A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pacifist Dreams of Violence

One dark Friday night two weeks ago, my partner Ann tells me I spoke in my dreams. I said, "I want to punch you in the face. [pause]. I'm holding back."

I'm not one for punching in my waking times, and before that I can only remember dreaming about punching someone once before (when--after neurosurgery--I dreamt that a cowpoke mocked my grief.) The next night, however, I dreamed that I was punching a previous student (a kind boy, now in his late thirties, who has a lovely relationship with his wife) for using derogatory expressions about women. Fortunately, I punched in the direction away from Ann, so I only hurt myself (when I cut my fist on my bedside table’s corner.)

We are pretty sure I wasn't having a frustrating teacher dream, and I wasn’t really punching my student because in my teacher dreams I speak in an unintelligibly fast, high voice, much like Charlie Brown's teacher turned from 45 to 72 on the turntable. (If you're too young for this reference, ask an older person.)

We suppose I was dreaming about the Seattle Times sports editor. I had written a letter to The Times about the sports page layout, where the top article was about the Seattle Reign's goalie's domestic violence a month or so ago and her apparent lack of remorse rather than a news article about the team playing in the conference finals for the second year in a row.  Though the news article was bigger with a photo, the headline and most of the large photo were below the fold and the opinion piece drew attention.

Frustrated by the disrespect to women's athletics (again--I've written the paper repeatedly about the lack of women's coverage over the years), I had written this letter:

The Seattle Reign was in the NWSL title game last night, and yesterday your lead sports page article was an opinion piece by Matt Calkins about Hope Solo's alleged domestic violence? The lead story should have been the article about the team playing in the finals. Soccer is, after all, a team sport. Give this women's team the respect their heart and athleticism deserve.

I was surprised, and impressed, when I heard back from the sports editor defending the layout, and then we continued to exchange a few emails. In the end, he wrote that he had worked to increase the visibility of women in the sports pages and had hired quite a few women in the department. I thanked him for his work, and we agreed that women needed better coverage in the sports pages and in the other pages as well.

For as long as I can remember I have been a feminist (though I wouldn’t have used that word until I moved from North Carolina and Texas to Seattle). As with my first brain tumor, I didn’t recognize the early symptoms, but looking back I see that I have always seen my male-dominated world through the lens of being a female. (Just ask my Uncle Tommy about the brownie story when I was five….or don’t. He’s a good man. He hates that story, and it took me a ridiculous forty years to forgive him for what he could not see.)

When I thanked the sports editor for his advocacy, I wasn’t giving in. I was letting go: letting him go from my challenge and letting myself go from an insistence that he acknowledge his mistake. After all, I know it’s hard to fight an injustice when I’m embedded in the culture that has created the injustice, and I’m not a target.

For example, as a progressive white woman I have struggled to create a more just world for people of color. As a teenager, I remember the power of the memoir, Black Like Me. As an adult interested in racial and economic justice, I worked in schools, first in more privileged private and public suburban schools and then in public schools that served students living in poverty, many of them students of color. I even helped start one of those schools. (That was a lot of work.) I also went to the White Privilege Conference when it was in Seattle two years ago. And I have been in a Race and Spirituality study group for two years.  The list of the ways I’ve tried to become educated and to be an activist is long and historied.

Still, I’m not a black person, and I really can’t understand what it’s like to be black in this country. Sometimes, I exasperate more aware people with my misunderstandings. All I can say is a wimpy, “I’m trying to listen.”

Perhaps I have come to understand the differences between being a person who wants to be helpful from the outside with one who experiences injustice since I developed disabilities when I was 43 years old, eight years ago.

Before then, I tried to be an activist for people of color, those living in poverty, and those who had immigrated to this country. As a high school teacher, I had students with a variety of disabilities in my mainstream classes, but I hadn’t considered social justice for people with disabilities. The need to be an ally for this population hadn’t occurred to me, except in the case of individuals—so not in a systemic way—until I had disabilities myself. If the population with disabilities had occurred to me, I might have acted out of pity, and I might have said that I just didn’t have the energy to take on another population.

That changed when I became a person with disabilities and began experiencing life as an outsider. Then, I crossed from a world of more privilege to one of less privilege, and I began experiencing people of good intent and demeaning effect.

I see disability justice differently now than I did before my disabilities. As a person with primarily visible physical disabilities, I am still working to understand the experience of people with intellectual and emotional disabilities so that I can be a respectful ally.

Though I have tried to let go of my intensity about women’s coverage in The Seattle Times sports pages. I have not given in. The lack of coverage continues to reinforce our culture’s unjust stance towards women as full citizens.

The day after the sports editor and I exchanged emails, I looked at the Sports pages to see if there were any evidence of our conversation. Nope. What I remember is that there was one photo that included a woman who was in focus, though the man at her side was in the photo’s center. As I remember, the lead article was about the male coach of the very successful University of Washington women’s volleyball team. A large photo of him holding two volleyballs accompanied the article, as if he were coaching balls and not women.

Perhaps I had looked too soon, so the next day I looked again. On that day, the only photo of a woman in the sports pages was in an ad for a baldness cure for men, and the large photo of a pretty woman with a lot of hair seemed to be saying that pretty women like men with hair.

One week later, I looked again: lots of football articles and photos. No articles or photos of women.

How do I respond? I feel sympathy for this editor who intends to increase the presence of women in sports media, but I cringe at the paper. This male editor intends to do the right thing, but he must not be able to see the effects of his cultural bias. He’s like me: doing the best he can, but limited in his vision.

And that’s true of so much injustice. I’d guess that in many cases we perpetuate injustice because we cannot see it.

How should I react? With compassion, not peace.

How do I hope others will respond to me when I’m unaware of my own lack of awareness? With compassion, not peace.

How does that start? I don’t know, but I study like crazy, so that’s only a partial answer. I need to listen, to be in conversation with people who can teach me.

And I credit our sports editor for that, for being in conversation. I just hope he knows he’s not done. I hope we will talk again.

I think I’ll send him this blog entry.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


In the last two weeks, two different women who are residents at the assisted living center where I'm doing an internship have told me I'm pretty. One repeated the compliment several times (because I asked her to. I'm not proud. I told her she was my favorite person that day.)

I'd guess these women are in their late 70s, so you might quip that they don't see so well now. So be it. Strangers have not told me I'm pretty in a long time. I'm guessing that's partly because I'm over 50, and partly because since neurosurgery my eyes are crossed, part of my face doesn't work, and I walk with a cane (like I've injured my leg instead of my brain.)

I didn't think I've missed being told I'm pretty, but the joy I felt in their compliments make me think that maybe I have.

I went through a few beauty queen years when I was around 20. This was an odd time. Guys would stop in their tracks, apparently stunned, to comment on how beautiful I was. They'd say this to me as if I were a statue, not necessarily trying to pick me up but stating the truth as they saw it. Once a guy in the car next to me at a stoplight started taking my photo. Another time a drunk girl in a New York City club's bathroom yelled at me because she said I was so beautiful that I didn't need make-up, so she hated me (an odd compliment). Another guy asked me, "Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Katharine Hepburn?" (He said that in front of his friends and got a lot of grief for it but seemed to manage the ribbing.) I made friends easily and sometimes intimidated people. All because people thought I was pretty.

Those beauty queen years followed my ugly duckling years, so I found the positive attention odd. I was not a perpetual beauty like my sister and my mother, so I was unused to such attention: for some years I was bullied by the popular ring leader in school, sometimes didn't have dates to dances, and found it hard to make friends in middle school. How odd that making friends was so hard when I was an ugly duckling and became so easy once people thought of me as pretty.

The experience made me wary of people who seemed to like me before they knew me, and slightly cautious about the depth of friendship and attraction.

It's been easier in my middle years not to stand out as either pretty or ugly, and I feel a middle-aged confidence in the depths of my friendships and relationships now.

For example, my partner Ann and I went to the beach with our dear friend Ellen last week. My connection with Ellen is deeper than pretty: Ellen is funny, wise, and remarkably compassionate. Ellen is the person Ann called to be with us at the hospital after I was in a nasty car accident. (I wasn't hurt, but we weren't sure about that yet.) Ellen has been helping me find places to learn what I want to learn about working with people who are hurt using writing and reading. Ellen often sends me excellent poems. Ellen loves to shop in thrift stores. She's not fancy. She's just solid.

The three of us had fun being easily together over the weekend. We played games (and I won most of the time, which was excellent). We walked on the beach, admiring the kites and scowling at those who drove their cars on the sand. We admired the kites on the beach and those at the International Kite Museum. Ellen cooked dinner one night, Ann another, and we went out a third. Two nights we went to Scoopers for ice-cream, a delicacy that Ellen and I love and Ann accepts. (If you're at Long Beach, WA, go to Scoopers. They have 48 flavors, so you'll find a flavor you like. They give big scoops and the ice-cream's creamy.) We loved the ice-cream (one of the scoopers was wearing a shirt like my favorite hat when I was growing up: "I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice-cream." She didn't have sunglasses in her tee-shirt like the ones in my bucket hat, which could come down over my face, so she wasn't quite as cool.)

Before we walked on the beach the first time, Ellen said I could use her sunscreen because she had brought a lot, and I had forgotten mine. When she came out of her room, however, she couldn't rub the sunscreen in, so it gooped on her face. Turns out it was glue. We laughed, and were glad that she and I hadn't walked into the wind and the sand with glue on our faces.

So maybe I'm not pretty anymore. Maybe I'm pretty in a new way. It doesn't seem to matter much anymore. Friendship and love matter more now in a way that I had yearned for in those odd years of being beauty or beast. I'm so lucky to have so many good friends now, and to have a few from my past, both my ugly duckling days and my beauty queen days, still with me. 

Earlier this week, at the poetry club I host at an assisted living center, the five elders who were there and I read "Ode on a Grecian Urn" together. The poet, John Keats, concludes a lot of fretting about time and immortality by saying, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. / That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."

Perhaps I love poets not because they look for beauty but because they see it all around them, in leaves that are green or golden or falling.

Now in my golden years, I feel lucky to experience beauty that's deeper than pretty. I experience beauty in Ann and friends and family; I experience beauty in the kindnesses of elders; I experience beauty in the gift of every moment.

As the same poet, Keats, reflects in his "Ode to Autumn," he (and we) should "think not" of summer's losses but recognize that autumn has its own music.

In this autumn of my life, I feel so grateful for so much beauty all around and in us. In this way for me, my brain tumors and aging have been gifts that continue to make me pause like those boys did during my beauty queen years just to marvel at how lovely living is.