social justice campaigns just to exist as who you are, and, at times, worse.  While other students’ culmination ending in graduation has been about the struggle for balancing time, workloads, a social life and finding a job, yours has been about much more.  At the point where it all comes to an end, at graduation, you want those around you who understand that struggle and appreciate what you have accomplished, and recognize that it was not the same as it was for everyone else.

What always saddens me at Lavender Graduation is the lack of parental support.  It is rare to see more than a few family members stand up when the call is made for them to do so.  For some of the students, their families abandoned them once they came out as LGBTQ.  For some there was even violence attached.  For most, it included a huge dose of their families either not understanding, not believing it or simply rejecting the possibility.  As the student keynote speaker said at the event yesterday, when she told her mother she is a lesbian, her mother’s response was “You may think you are a lesbian but Mommy doesn’t think that you are a lesbian.” Pretty soul crushing, whether it was intended to be or not.

This makes the sense of community even more urgent.  We are social creatures.  We need a tribe. One of the speakers yesterday said a quote that was something like “We can’t thrive without our tribe.”  We need a reference group.  Sometimes it will not be the one we thought it was.  At the very least, most of us think it will include the families we were born into.  Maybe not.  Which is why it is so important to have a community here for those students who need it.  They deserve it.  They deserve our support.  We taught them that they are just fine as who they are and that matters.  

Kudos to the university for providing emotional, intellectual, and physical space for the establishment of community for our LGBTQ students, and for having Lavender Graduation as part of it.  As any student who has been a part of it will tell you, it matters.  That sense of community is important.

I can kick your soccer butt and pick flowers too…

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My grandson Christian is 3.  Today was his first soccer game.  From the minute he was born, he has always looked really serious.  It is hilarious to watch him doing certain things while looking totally serious.  Like his version of break-dancing, drawing a picture or painting (not dying) Easter eggs.  How do you do that and maintain a straight face?  When he finally gives us a smile, with great deep dimples on both sides like my mother, it is like the sun comes out.  He is absolutely beautiful.  But, his usual look is a serious one, as if he has matters of great importance to contemplate.

As a mother of three girls, and having grown up with 3 sisters, I have also been fascinated from the start at how Christian had such masculine traits at such a young age.  I don’t think I’d really given it much thought before, or if I had, I would have though nurture played as big a role as nature.  I’m not so sure now.  Maybe I should have bought a clue when my first two daughters totally balked at playing T-ball.  I don’t know if they’ve forgiven me to this day, for having them out there playing in the hot Florida sun.  :-)  At any rate, as a grandma (Nana!) who isn’t busy about the business of raising him, I get to look at things in a different way now, and I am constantly fascinated at how what society considers to be his masculine traits develop so young and without seemingly any input from the three females with which he lives.  I promise you, we were not the ones who created his fascination with cars and trains.  We just followed his lead. He did not get it from his Dad either.  It is even more fascinating to me that the traits he exhibits are so subtle, but unmistakably those we associate with males, especially around leadership.

One of the things Christian has also always been fascinated with is flowers.  He loves them.  He loves to look at them, pick them for us, and to learn their names—even when he wants to name them himself.  No matter how many times I tell him a dandelion is a dandelion, he insists it’s a sunflower :-) I get it.  It certainly looks like a little sun. I teach him the names and tell him which ones he can pick in the garden and which ones he can’t.  He loves smelling the flowers and herbs growing, and watching onion sets he poked into the earth sprout up just days later.  He will stop dead in his tracks to look at, and most likely pick, a flower.

Today, after we parked for his game, on the way to the soccer field, he became excited at seeing the clover and dandelions (sunflowers…) along the way.  I told him the names (with him still insisting the dandelions were sunflowers) and he picked a few.

I guess we really shouldn’t have been surprised that when he got on the playing field, being on the field would not have stopped him from picking the clover and seeded grass that apparently looked like blooms to him.

So, there he stood, looking very serious, in a group of little ones all dressed up in their soccer uniforms to play their first official soccer game, with a stem of clover in his hand, twirling this way and that, totally fascinated, as if he’d never seen it before.

Of course, the coach was talking to the team.

But Christian was more interested in his stem of clover.  He turned and held it out to show his mother, his sister and me.  Mortified, we said we saw it and told him to turn back around and listen to the coach.

This continued, the game started, and Christian ended up making the first goal, running down the field with a stem of clover in his hand, kicking the ball into the goal.

What?!  Who does that?

I can remember in junior high school gym class being put out in the outfield playing softball and, like Christian, being more interested in looking at the flowers.  But for me, I tuned out the game and concentrated on the flora, only tuning back in at the sound of my classmates roaring for me to run to the next base because someone had hit the ball.  You can imagine how popular that made me when it came time to choose a team.  Whatever…

While we congratulated him and hooted and cheered, Christian spied another clover flower, picked it, and joined his teammates and concentrated more on the clover flower than the coach talking.

Then he made the second goal, much like the first.

He made the third one too, but into the other team’s goal.  :-)

He looked very serious and he held his clover and blades of seed grass the entire time.

I know there is a lesson in there somewhere.  And I love it without even fully knowing what it is.

We don’t generally associate boys and flowers.  We don’t generally associate flowers and soccer.  We don’t generally associate boys and flowers and soccer.

But, Christian didn’t know that.  What he knew is what was important to him.  And he made it work.  He multi-tasked listening to the coach, making three goals, and holding onto his clover and seeded grass blades.

I hate even thinking about the time that will inevitably come when he realizes, through omnipresent acculturation, that he is not “supposed” to be interested in flowers unless he’s studying them as a scientist or giving them to someone.  Or that clover  and dandelions are generally considered weeds.  Or that because he is a boy, he can’t pick flowers while on the soccer field.

I hate thinking about how society ends up squashing who we really are and all we really can bring to the table, for the sake of conformity and ease in pigeon-holing people so we feel some measure of control about the predictability of our surroundings.  Look at all we gain when people can bring their entire selves to the table.

When that inevitable time eventually happens with Christian (and I’m sure it will be much sooner than I’d like), I know he will ignore me when I tell him how he can do all three and it will be ok, because he will still make the goals just fine like he always did.

He will simply look at me very seriously with those incredibly beautiful big brown eyes and tell me he will no longer pick flowers, but only make goals.

I will be sad.

 

 

Living diversity

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Yesterday was Easter and I had the privilege of having two of my daughters with me for the holiday.  My former partner, now BFF had the other.  When we exchanged our Easter plans, stories and photos, it occurred to me how diverse they were.  I remember my BFF once telling me that she had a white friend over for dinner and they had steak and baked potatoes.  After dinner, her friend told her she was really surprised at the menu because it was just “regular food.”  Turns out, because my BFF was black, the assumption was that the menu would include fried chicken or chit’lins or other “black food.” That still knocks me out.  The things in people’s heads never ceases to amaze me. How little we know about cultures others than our own.  Even ones we may come into daily contact with and think we know.

I thought about that yesterday as I thought about how varied my tribe’s Easter experiences were.  

At my house, where my nephew was also visiting, my Le Cordon Bleu Grande Diplome-having, Le Cordon Bleu-teacher daughter cooked up a New England Boiled Seafood Dinner, though we are in the south.  I guess you could have easily have called it a “Low Country Boil or a Louisiana Seafood Boil.  She loved the idea of throwing in the big pot the red potatoes, corn on the cob, shrimp, Snow crab legs, crawfish, sausage, limes and Old Bay seasoning, then having us enjoy the cheese and wine she and her sister bought the day before at a local wine tasting event, while the pot turned into a delicious dish. She also served garlic butter braised King crab legs.  Yummy.  Later, at her request, I made Sherried Tea Biscuits, which we ate while watching movies.  The latter is their favorite thing to do.  The whole event was far from the traditional American Easter dinner with ham.  Of course, my grandkids, who were with their dad for the weekend, came over to hunt for Easter eggs and get their chocolate bunnies and marshmallow peeps.  :-)

My BFF and third daughter, on the other hand, outdid us in regional food diversity. They went to the house of my daughter’s girlfriend’s sister and her boyfriend.  They were met there by the parents of the sisters.  One of the parents is Jamaican and the other Indian, so my daughter’s girlfriend is a mix of the two, with dark blonde dreadlocks down to her behind.  Their family had never dyed Easter eggs or had an Easter egg hunt before.  Though my daughter is 26, she still loves to hunt for Easter eggs and please don’t make the mistake of getting between her and a hidden egg she has sighted.  Girlfriend, with her competitive nature, she will mow you down to get that egg, and apologize later.  

My BFF took eggs stuffed with lottery tickets to the dinner party and hid them all around the lusciously tropical Florida backyard.  The host, my daughter’s girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend, had also never done an Easter egg hunt and didn’t want to because he did not think he would like it.  He ended up loving it and finding the most eggs.  A great time was had by all as they ate Jamaican and Indian food and participated in their first Easter egg dying and hunt.

Talk about mixing it up!  My southern household of black folk had an Easter dinner of a New England Seafood Boil, Garlic Butter Braised crab legs and Sherried Tea Biscuits later, while my third daughter had Jamaican and Indian food and introduced a culturally mixed family to the age-old American tradition of dying Easter eggs and hunting for them.

Talk about living diversity!  Love it!

 

 

Microaggression 101

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The other day I was chatting with the president of my university at a reception when someone came over and asked if he could interrupt and introduce someone.  I said fine, and he proceeded to do so. I am an African American female and all the others involved were white males.  He did not bother to introduce me, but only the president. I finally introduced myself.  Of course he then apologized for the oversight. I couldn’t have cared less about being introduced to his person, but it was clearly rude of him to ignore me. Because I am African American and female, I experienced the act as one of microaggression.

After he left, the president turned to me and said, “That’s the microaggression you were talking about, isn’t it?”  Astonished, I said yes. I had mentioned the concept to him in an email a few weeks earlier in another context, but we had never discussed it.

That he not only had read it, but recognized it when he saw it, and and actually acknowledged and pointed it out was pretty profound.  It shouldn’t be, but, sadly in our society, it is, and I made sure he understood that.   When I got home and opened my latest issue of Time magazine, there was a full page article on microaggression by John McWhorter, which I immediately also sent along to the president.  

The reason what the president did was so profound is because when microaggression is noted, it is generally by the one to whom it is directed.  If it is mentioned by them to someone outside the group that is the basis for the microaggression (often race or gender, but can be any traditionally marginalized group), that person will generally poo-poo the idea and give alternative ways to interpret it, say it was the object’s imagination, they misunderstood or they are being overly sensitive.  This, lack of validation, of course, only further aggravates the problem and makes the object of the microaggression less likely to share this information again.  Bit by bit a solid wall is built up until the object of the microaggression no longer discusses such matters with anyone outside his or her group again.  Any communication that could facilitate understanding is lost.  The acts go on, but there is little or no discussion of them, generally until some precipitating act occurs and the issue bubbles to the surface, usually in an acrimonious way.  

You see this reflected in statistics such as the majority of whites thinking the Trayvon Martin verdict of acquittal was just, while a majority of blacks think it was unjust.  It always seems to be such a surprise to the newscasters reporting it, but rarely is a minority surprised.  We know of very few people who don’t have a “driving while black” or “walking while black,” other similar story.  We also know that telling it to whites generally gets us nowhere because they will only say we are being too sensitive.  So, when the Trayvon Martin tragedy strikes, we’re angry, but not surprised.  Yet it always seems to take whites by surprise. The micro aggression that leads to such outcomes only seems to be apparent to those to whom it is directed.

That is, until now.  For some reason the term has found its way into the mainstream and is now often the subject of the press and filtering into other areas of life.  Thank goodness.

The term “microaggression” has been around for years but was mainly used by academics.  The title of the Time magazine article is “Is ‘Microaggression’ the New Racism?”  [note that in the online article the title is "Microaggression is the New Racism on Campus] It is a term that is used to describe the numerous daily slights and disrespectful acts that are primarily directed to women and minorities living in a world that, intentionally or not, marginalizes, demeans, belittles and overlooks them all day, every day in ways big and small.  Most learn to ignore it or tune it out just to get through the day.  Others choose to call out every slight as an intentional personal insult, often to a startled, unaware offender who is clueless as to what he could have done to deserve such ire.  Those who take this approach are usually labeled as troublemakers, extremists, “angry black man or woman,” as “playing the race card,” or in the case of females calling out gender slight,  a bitch, feminist,  or a raging “feminazi.”

But, however the object of the microaggression chooses to cope with it, it has an impact that eats at your soul and acts to undermine your sense of self and comfort and is a constant reminder that you are not in a world of your making or intended for you. Dr. Laura Brown, a clinical psychologist and self-described “radical lesbian feminist,”  in a talk at my university recently referred to it as the “acid rain” that erodes one’s sense of self.  The end result is constantly feeling like an outsider, even in a place you may absolutely belong.

This must be addressed if we are to successfully move from diversity to true inclusion.  Determining what that means only takes thinking about your own world at the minute level and thinking about what makes you feel comfortable.  Chances are, there are significant parts of that feeling missing for minorities and women in most public settings.  That is, outside the circle of one’s family and friends.  That does not necessarily have to happen.  The key is to treat people as you would wish to be treated.  Sound familiar?  Yep, the good old Golden Rule.

Think about the public setting in which you feel most at home: work, school, church/synagogue/mosque, a bar, the barber shop, playing a sport. Wherever.  Now, think about why you chose that spot as the most comfortable.  What makes it so?  The people?  What about them?  Because they look like you?  Share your interests? Dress like you?  Share your values?  Your goals?  Your socioeconomic status?  Your choice in clothes?  Music?  Hairstyles? Language?  Sense of humor? Ideas? Food? Family background? Geography? Facial expressions? Tone of voice?  Choice of words? Outlook on life?  What do they do that makes you feel comfortable?  Speak to you?  Speak to you in a pleasant, familiar way?  Make eye contact?  Have open, welcoming body language?  Treat you as someone familiar rather than alien or different? Not act standoffish?  Smile rather than scowl, look officious, or ignore you?

Chances are, the more of these you say yes to, the more comfortable you are.  

Now, imagine if those things were not the same. How different would the picture be?  How would it effect your comfort level?  If everyone wore long hair or a beard, and you didn’t, would it feel the same?  Would you have the same comfort level?  What if they didn’t wear shoes, or wore flip flops and you wore dress shoes?  What if they spoke a different language or were rich and you weren’t?  What if they did not smile at you, but scowled, or simply ignored you?  Would it feel the same?  Should it?  Could it?  Would it matter?  Should it matter?

My point is that an awful lot goes into what we consider comfortable and most of us take it for granted.  Unless, of course, it is not available to us.  We often don’t even realize when we are doing it for one group and not for another.  This was demonstrated in a startling way in a ABC 20/20 piece, “True Colors,”  by Diane Sawyer in 1991.  Many more of these types of pieces have been done more recently with the same or similar results.  

In many ways—most ways, actually—so much of how we feel in our environment is controlled by small things that we have completely in our control. There are no big laws that can be passed to handle that.  Changing this is up to us.  I tend to think that for most people, it is mostly a matter of it being brought to their attention because they simply are not aware. Amoja Three Rivers does a great job of showing us how this occurs in her piece, “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide.”  For most people, once they know better, they do better.  

Of course, there are others who actually intend to treat certain groups poorly, and I don’t know that there is really anything to be done with them except pray for them, bless their hearts.

So, what does microaggression look like? It is acts that make someone feel like an outsider, “the other,” like they are “exotic,” or otherwise not just a part of the group. Pointing out, or only dealing with them on the basis of their differences and never bothering to deal with anything else qualifies.   Only dealing with them on race/gender/LGBT/ethnic issues (depending on the group the target of the microaggression belongs to).  This is seeing them as only having an existence relating to that aspect of themselves rather than as a whole person.  I am African American and female, but I am also a mother, a writer, a quilter, a gardener, a textbook author, a lawyer, a friend, a sister, an enjoyer of music, a mystery reader and writer, a lover of poetry, a grandma, a gym rat, enthusiastic survivor of a simultaneous double knee replacement, a tea lover, a social justice activist, a spreader of love….is that enough to add some dimension?  

A black female colleague told me last week that she was the only person of color sitting in a meeting about diversity and rather than asking the group the question, a white faculty member shocked her when he turned to her and said something like “So, tell us what blacks want” or some such nonsense,  as if she was supposed to speak for all African Americans.  And, of course, making it clear that he thought she was only there because of her race rather than anything else she might bring to the table. The great irony was that it took place at a diversity meeting of those who supposedly knew better.

It could also be giving backhanded compliments (“You’re really pretty for a dark girl” or “I don’t think of you as black”–leading the person to believe that if you did, that would be a negative). Or, perhaps, treating someone only as a member of a group rather than as an individual (“I think black people are so funny! And y’all can dance so well and play sports so well!” or  asking questions like why all blacks expect a handout or why they all like watermelon or chicken (as if KFC’s Colonel Sanders got rich off only black folks.  I haven’t been to a country yet where there wasn’t a KFC).  Yep.  I actually get these questions.   It’s also not making eye contact with someone you don’t consider to be like you, not engaging them in casual conversation as you would others. Simply not treating them as you would like to be treated in similar circumstances.

Because they are members of the human race and are social creatures, everyone has the need to feel accepted and included. Short of death,  the worst our society offers to its worst transgressors is solitary confinement.  That is, taking a convicted criminal who has committed heinous acts against society away from the society of other inmates.  Even for hardened criminals, it can drive people mad to feel isolated and outcast.  

The isolation doesn’t have to happen all at once like solitary confinement.  It can instead be like death by a thousand cuts.  It will come out in seemingly insignificant ways.

Like totally ignoring the black female as the only other person not introduced to someone in a group.  

As the object of the microaggression, you don’t get used to it, you just learn to cope with it so you don’t go crazy.

 

 

What we value

As I approached a workplace meeting the other day, I saw one of my female colleagues who is battling cancer.  For the first time I can remember, she was without a wig.  Her short pixie-type hair was quite different than the full head of curls she once had.  As soon as I saw her, I mentioned that I loved her hair.  She said that her young daughter had insisted that she not wear a wig that day.

I’m so glad.  My love of her hair wasn’t as much about the style or length as much as it was about what it represented about her.

It is so easy for us to pass judgment about such things as hair.  That probably makes sense in a society in which so much stock is put in how a woman’s hair in particular, looks.  Just think about the commercials.  The overwhelming message for women is clearly a goal of “long, luxurious, shiny” hair (preferably blonde).  Since I’m African American and wear a natural, those commercials at every turn go right in one eyeball and out the other, but believe me, we get our own equivalent version.  I consider it foolishness, but that’s just me. Thank God more black women are tuning out this noise and realizing the value and innate beauty of their natural hair, complete with its tightly curled (for the most part) nature and the unlimited possibilities it presents.

For me, my colleague’s hair spoke to more than just a hairstyle.  It was an incredibly powerful badge of honor that so accurately reflected her courageous, untiring battle to stay alive.  Though I know she has sacrificed far more in her battle, if a head of hair was all she sacrificed for that privilege, it was a small price to pay.  Having the courage to wear her own natural hair was small in comparison to the courage it must have taken for her to face the notion of dying and leaving her life and family, including two young children.  No matter how dire the diagnosis, her update emails were always full of life, courage, fortitude and bravery.   How beautiful is that? 

I can imagine that in caucasian culture, dominated as it is by images of Madison Avenue’s perfect depictions of beauty that impact girls from the moment they are born and long-tressed blonde dolls are thrust into their hands as toys,  it would not be easy to face the idea of losing something to which society attaches so much value.  Women are judged by friends, family and perfect strangers on the “quality,” length, “grade,” color, and style of their hair from a very young  age.  It must feel totally scary to think of losing something you’ve never had to think about, not realizing it played such a seemingly crucial role in your life until you no longer have it.

When I see women with short hair, whether I know if it is by choice or otherwise, given the value placed on hair in our culture, I tend to think they are brave women to be willing to cut it off and show their faces uncovered by the curtain so many others hide behind.  When it is not cut, but instead lost, the value is even greater.  Seeing a head bald from the ravages of chemotherapy or other illness-fighting treatments gives a face to courage, struggle, and the will to overcome, to not go quietly into that good night.  I don’t look at it and think “bald, poor thing” or “whoa! bad hair day?”  

I look at it and think, “What an incredibly courageous woman.”

To me, that kind of beauty is worth valuing far more than a head of “luxurious” hair that simply reflects being a slave to society’s view of what is beautiful or worthy.  

Not wear a wig?  Absolutely. You Go girl!  Be proud of your courage and fortitude and thereby teach us all a lesson about what we value.

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