Friday, June 27, 2014
Last week, Ann and I went to the beach at Emerald Isle, North Carolina, with my parents, our niece Isabella and her boyfriend Conner. (Sister Jen and her husband Todd came for the beginning of the week but had to get back to New York on Tuesday. Little Brother Matt and his family couldn’t come this week because the kids were still in school.) The week got me thinking in some new ways about family and home and what they mean to me.
My family has this tradition of convening at a North Carolina beach for a week in the summer for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, my father’s Spring Hope relatives rented a few large houses and brought their fishin’ poles and ski boats. The older boy cousins some-number-removed from me fished from the beach. From the safety of a deck, they drank beer and whistled at the girls they saw through their binoculars. (I found this odd and have not forgotten it.) Our family joined everyone for waterskiing in the sound where the water could be smooth: the young ones skiing all day while Aunt Ben and Grandmother and the others with white hair sat in the shade, talking about the price of "tobaccah" and eatin’ watermelon.
Once my siblings and I grew up, our family no longer joined our extended relatives but continued the tradition of going to the beach with our growing family: me and my partner Ann, Sister Jen and her husband Todd with their four kids, and Little Brother Matt and his wife Kristin with their three kids.
This year, for the first time in forever, we couldn’t all go at the same time, so as many as could went last week and others who can will go in August. Though the forecast threatened a couple of days of thunderstorms, we had rain only one night. The week was beautiful, and we spent our days on the long white sandy beach under a colorful umbrella loaned to us by the people in the other half of our duplex, who also showed us how to anchor the umbrella so that it would stay upright in the wind. (Southerners are neighborly in this way.)
Thursday evening, Ann and I and Isabella and Conner went to an outdoor concert billed as Rock and Blues with Jazz Infusion: not music I thought I’d like, but it was a guy with his guitar singing much like Jimmy Buffet, so I loved it. The audience was mostly middle-aged folks in low-slung beach chairs, so Ann and I fit right in while Isabella and Conner brought down the average age and raised the cool factor.
The Jimmy Buffet-like singer was singing, “I want you to love me like my dog does” as we arrived. He must have been from Florida and sang a lot of songs that included gator-wrestlin’. He sang one song about being Bubba-fied. Awesome. He closed with the song, “I like my sushi when it’s fried.” I enjoy the Southerner embracing the stereotype of a hick more than the actuality, especially when the embracing is tongue-in-cheek.
This Jimmy-Buffet like fellow had a Southern persona, and like so many Southerners, he embraced negative stereotypes. (I’ve learned from my readings in Social Work that this characteristic of claiming negative stereotypes is common of oppressed populations. Southerners, with their heritage of being the only defeated nation in the U.S. after a Civil War loss that still defines the region’s self-identity in many ways and their unusually high percentage of people living in poverty, people living with obesity, and people without advanced educations, certainly identify as oppressed, though they see themselves more as fighters than victims.)
When I was growing up, I never really felt like I belonged in the South: often people told me that I seemed like a Yankee. I never was sure what this meant: maybe my early feminism and lesbian tendencies (not yet known to me) made me seem out of place. I certainly felt out of place.
I moved from North Carolina after graduating from college in 1986, first heading to Dallas and then to Seattle, where I realized immediately that I am not a Yankee: I am a Seattle-ite. Seattle has always felt like home to me in a way that North Carolina never did and the fast-paced, citified Northeast never would. As I grow older, however, I feel a surprising connection to my childhood home.
Sometimes symptoms of that deep connection spill upward, geiser-like, surprising me with what’s inside me. For example, when Isabella, Conner, Ann and I had connected at baggage claim on our way into North Carolina, I drawled, “Do y’all know who’s picking us up?” Ann looked at me suspiciously, and I said, “Where did that come from? I never say y’all, and I don’t drawl.”
Something about the South seems to be at my core and to emerge, like the aliens in that 1980s horror movie, when conditions are right. In another example, I had brain surgery after I’d lived in Seattle for 16 years. Before I went into surgery, the years had worn away much of my accent, but after surgeons fiddled around near my brain stem, my accent returned thick and syrupy. I also craved foods from my childhood, foods that I had long ago renounced: banana and mayonnaise on Wonder bread with “Pineapple Delight” (green Jell-o with nuts, pineapple, and marshmallows): especially tasty with chocolate milk (“You can’t drink it slow, if it’s Quik, nobody-o.”)
I no longer dine in such glory, but I still love my grits, and Northwesters still stop to ask me where I’m from when I speak. This makes me think that being Southern is still at my core, though the Pacific Northwest is where I’ve always felt at home.
It occurs to me that maybe home is, literally, where the heart is, and that when we are close to our hearts, our home goes with us everywhere we do. Sometimes I wear a pair of turtle earrings in a Native American design, and years ago a Native American man who seemed wise, though I had only just met him when we said hello at our conference. He asked if my spirit animal were the turtle, an animal that is at home everywhere because it takes its home with it. At the time I thought my spirit animal was the independent cat that likes to roam alone and sleep in the sunshine.
I have since learned, however, that my spirit animal is the turtle, and I like the idea that I might feel at home everywhere, but I don’t. Like the turtle, I pull my vulnerable parts inside my shell whenever I feel unsure or threatened, which is often. In this sense the home that I carry with me is a retreat to return to more than a safe space from which to adventure.
This idea of home is compelling to me and when I look at modern media I see that it must be compelling to others as well: Dorothy yearned to go home and clicked her heals, saying her mantra, “There’s no place like home.” Apple is in on the yearning, too: on iPhone is a most-often used button called, “the home button.” In baseball, a sport with its own mythology, players try to get home. (Of course, to win they must leave home first. Otherwise, they just strike out and hang their heads.) It seems that many of us want to wander away and then to return home, not necessarily to the place we sleep or slept when we were children, but to our querencia.
When I taught high school seniors, many of them becoming independent or preparing for a new level of independence, I taught the personal essay and often assigned a prompt from a long-ago Advanced Placement Composition test. The prompt invited students to reflect on an English definition of the Spanish word querencia and to write about the place where they feel at home.
My seniors always understood the question as metaphorical. They wrote about their querencias in their cars or their rooms, on a high desert shelf or—in the case of a brilliant student who dropped out of school and into the life of drugs in a nearby park—in a hole in his bedroom wall where he hid his journals.
Unfortunately, I have lost that prompt and cannot find the definition on the innernets, but I will tell you what I remember: querencia is a bull-fighting term for the place where the bull returns for protection and gathering strength when it is threatened. It is a safe spot in the world or in ourselves, a place where we know we belong. Though the writer didn’t say this, it is the place where we know we are a child of God, where we connect with our elemental selves and our universe. It is the place where we connect confidently with Max Ermine’s idea in “Desiderata”:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Perhaps this is the place that I connect with for a second or so when I practice yoga or meditation or witness great beauty. Perhaps this is the place I yearn for—home not so much as the place I grew up or the place where I live, but the place in me that is loving and safe and confident that I am meant to be here.
Perhaps we all seek this place eventually. To find this place, we must slow down and be quiet. In this way, as in others, my tumors have been a gift. They have slowed me down and quieted me: they have helped me find my center. They have helped me know that I am okay, and more than okay. They have taught me that I live in grace. They have taught me that I no longer need to find home: I am home.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
In a recent scholarship application, I wrote about my interest in people with differing abilities. A reader said I should use the word “disabilities,” rather than sugar-coating the idea of disabilities with the softening phrase “differing abilities.” In previous semantic lesson, when I was applying to graduate school a few years ago, a friend told me to use “people first” language: people with disabilities rather than disabled people. And then in a research project I learned that “disabled people” is now preferred by activists who want to be in your face. What to say?
I hadn’t actually chosen the phrase “people with differing abilities,” but was quoting from a phrase that my friend Robin had written in a document defining our mission in working to integrate Disability Studies into the School of Social Work curriculum. (I know, surprising that we don’t learn about people with disabilities already, but we don’t.)
Before I became a person with disabilities, I would have said the same thing that my reader seemed to say: “Be honest with language. Euphemisms are dishonest.” I am coming to think, however, that those of us with disabilities are in fact differently abled.
In important ways, I am disabled: I can’t walk without a cane, see singly without prism glasses, or make it through a whole day without a nap like I did before brain surgery. I can’t drive a car, hike up a trail or continue my teaching career. I can’t even cry out of both eyes or carry a filled glass in my left hand. Often, I can’t open a bag of M&Ms or put in earrings. These abilities I have lost. They are my disabilities.
To be honest, though, I have new abilities. Having had a lot of practice in hospitals, I know my name, the date, and the president. I can tell you the difference between 3 and 9 on the pain scale. I can slow down: smell our roses, experience a poem, or wait patiently for the next bus. I can often tell the difference between when I should get upset or anxious and when I should just breathe deeply and know that whatever the irritation is really is not that important. I can ask, “How are you?” and wait to hear the reply.
I speak in the vernacular, however: I say I’m a person with disabilities rather than saying I am a person with different abilities so that others will not think that I misunderstand or disbelieve my new life; in truth, though, I am a person with different abilities than I had before or perhaps than others who have not experienced serious disease.
I used to think euphemisms for death were also meek ways of expressing what we were too cowardly to say: the euphemisms “lost”, “passed” or (worse) “transitioned” were just linguistic back-flips to avoid recognizing a hard truth.
For example, when my maternal grandmother went to see my grandfather after his knee surgery in the hospital, a doctor pulled her into her office and said, “Mrs. Matthews, we’ve lost Robert.” Confused by the doctor’s language and often exasperated by my grandfather, my grandmother said, “Oh, he’s just wandered off somewhere. We’ll find him.” The docyor’s euphemism seemed to me cowardly and unkind. The doctor should have said, “Mrs. Matthews, Robert died. I’m sorry.” The first role of language is to communicate. The doctor did not. I still think the doctor was wrong.
My friend Pea, however, taught me about language and death after her mother “passed.” Pea explained, “It did not seem to me that my mother had died, had become a nothing. It seemed to me that she had passed into another realm.” I believed Pea, and experienced this truth with my friend Chris’s passing in January. I have also heard the word “transitioned” in these months after Chris’s passing and in settings with relatives, chaplains and health providers of those who are passing.
Once I would have thought that words like “passing” and “transitioning” were white lies, gentler and perhaps more cowardly than saying “died.” Now, however, I think passing and transitioning speak more honestly about what happens to us at the end of this life. Maybe we are not so much afraid of death as afraid not knowing. Maybe “passing” and “transitioning” are in fact truer expressions of what happens to us.
Language that challenges our realities is hard. It’s hard for me to think in ways that transcend my language.
For example, I have struggled with what verb tense to use when I talk about Chris. We don’t seem to have the right tense in English. I loved Chris when she lived in her body. I have always been an ashes-to-ashes person, but now I need the eternal present. I loved Chris before. I love her still. She loved me, and she loves me. Her kind and gentle spirit is with me. She was always remarkably present. She still is.
I don’t know what this means, but I know this is so: Chris is with us, not just as a memory or in our connections with one another—though those are important too. In some way that I don’t understand, she remains here, loving us.
My friend Wayne just passed, too. I'm just at the sad part with Wayne, not yet ready to be philosophical.
So often, when my experiences transcend the language I’ve been taught, and I seek another way of speaking, my words sound too soft and cowardly. But perhaps our world and our being are in fact gentler and more loving than we’ve been taught.
Perhaps what language can reveal is that there are so many ways of being, one not better than the rest but simply different.
The first time since my tumors that I wrote for a contest, I entered an essay that I titled, “The Benefits of Brain Tumors.” The piece was selected as a finalist but not the winner. I still remember how distasteful the judge who read my piece found the idea that there is in fact an upside to brain tumors. She wrote, “Your sense of humor makes this piece palatable.” Palatable?!
A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that I represent what those with tidier lives fear. When I walk slowly with a cane, they see their vulnerability in me. I want to say to them (and to you if this applies) that having disabilities is still living, just living in a different (and perhaps more grateful) way. Like God’s always saying in the Bible—from a burning bush or an angel—Do not be afraid. I bring to you good tidings.
Don’t get me wrong: if I’d had a choice I would not have experienced brain tumors. I would still hike in the mountains and see a single person (instead of two) when I look at an individual. I would not nap daily. I would still run from moment to moment. I would still lie awake at night with anxieties about situations I do not control. I would spend endless hours as a principal watching high school football games.
Lucky for me, I could not choose. I live with different abilities than I did before. I am less afraid than I was before. And that’s the truth.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Last Sunday, my partner Ann and I attended our dear friend Chris’s memorial service. Chris died on Jan. 24, 2014, and May 25 would have been her birthday.
The service was a lovely reflection of who Chris was and who and what she cared about.
Ann and I arrived at The Labor Temple at 1:40, in time to drop off a plate of Ann’s famous chocolate chip cookies, pin a paper crane to our shirts, and peruse tables of Chris's books, a display board of photos, a board of feminist buttons, and a table of the many games Chris loved to play.
As we entered, a crowd of mostly lesbians and leftists, some from out of state and many wearing attire and haircuts that challenged gender assumptions. Though there was a range of ages, most were probably a decade older than I am, as Chris was. There was a lot of gorgeous white hair, or hair dotted with white in that beautiful salt and pepper way. As we made our way to seats in the front, we looked along the long wall where a friend of Chris's had hung historical posters of radical equality events. This was the right place for Chris's memorial.
There were two sections of seats, arranged like pews, for maybe 220 people. In this crowd were so many who have had a long history together of fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia and other bad things, and I envied their long passionate lives together.
Chris's longtime friend Bryher began the service with a welcome and a recounting of Chris's timeline.
Then the Seattle Labor Chorus sang songs that Catherine, a member and friend of Chris's, had chosen for Chris. The lyrics called to mind the humble and determined way that Chris had led her life. The first song captured Chris's longtime commitment to economic justice:
I learned as a child there are two ways to be:
The way things are
And the way they should be….
Some people do what must be done….
They see the day beyond the horizon,
And they do what must be done.
And the second song captured Chris's humble spirit:
I just want to be one of the people who stand in the street.
I just want to be one of the millions who stand up for peace.
And the third captured her love of music in times of struggle, her love of music as a part of the struggle:
If changes are to come.
There are things that must be done,
And a song is somewhere to begin.
Chris’s dear friend Kate created a slide show of Chris’s life, and Chris’s partner Donna gave a chronology of Chris’s life, a life filled with challenges and friends and commitment to progressive—and radical (I love that) causes and ways of being in the world. Then we watched Kate’s slide show with images of Chris and many of the people in attendance through the years.
A number of us spoke a few minutes about Chris. Perhaps my favorite comments were from Ellen C., who cited two bumper stickers that she felt reflected who Chris was:
I'd rather be smashing imperialism,
My religion is kindness.
This theme of Chris's political activism and deep personal relationships was the red thread that tied the day together.
Though I have only known Chris well for a few years, she has been still, like a deep pool, with me. Our friendship has been a calm and easy one, and it was curious to imagine her turbulent days when she and a friend would shout at one another before coming back together in to yell some more and finally to find a place of peace. Perhaps she was such a person of peace for me because she had lived in such turbulence for so long.
Her ongoing commitment to justice and humility about her role in the world inspires me. I am learning from her even after her passing.
Sometimes (some might say, "Often"), I take myself so seriously. I wonder, "In what way will I leave the world better than I found it?" Though I hate to admit it because it reveals my grandiosity, I also wonder, “Will people see in me a person who makes a difference?” Such a demand from myself to change the world and to be seen doing so is perhaps a bit self-centered.
In contrast, Chris lived her life like my mantras:
Be the change you want to see in the world and
Do the right thing, even it doesn't make a difference.
I heard story after story of Chris's activism and her deep love for each person in that room.
I heard stories of her deep compassion for others and the shadow of her, at times, lack of compassion for herself. If only, so many seemed to say, she could have been as kind to herself as she was to her world.
Perhaps I can learn to be like Chris in humility and passion and compassion for the world, and I can learn also to be kind to myself in a way that she could not be.
In his dark moods, the poet Wordsworth recalled a cheerful host of daffodils that danced. Instead of thinking of the daffodils when I am in vacant or in pensive mood, I will think of Chris and live in peace with my world and those I love even as the world and I are at times so disappointingly imperfect.