A Photograph of me without me in it

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016


I’m spending four days at home on a staycation. I’m on day three. It’s fabulous. Fatigue was really getting me down. I over-worked this school year and had believed that because I’m not taking classes this summer I would recover my energy, but I’m six weeks into summer, and I’m still sleeping a lot and feeling worn out in general. Even the idea of going out with friends just makes me think of when I can take my nap. This is a bummer.

Though I don’t take on nearly as much as I did before my tumors (nine and six years ago), I still take on a lot for a person with my energy—sometimes too much. Today, I was supposed to go to Tacoma for a training on supporting immigrants to this area, but the ride fell through and transportation got complicated, causing me to take a breather and decide on a staycation.

I haven’t had a staycation since childhood, if then. I have been all about packing as many things in my day, as excellent suitcase packers can get a lot in the luggage, all my life. (I learned this value at my childhood camp, Camp Seafarer in NC, an excellent camp, but unlearning this value has been slow.) After all, I need to distinguish between living a full life and overdoing it, and that distinction isn’t easy for me.

I began learning this lesson when I was 24 years old, in my second summer after beginning to teach high school. I had volunteered with Amigos de las Americas, working on a “health project” (building latrines) in rural Michoacan, Mexico. I was stunned one day when, as a skinny white girl, I worked to dig a six-foot hole into hard ground, and six strong guys who lived there sat close by the hole and watched me work. At the end of the summer, when groups of volunteers that had been spread across rural town in the Michoacan mountains came together to reflect on our experiences, I shared only a fragment from Simon and Garfunkel:
Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy
I remember someone asking me if I wanted to elaborate further. I didn’t then, but I will now. I understood then that the people in that community valued something I hadn’t even known I was missing: down time spent alone or with friends and family, what my niece Gretchen taught me was called “Chillaxin’.” I have since learned that unplanned and unproductive time is important spiritual and creative space.

I say I’ve learned that, but I really keep learning it over and over, which is to say that I have an intellectual concept of the importance of chillaxin’, but it hasn’t really become part of who I am. I’m in some ways a person who still believes that “idle hands make the devil’s work” and that “I should not put off until tomorrow what I can do today.” (From time to time, I do tell myself not to do today what I can put off until tomorrow, but this wisdom is countercultural and comes infrequently.)

I learned more of this lesson from friends in a small, rural, Salvadoran town who told me the story of a U.S. volunteer they had met in their years in Honduran refugee camps. They told me that she never stopped working, and she never laughed. In this way, they knew that she would leave them soon.

So these few days, I’ve been chillaxin’. It’s work for me, and I’ve needed to set up guidelines: no work for school (though I did break down and watch an NPR clip about dementia and poetry, which led to reading about another group); no writing (though on day three I feel like writing this, so I am—I’m trying to distinguish between duty and fun, and this is fun); no appointments (though I did schedule a massage for a couple of weeks from now: that seemed an appropriate exception), no exercise that I have to push myself to do (though I have done yoga each day and went for a walk with Ann one day.) I haven’t even been social (except that Ann and I had Annabella and her younger daughter Trish over for lunch when Trish was in town); I also haven’t done anything out of the house that might seem edifying (though last night Ann and I went to the Sound Theatre production’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot); I’ve relinquished informative non-fiction for now, and am reading memoirs instead.

It’s just not always clear what’s chillaxin’ and what’s workin’. Maybe I should make this a research project and work towards publication…or maybe I should just have a cookie.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Fear and Spirituality

Wednesday night, thirteen white members of our church’s congregation gathered with our pastor to discuss our country’s violence: Dallas, Orlando, Columbine, Newtown, Ferguson, Afghanistan, and Vietnam were some of the places that arose.
I suspect we were all also thinking about individuals: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and others. Just last week, two other black men were killed by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota.
In Wednesday night’s group, we mourned violence and racism and wondered together what to do to move towards change, how to bring peace to ourselves and our world, how to learn from black and brown people—and from each other—about our own racial privileges and the experiences of people of color in our country.
We talked about immigration, war, the police, and gun violence.
As we talked, I remembered an activity with seniors in a school where I last taught, a school for many kids of color, many immigrants to the U.S., and white kids and kids of color living in poverty.
Perhaps you have experienced a belief line like this. I had posted signs along the wall: Disagree Strongly, Disagree, Agree, Agree Strongly. I would read out one of twenty statements, and students would stand under the sign that matched their beliefs. Then students would talk about why they chose to stand where they did, and students could move to another area if they changed their minds. In response to all of the statements but one, students chose responses along the continuum and shared differing perspectives. However, in response to the statement, “I believe the police are there to help me,” every student—all races, the rebels and the goody-goodies, the boys and the girls, the A students and the students who hadn’t passed a high percentage of their classes—gathered silently under the sign, “Strongly disagree.”
I was the only one who spoke this time. Under my breath, I said, “Wow.” I hadn’t suspected that their responses would be so uniform. They were not surprised. They just looked at me, waiting for the next statement.
I grew up a white kid, with parents who had graduated from college, and I always had health care, food, and a house to come home to. The police responded when I called. They were there to help me. Before teaching in this poor school district, I taught in privileged suburban schools. I knew the kids of my youth and the suburban kids I had taught would not have responded as these kids did. We lived in different Americas.
I’m not sure what the students learned from this activity. I can’t even remember what I wanted them to learn. I learned more poignantly than statistics or their individual stories had taught me about how different their lives and mine were.
As my mind returned to the present, Wednesday night’s desultory conversation kept returning to fear, which seemed to be at the center. One person talked about not being afraid, but the others of us talked about our fears: fear of not saying something when we should; fear of saying the wrong thing; people of color’s fear of the police; fear for children; racial fear; fear of violence against women; fear that incites violence; fear of the unknown.
We talked about how dismayed we are by the country’s gun policies, and I thought of a recent classmate, a white veteran of the Iraq War whose gun-rights identity was unusual in the school of social work, where I am now a student. He told me about the way that in Iraq his gun had been his security blanket, about how he had slept with his gun across his chest in Iraq and how some days he had collected the body parts of his companions after they had been killed. He had turned his gun in when he left Iraq, and for three nights he couldn’t sleep at home, so he went to a gun shop to buy a gun. While there, another man who had returned from Iraq on the same flight was also in the store buying a gun.
How can we address that fear when we continue sending so many to war?
Though we talked some Wednesday night about what to do: things we could do to address our own fears and fear in our communities; ways we could educate ourselves and get out of own bubbles; we were mostly just being together with our doubts and uncertainties, confessing our fears and bearing witness to one another’s uncertainty.
Three of us in the discussion have participated in a monthly study group over the last three years. Called “Race and Spirituality,” the group of now seven white women, has been trying to follow the advice of some people of color: you white people need to talk to other white people about racism.
For me, our most powerful experiences have been reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (a non-fiction book about the history of racism in our country, and an argument that current institutional racism repeats the more easily identified racism of the South’s Jim Crow era), reading and discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir Between the World and Me (a black father’s letter to his teenage son about living in a racist society), and telling our own stories of racism, stories that included the pain of racism and privilege in our lives and the pain of at times not even recognizing racism until later.
There were answers in neither Wednesday night’s discussion nor the Race and Spirituality study group, but there has been solace in talking together. Is this selfish?
Wednesday night, one of the lay leaders of our congregation told us about her favorite Bible verse: “Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love” (New Living Translation).

I have been thinking about that verse in the context of the documentary film Human. In one interview an adult black male in prison tells the story about learning about love from the mother of the woman and her child that he had murdered. (You can see it here:http://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?f=001pb0_8FD0uBIlQidR_KU0nzp9vPt6EEwkfVKp8jsEM0mlfiOv7g7n4DxdZ9_RBj9HYNNfX9Zr4PeOdkgolANp-aVPKJLFIvS8kSYYMf11T83yQhU4vM18zD6hVx9LUPOc9iQbADeLhFhgZAmGXHmt8SX6PARlL0urOVJ0IR-jK5ylKZTbE7lghg==&c=tG6K3eIgdd58pyxetpr-pVLMSVQu6L0XLLDE2PcoFAzzJKsCx9yLdA==&ch=2VlFINBrb_PRgZIxo79tg6iYqfbM_WXOG74wDkE_WahN8RVI9dLbLw)

I think that woman must have had a lot of wisdom, faith and love.

The lack of answers, the need to stay in the question, reminded me one of Rilke’s often-cited letters to a young poet (1903):
… I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903 
in Letters to a Young Poet

I am certainly living in the questions, but I fear that having this sort of patience with myself is immoral. People are dying as I am being patient. I tell myself that I am doing what I can, that I have to remember in humility my own limitations. In this I am reminded of this prayer by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw (often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Romero):

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. . . .

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. . . .

This prayer tells me to be patient with myself. But then Marianne Williamson scolds me: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. . . As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles").
So how do I move forward in this time of so much violence and grief? I do not know. I feel stymied. Befuddled.
The poet Ross Gay finds hope in small contributions to life in this poem about Eric Garner, a black man who was strangled by a policeman in Staten Island, NY in 2014:

A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked

for some time for the Parks and Rec.

Horticultural Department, which means,

perhaps, that with his very large hands,

perhaps, in all likelihood,

he put gently into the earth

some plants which, most likely,

some of them, in all likelihood,

continue to grow, continue

to do what such plants do, like house

and feed small and necessary creatures,

like being pleasant to touch and smell,

like converting sunlight

into food, like making it easier

for us to breathe.

This poem, like so many words and wonderings, brings a kind of peace without answers. Perhaps that’s all I can have for now.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

North Cackalacky

“How do you say ‘furniture’?” my mom asked my dad.
He pronounced the word, which for him rhymes with manure.
My parents, partner Ann, myself, and Little Brother Matt (LBM) and his wife, my Sister-in-Law Kristin (SILK), were sitting around the dinner table with LBM and SILK’s kids: Hayden, a high school junior; Lucie, heading into eighth grade; and Gretchen who has just graduated from fifth grade. As Dad pronounced “furniture, we all hee-hawed, which is what you do in North Carolina when something’s funny.
I sat at one end of the table, facing my father at the other end, looking past him, out the window behind him white sandy dunes and the blue-green ocean until the evening’s pinks faded to black. All of us but Mom had spent some time on the beach that day: young Gretchen throwing a football with LBM (she’s got a nice spiral—so does he) while Lucie dried out from a swim, bronzing her long body and listening on her orange headphones, Hayden absorbed in his i-Phone, SILK in her magazines, and Ann in her book, me slathered in sunscreen and protected from any further radiation by Brother-in Law Todd’s (BILT’s) straw hat on my head, a long sleeved shirt protecting my arms and reminding me “Breathe,” my pasty legs swathed in towels. 
We were several days into this family vacation. Sister Jen, BILT, and their youngest son Willie were gone, but a good number remained. This family beach tradition was in its 52nd year, counting my parents’ honeymoon and not counting the one summer we missed. The tradition reminds me of my roots here, strengthening old connections and building new ones.
On this night, those not raised in the South laughed about (I’d like to think “delighted in”) our family’s accents. The kids have grown up in Connecticut and Ann was raised in West Texas while the rest of us learned our English with a North Carolina lilt. Though SILK was raised in Greensborough, NC, a 90-minute drive from our home in Raleigh, she has a different accent, so after a day of bathing in the sun she too bathed in amusement. Dad’s from a small town in eastern NC, so his accent is different than Mom’s big city Charlotte accent and from we three kids’ accents from NC’s Triangle Area.
         We all asked others to pronounce words we found amusing: Furniture rhymes with manure; daughter and water rhyme with embroider; poetry is “poitry,” and an iron is an “eyern” instead of the Yankees’ “I earn.” We all laughed to hear the music of North Cackalacky, a term I’d only heard from my friend Colleen in the Pacific Northwest until hearing it from my brother at this Southern Accent Festival.
SILK did a quick search on her phone and read to us the definition of “North Cackalacky” from the urban dictionary: “A nickname for North Carolina. Mainly used by people (military transplants) who are originally from the West Coast, especially from CA and more specifically Socal); The word is used in good humor often to make light fun of the red neck ways of the South. Example: ‘Just saw a recliner on somebody's porch, it must be their patio furniture...only in North Cacklacky.’”
I love my NC accent: it marks me as one from another culture. I had been in Seattle sixteen years when I had brain surgery in 2007, and people had stopped commenting on my accent, but with surgery my accent returned with a vengeance. (I still have the accent, but the cravings for “pineapple delight,” a jello and marshmallow salad, and banana and mayonnaise sandwiches on white Wonder Bread have faded.)
         In Seattle before the trip, we had read the news of new conservative NC laws, including where transgendered people can go to the bathroom, and it was fun to experience a warm connection with family and old friends, a reminder of the South’s charm and personal warmth. (And it’s complexity: not everyone’s a bigot. In fact, there are many fine people there.)
         My first day in Raleigh, Mom and I visited my childhood friend Ana’s* parents. They now live in an assisted living apartment instead of in the home where I loved Grape Nuts (only there: they didn’t taste good anywhere else) and where Ana and I built forts, performed acrobatics from “Turkey Rock,” the large rock in their front yard, and in the basement listened to John Lennon’s “perfect scream” in the Beatles song “Hey Jude.”
         Though their new apartment doesn’t carry those old memories, it does carry their spirit: art and photographs on the walls, some time to talk, and at the end, Ana’s father asking plaintively for a “hug.” (A kiss on the cheek from me: he used a walker and I use a cane, and a hug was too likely to bring us both down.)
         The next night Mom, Dad and I had dinner with my eighth and ninth grade best friend Kiki’s* parents. Their home had been my second home through eighth grade and high school, and I was warmed when they agreed with Mom that I had been their “fifth daughter.” We recounted the story we always remember together about a Sunday before Christmas when Kiki and I, trying to be helpful, stripped the fake Christmas tree of its ornaments, and her Dad spent hours cursing and re-decorating the tree that hadn’t needed to lose its ornaments after all.
         Ann joined me in Raleigh Friday, and we had dinner with my dear high school friend Becky, whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. Becky had driven up from South Carolina for the visit, and her effort honored me. We reconnected immediately, like happens with some friends over the years. She looked just the same: some years older but not a lot. I still love her dimples and told her of the many high school days I spent in front of the mirror, folding my cheeks in an attempt to create dimples for myself.
         The beach trip was, as always, a time to reconnect with my siblings and their families. The kids have gotten to the ages where they are fairly independent and are amused by their old school elders. One night, Gretchen and Lucie taught us all to work “the dab,” a dance move that involved dramatically bending an arm across the face and bowing into it. I probably sound like a foreigner using and describing the move. At 52, I am an immigrant to teenage culture.
         At week’s end, Ann and I returned to Raleigh with my parents, and the two of us had dinner with my ninth grade assistant basketball coach and her partner. The last time we saw one another, I was 14 and she was 18, and I ended our connection because I thought my mom was worried that around my coach I would become gay. I think some part of me knew that I already was.
         It was so good to connect with my coach and her partner. We were bad guests, arriving at their home at 6 pm and leaving five hours later. I felt like reconnecting with my coach, now that we are both adults, out of the closet and better than okay in our lives and relationships, filled some place in me that had been empty since those years. I also felt a kind of forgiveness for the loss of that connection that had somehow helped me to understand in those awful days that I was not alone. This connection healed me in a way I didn’t know I was hurt, and I just couldn’t leave. Now I felt I needed forgiveness for staying so long.
         After Ann and I got back to Seattle, I got a text from Coach saying how lovely it had been to see me and meet Ann: once again, she seemed to forgive me, or even not to think I had transgressed, and to understand how important the connection was.
         Back in Seattle at the Assisted Living facility where I lead a weekly poetry club, I could hear my re-strengthened accent as I greeted people. I heard myself saying, “Ya’ll come to poetry club if you can!” And though I didn’t expect them to remember that I’d been gone because so many of them live with memory loss, several asked about my trip. Sadie*, who seldom says much though she comes to poetry club each week, looked into my eyes with her especially round ones and said, “I’ve missed you.”
         I’m home again.

*Names have been changed.