Sunday, June 2, 2013

Deeper Roots

“Storms make trees take deeper roots” –Dolly Parton

It’s been a long time.  Which sounds like the cliché beginning to every love song.  And I’m sorry about that.  I just didn’t know how else to begin after so many months of silence.  But I suppose if I’m going to return to writing regularly, I should start with a piece inspired by a Dolly Parton quote. 

I don’t always know how to restart after a long hiatus from writing. I just know I need to cleanse.  To empty my heart and soul in a different way than running my brain all night long, instead of sleeping.  Because, turns out, I need to sleep, too.

I’ve just returned from an impromptu trip to the mountains.  A 1400-mile excursion that provides me with 20 hours alone in the car, with nothing but me, the dog, and my rambling mind to keep me occupied.   And a random assortment of cds I keep stashed in the glove compartment for when I can’t handle my own noise anymore (Jay-Z and Gillian Welch…pick your poison).

As much as I’ve come to love Baltimore over the last twelve years, there still is something magical about hitting the road, and heading south towards the mountains.  Maybe they just make me feel safe, or comfortable.  The drive through the Shenandoah Valley is just the teaser, as I wind my way down through Virginia, and creep in the side door of Tennessee.  When I hit that North Carolina line in Madison County, I frequently force myself to stop at the “scenic pullover” stops, designed for tourists, but used most frequently by this used-to-be-local-girl.  To take a deep breath.  And look at the panorama of mountains that surround me on all sides.  It’s truly breathtaking.  Most likely the first true “pause” I’ve taken in weeks.  And I feel it in my heart.  This deep pang that could almost be mistaken as arrhythmia or heartburn or some other ailment; but I know better.  

The mountains are home.  In a small valley wedged between the lavender purple and deep blue hills, where I spent the first 18 years of my life.  Those hills are filled with people who make my heart complete; my sisters, my family, my friends.  And though a trip home is rarely quiet, or uneventful, they’re always full.  Full of life.  And love.  And little kid hugs.  And usually cupcakes.  And probably BBQ.

The last few years have felt particularly complicated.   Between the health of my family and my close friends, and truthfully my own health, and the seemingly never ending string of national and international tragedies that seem to rock my very core, I’ve been having those cyclical conversations with God.  The ones where you challenge what else could possibly be added to your plate (which is always the cue for just a few more things, which is basically just a cruel trick to remind us that we really are stupidly strong and capable of handling pretty much most things that come our way; one of those life lessons that I’d frankly rather put on a poster and hang in my office instead of “living through it”, but whatever, I’ll bring that up with God later). 

And in the last few months, I suppose I’ve found myself somewhere between overwhelmed and incredibly grateful and blessed.  Another trip to West Africa.  Some new challenges and new opportunities.  Another semester down and grad school is all but under my belt, and I seem to have survived it all with minimal scarring.  Which is proof for me that God still listens to my prayers, even if I haven’t been his best advocate over the years. 

And as we just wrapped up another commencement, and I’ve said my tearful goodbyes to another incredibly amazing class of young people ready to take on the world, I’m finding myself feeling reflective.  And emotional.  And perhaps a tad bit vulnerable.

I turned 30 this year.  Which is one of those things you think about almost every day of your twenties.  Like the ticking clock in Peter Pan.  And then all the sudden it happens, and really nothing earth-shattering occurs.  Except I do feel a bit more comfortable in my skin.  And maybe I feel a bit more ready for what the world will throw at me.  The anxiousness and nervousness of my twenties, and the looming sense of not being “good enough”, has all but subsided.   And I’m hitting this interesting little stride in my life that I don’t want to preemptively label as confidence in myself, or trust, but maybe they’re the little saplings of those words.  Just starting to take root and grow.

I’m learning life is hard and unfair.  The Rolling Stones didn’t lie to me.  It doesn’t always let up, just because it should.  And I can’t always get what I want. 

And I get tired.  Which perhaps is easier to admit now that I’m thirty.  Partially because I love the work I do so deeply, that I actually find myself with heartache.  And frustration.  And aspiration.  Like actually being in love.  And partially because its hard work.  Maybe not hard like lifting heavy things all day, or hard like being a school teacher.  But there are endless conversations about how to be better people, and how to really create change.  How to look at the world with new eyes, and see new possibilities.  Work that requires the brain to be in connection with the heart.   And lots of flip-chart paper.

But also I’m tired because I have had too many burners burning.  Too many big things going at once.  Which gets exhausting.  Juggling and peddling at the same time. 

I haven’t really allowed myself the space to process all the tragedy that has happened this year.  The world we live in that seems to get nuttier by the minute.

Generally when terrible things happen, my guttural reaction is to get in my car and drive to North Carolina and squeeze the faces of my nieces and nephews until they know, in their deepest cores, that they are loved so hard by so many people (okay, especially me, I’m a little bit obnoxious about being their “favorite”).  Or to build an impenetrable bubble for all four of them to live inside and give it to them for Christmas next year so that I never have to think about something happening to their innocence.  Their sweet smiles.  Their goofy moments of ultimate silliness.   But driving home isn’t always an option.  So I settle for a phone call, or a quick text message.  A connection.

Because I’m deeply troubled by what this world holds for them.   And not just them, but all of my students.  All of my “kids” (most of whom are indeed over 18, and are, for all intensive purposes, considered “adults”, unless I’m talking, in which case they’re absolutely my “kids”).

Especially just after graduation, just as we begin to release, I want to be able to explain it to them.

I want them to understand why it is so complicated.  Why things aren’t always just black and white.  Or good and bad.  That as much as I’d like to dream of a simpler world for them, sometimes the complicatedness of our humanity is our greatest weight and asset.  And that there is beauty embedded in what is difficult to understand.

Through some of the darkest times, we humans seem to find our greatest strengths. The journey through the dark and complicated can deepen our roots, and challenge our assumptions.  And it can also leave us scared.  And raw.  And confused.  And sometimes we just have to live that pain for a bit, until it gets better.

Through our struggles, we uncover unlikely communities, friends, and connections.

I want them to understand that the human capacity to make mistakes, and also to forgive, is a wondrous fact of life.  That our bodies and hearts have the ability to heal.  To transform.  To adapt.   But that we are also vulnerable to pain.  And heartache.  And suffering.  And that vulnerability is where we do our best growing.

Sometimes it won’t be so easy to understand what to do next.  The decisions won’t always be simple.  It’s a delicate dance with the line.  A fine piece of thread pulled taut between right and wrong.  Okay and not okay.  An infinite line; pulsing, moving, under the constant pressure of life.  And it will be stressful sometimes, but that they aren’t doing anything wrong.  In fact, it means they’re doing it right.  

Things will happen that we can’t explain.  And that sometimes life can feel really unfair.  But that it all happens in balance.  And when you’re lucky, you have to remember just how lucky you are.  And be grateful. 

Humility is not just a word.  It is something you must learn.  It is hard.  It takes work.  But it pays off.  Being honest.  Being willing to be wrong.  Open to the discovery.  Prepared to let someone else win sometimes.  Prepared that others might see something differently, and that you might both still be right. 

There are some basics, though.  You should be nice to people.  Be kind.  Be generous of heart and spirit.  And no promises, but generally, the scales will always try to tilt back to some kind of equilibrium.  The good days will counter the bad.  But it will take patience.  And genuine bull-headedness.  And sometimes the formula won't work.

But maybe these are things that you can only learn as you go.  Perhaps my desire to protect them won't really change anything, other than remind them that they're loved.  Because some things only make sense as you live it.  And survive it.  Storms make trees take deeper roots.  

Dolly’s always right.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


This is my commencement post.  Which isn’t entirely just for those who have recently graduated, but a “commencement post” because commencement has just passed and left me feeling particularly reflective.  And emotional.  And frankly a little unstable.  So this is a post about life.  And about the future.  And about how really no one knows what’s coming next.  And how to keep moving forward even when everything in your body tells you to sit down.

I’ve had a lot of “those” conversations over the last few weeks.  With anxious students just beginning to think about what happens when you leave the nest of college.  Those hard conversations about “what-ifs” and “where-do-I-gos”.  Riddled with insecurity that it will be too hard, too complicated, or too big to manage.   Fretting over the big leap.  The journey.  It.  Life.  The not knowing of where you’ll land or what it’ll take to get to where you’re going (if you’ve already determined you have a final destination). 

These conversations always loop me back to my own journey, thinking about my own choices and adventures, and the many hard and beautiful paths I’ve found myself on in my 29 years of life.  Like a Grateful Dead song.  What a long strange trip it’s been.  Indeed.

I don’t know much about life.  But I watch it happen all the time.  All around me.  Life in abundance.  And I know that we all have in us the capacity to survive it.  

I read The Sun, an independent journal packed to the brims with good writing, stunning poetry, beautiful black and white photography, and interesting interviews with people I’ve never heard of (which is a great change of pace from my other “journal”, UsWeekly).  This month they interview a painter, Ran Ortner, who paints incredibly large and emotional seascape pieces.  In answering why he paints the ocean, he shares: “It wasn’t until I read Thomas Merton that I came upon something that helped me.  He wrote that there’s nothing as old and as tiresome as human novelty; there’s nothing as immediate and as new as that which is most ancient, which is always in the process of becoming.”

There is nothing as immediate and as new as that which is most ancient, which is always in the process of becoming.  Wow.  How profound, Mr. Merton.  Even though Ortner relates the quote to the ocean, and the ocean’s infinitival presence, this line jumped out of the magazine and practically hit me in the head.

Like the ocean, we humans are in a constant state of becoming.  Of finding things about our soul and our minds that are brand new, all the time, while our bodies physically remain the same.  Our bones and cells unchanged by the choices we make, while our values and our belief systems grow stout and heavy with ideas.   Only as we age do we begin to show the scars from our battles.  The lines from our laughter.  The stretch marks from our gracious giving.  And even these changes are slight.  We remain, at our core, the same DNA.  The same cellular structures.  Our hearts still pump blood through our veins.  Our skin softens, our hair thins, but we remain the same person.

So when people get all panicky right before a big change, there is validity to it.   Change requires growing.  And allowing new patterns to develop.  And requires the emotional capacity and space to rebuild something for yourself, no matter how many times you’ve built it before, or perhaps never at all.  There is a truth to our fear of the unknown.  A bittersweet knowledge that growing up is hard work.  Growing into your skin and your voice and your body can be a beautiful, painful growth.  Learning your limitations.  Identifying your weaknesses.  Discovering your strengths.  Allowing yourself to see your own beauty.  All a process of growing up that doesn’t magically end at 18 or 22, 25 or even 45.

There is no mysterious point where the universe says, “to whom it may concern, just as a reminder, you haven’t accomplished x, y, or z, so here is a list of things you need to accomplish to get there. love, the universe.”  Nope.  Frankly, you’re lucky if you ever hear the universe talk at all.  Life is too noisy.  People are too loud.  The silent nuances of the earth get lost.  The cue that the rain is coming or the weather pattern is changing.  All signs that should help us make choices, hidden between concrete beltways and planned communities.

But our world is what it is.  With all its failing systems and warts and flaws, we still live in a beautiful world and in an incredible space in time where anything can happen.  Where there is so much possibility.  And we have all the tools we need to figure it out.  And yet there are aspects of our humanity—of our simple breathing and aging—that will always make things harder.  Because despite being so simple, we humans are capable of great complications.  We don’t always speak our truths.  Sometimes we don’t try hard enough.  We make bad choices.  We get greedy.  And we ladle in grief and illness and it can all feel huge.  Impenetrable.  

But the mediocrity of it all is part of being human.  It’s falling for the gimmick.  Getting your heart broken (as many times as it takes).  Being disappointed.  Falling in love with the wrong person.  Accepting a job that isn’t work you love, but just helps you pay the bills.  Working really hard and still not seeing any change.  Meeting people you hate.  Fighting with your siblings.  Or your parents.  Or your friends.  Misunderstanding each other’s words.   Misunderstanding each other’s body language.  Falling apart.  Getting in trouble.  Making those painful choices where there really is no good side.  No silver lining.

And part of growing up is also about recovery.  Finding the strength and grace inside that unchangeable body to move beyond what hurts in the immediate.  Remembering that our bodies cannot be purged by our emotions.  Discovering the things you shouldn’t ever do again.  Learning what you love to do.  Creating a home for yourself, when it feels like you have no where else to go.  Finding people to be with who become your family.  Thoughtful, kind people who love you no matter what.  People who create a web of love and support and honesty for you and who allow you to grow with them, even in the darkest spaces.  Apologizing.  Accepting responsibility. 

And when you find yourself in a place where everything has fallen apart, taking the time to locate the pieces of your life you want to bring back again and slowly putting them back together.  Even if it takes a slightly different shape than before.  Learning to make do with what you have.  Appreciating the simple things.  Learning the things you can do and have a great time without spending any money at all.

It’s about understanding the patterns we live.  Understanding that every action has a reaction and learning how to manage that.  How to be responsible with that pattern.  How to not take too much from others.  The process of learning how to filter our words and our actions so that we don’t unintentionally push people away from us.  Even strangers.  Even people on the other side of the world. 

Discovering our happy places.  The places that renew us.  The people who restore us.  The spaces that allow us to just be without needing to explain ourselves.  Our safe houses.  Where nothing can touch us, even if only for one day.  Or one hour.

It’s about learning that big ideas like justice and sustainability are more than just helping someone through a rough spot or recycling your cans—they’re about people and relationships and building community.  About connecting to people from different places and learning from each other about what could be.  About what should be.  About doing the dirty work of working through decades of ignorance and misunderstanding.  About rebuilding new paths towards justice.  Acknowledging our sources of privilege and power and learning how to use those to make the world a better place for everyone, not just ourselves.

It’s about listening more than you talk.  Learning to watch for those beautiful silent signs we send to each other with our bodies and our voices and our eyes.  And being aware of the way we communicate back with the world.  Learning to adapt.  Learning to accommodate.  Learning how to say I’m sorry in a sincere way.

And when we’re in those tight spots.  Those dark afternoons that seem like they’ll go on forever.  Those moments where it feels like you’ll never feel better.  You’ll never wake up (or you don’t want to).  You’ll never stop aching.  We have to remember that it always changes.  It always gets better.  If we let it.  If we allow it.  If we’re willing to work on it.  If we’re willing to admit our dark secrets to someone.

Learning to be honest can be the hardest part of it all.  Learning how to say the things no one wants to hear.  Or the things you yourself don’t even want to hear out loud.  Being open to the idea that we all make bad choices sometimes.  We all do it: we ignore all the signals and the people telling us “no”, “stop”, “don’t do it”, and do what we want, when we want, and sometimes that doesn’t end well.  But that it’s just like everything else.  There is always a way out of it.  There is a gradual process of rebuilding.  Reconnecting.  Repairing.

It’s about perspective.  Realizing that we’re constantly in a state of becoming.  Even when we think we’re finished.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Oh, hi, I'm an American.

Before I left for West Africa, there was a lot of talk about Kony 2012.   A topic that has confused me and challenged me and forced me to think hard about the things I really believe about social justice and the role of social media in social change.  Because I work with young people who are borderline obsessed with “changing the world”, the mission of Kony 2012 immediately resonated with me.  Though I clicked on it with hesitation, and really hemmed and hawed over sharing the link, I ultimately decided to do it.  Kony represented to me a campaign that would encourage young people to educate themselves about international issues they wouldn't necessarily know about, help put a name to a place, and to fight for “justice”, a huge bulbous word with thousands of meanings, in the face of what appeared to be such egregious acts of human injustice happening in Uganda.  

Using tools of social media to connect masses of people behind a specific issue, Kony 2012 would press systems that local people rarely have genuine access to, systems of politics and power that appeared to oppress people, to make changes.  Yes, ignorant.  Yes, oversimplified.  Yes, perhaps motivated through American white privilege and guilt.  And, yes, perhaps not conducted as a local campaign, but rather by an American tourist who found himself overwhelmed by the fear and vulnerability he encountered in his new Ugandan friends, something I can relate to as a traveler and as an "adventure explorer".  Sometimes you encounter things that make you sick and seem to go against everything you know to be just and true.  And you don’t know what to do with yourself but start talking about it, no matter how ignorant you may sound, or how uninformed you may be.  And sometimes that’s how things start.  Sometimes, you have to take a risk.  And put yourself out there for criticism behind something you believe in.  Which is something most of us nurture in our children.  If you believe in something, stop at nothing to achieve it. 

The immediate scrutiny of this campaign as "racist" and “western imperialism” came across to me as just as pompous as the campaign itself.  The criticism went viral almost as quickly as the video.  The snarky leftist commentary and the uppity op-eds from the bookish websites and magazines that I, too, read daily starting pouring in and I was struck with this feeling of defensiveness that I didn’t expect from myself, as I’m usually the one to be critical and snarky.  

But you well-seasoned do-gooders have forgotten something critical:  you too were once stupid and uninformed and blindly passionate about something you knew nothing about.  Time, age, and experience are the only things that help you refine that passion, and tame your actions into responsible, sustainable ones.  These are things that are learned through practice.  Through watching failed reform efforts instituted by people who don't have to live the daily life, who are disconnected from the core of the real work.  We, of all people, should understand the intentions of where Kony 2012 came from.

I was disappointed in my peers who so quickly dismissed this young man’s passion as “racism” and surprised at how few people were cheering how quickly Kony 2012 spread.  How fast it became viral.  How many people shared it.  The real power behind these tools of media and Facebook and Twitter.  Clearly, there was something powerful in his film.  It hit the right notes with people.  And not just young white college students.  More than 800 million people watched this video in less than a week.  That's powerful.  

People are generally pretty shocked to learn about what is happening in places that the Western media doesn’t talk about (unless of course something has happened to an American there).  Not everyone reads Al Jeezera and the BBC Africa everyday.   Not everyone knows Africa isn’t a country.  Fact:  most people are blindly ignorant about most of the world, not because they choose to be, but because there is limited access to real information.  Because it takes digging to find the real news underneath America’s obsession with all things celebrity.

And now, having had a few weeks to really think about it, I understand more why Kony 2012 was a misguided mission.  How damaging it probably has been for local Ugandans.  And really for many Africans who got lumped together in the video’s oversimplification of “Africa”.  I understand the snarky skepticism.  But I still hold onto this notion that we have to begin somewhere.  And that there is work to be done that most people don't know about.  And is it really such a crime to inform people about these things?

Right after I arrived in Ghana, with a bitter taste in my mouth about Kony, the news about Trayvon Martin was beginning to go viral, and I watched from half-way around the world as my friends and family posted articles and pictures rallying against the racial injustice of this young man’s murder.  I read as much as I could download on the slow internet connection and was fed information mostly through social media, again, impressed with the power of this tool to spread information across the world with such immediacy.  As the Facebook posts and bloggers began to dig deeper, I watched as people began to make connections between Kony and Trayvon.  Between racial injustice and systemic and structural racism.  Between US immigration law and Trayvon.  Between white guilt, a hunger to “fix things” perhaps not really broken in the first place and a color-blindness, a product of privilege, that sometimes hurts people more than it helps. 

And it seems Trayvon Martin has become something even bigger in the last few days.  Maybe because the case is as blatant and obvious as can be to anyone with eyes and ears, and this has become a vehicle for exposing thousands of narratives about people’s real racial fears.  Or maybe because this was just the straw that broke the camel's back.  

To call Trayvon Martin a symbol of racial injustice would be a gross underestimation of how common Martin’s story has become.  And not just because of this one case, but because Martin seems to have broken the chain of silence about the hundreds of thousands of others that happen everyday to Americans who aren’t white.  Trayvon has triggered honest dialogue about what's really happening in 2012.  About what our supposedly “post-racial Obama” age is all about.  And here's a hint: it’s far from post-racial.  And we’re far from an age of racial justice.

Traveling through West Africa as a young white woman seems to be an almost perfect setting for thinking about racial injustice.  Just that sentence made me want to gag a little.  Spending my afternoon in a castle built by the Portuguese in the 1400s, with slave dungeons that shackled thousands of human beings to each other at a time for hundreds of years, couldn’t be a more fitting setting to think about institutional racism.  To think about the power of colonialism and western imperialism.  To think about fear and vulnerability and what can go wrong when masses of people pursue actions they don’t fully understand.  To try and put Kony and Martin in context.  

To think about how power can water down reason and judgment.  How someone can blindly support things that are at their roots evil and wrong without even knowing it.  How you could be a business man in New York City in the late 1700s, unknowingly supporting the capturing of thousands of Africans to be enslaved, by buying and importing his cane sugar from Cuba, and investing his money in a ship he was most likely unaware would be filled to the boughs with human bodies along the slave trade triangle.  Or perhaps we’ve given him too much credit, and he did know.  How you could be an American housewife who employs a young black woman to help you raise your children, not because you think you can’t do it alone, or because you’re participating in slavery, but because the culture of your time says you have to do this.  You have to hire this woman.  And that she isn’t your peer.  And that she doesn’t deserve to be paid well or have access to the same systems you do.  Or perhaps we’ve given her too much credit.  And she did know. 

These are the systems that were built by our country.  These systems that so many of us have fought against for more than a century, and probably will continue to fight against for many more.  And to not acknowledge that the foundational backbone of modern America has been built on the economics and structural deficiencies of slavery, is a painful form of ignorance and bigotry, perhaps more deadly than a young black man being murdered because he’s young and black and a potential threat.  

I think about racism a lot.  Perhaps its because I encounter it so frequently in my work and in my travels.  Or because I work at a private liberal arts college where topics about racism and social injustice are daily conversations I have with my students.   Maybe its because of the way I was raised and the community I grew up in, and thankfully, the open-mindedness of my family.  Or its because of the many interracial relationships I’ve been in over the years, and the way I’ve felt when we hold hands in certain places or kiss in public (or the way my partners have been treated for dating a white woman).  Or the way I watch my loved ones grapple with racism in daily actions—going to the grocery store, going to the mall, eating in restaurants, going on vacation—and I can’t ignore it. 

Being in Ghana, and Togo, and Benin, places a realness for me to what it feels like to be a racial minority.  I feel the heat here of being white.  I carry the weight of my ancestors actions, something every white person should experience at some point in their life.  I feel the insecurity of being one of few with my skin color, a skin color that has literally raped the continent of it's dignity and grace.  For being put on spot to represent my race—and my country—that everything I do is distinctly “Caucasian” and “American”.  I'm Obroni.  Yevu.  White person.  Foreigner.  Outsider.  "Other".  And I see the damage we've done to these communities.  The beauty and strength of the African people and their traditions and the ways the "white man" overrode it, made it shameful, and built new structures and rules that made African people subordinate to white people.  Made the religions and practices of the white people superior to the religions and practices of the African people.  Not just physical slavery, but mental slavery.  We colonized people's minds, not just their communities. 

Which is hard to stomach upon re-entry into America.  Watching the little video in customs welcoming people to the land of opportunity, knowing full and well most of the poor immigrant families I know struggle for respect.  Struggle for legitimate work.  Struggle to be seen as peers.  As equals.  

And knowing just how exhausting it is, for two or three weeks at a time, to feel as though I've been held accountable for everything the "white man" did to Africa (which is perhaps more my own mental infliction than what is really happening), I can't help but translate my experience as the norm.  Which is something I hear a lot from my students of color back in the States.  That they’re such a minority on campus or in their workplace or in their faith community, that they are asked, everyday, to represent their entire race.  That they’re put on spot to be the voice of "Black" or "Latino" everyday, and in every class, and how its utterly exhausting to feel so alone.  And so misunderstood.  And so representative of “other”.  

To say I understand that feeling because of my collective eight or nine months worth of time spent in West Africa would be grievously ignorant and would be dismissive to the experiences of Black Americans who fight this fight every single day of their life.  But to say I’ve become more empathetic to the exhaustion and to the overwhelming emotional toll it takes to be representative of a group of people would be true.  And to say I think white people have really fucked over a lot of people of color would also be true.  And it's like a reflex for so many people.  Racism is something they can't even hear in their voice, or in their hushed tones.  In their reflections on what happened today on the city bus.  In their accounting of what made them fearful.    

My work and my travels have opened my eyes to the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) racism that exists in everyday life.  And I guess I can’t ignore it anymore.  I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.  Because that’s part of the crime of Trayvon Martin.  So many of us see it, everyday, and we never stop to challenge it.  We never stop to question the police.  Or the store manager that follows the only black man in the store.  Or the group of black women who get chastised as being too loud when they’re just eating lunch together and having a good time.   We walk away, shaking our head, but remaining silent.  Partially because we know we'd be dismissed as the liberal white girl who dates a black man and thus thinks she "gets it".  But partially because we're afraid, too.  Afraid of what will happen next.

There are days when I feel as though I’ve come full circle with my own racial identity and awareness over the last ten years (and days where I feel like I'm just starting to "get it"). Which is not to say that I don’t still have my moments of ignorance.  That I don’t still say dumb things sometimes or find myself in places where my privilege and my race aren’t painfully obvious as tools for my success.  But I feel like I’ve made a lot of growth over the years, despite where I started on this journey in rural Western North Carolina.  I can’t even count anymore the number of times I’ve found myself a minority, or I’ve found myself in uncomfortable conversations about race and class, conversations that don’t always end well or leave me feeling good about myself.  Situations where I’ve had to challenge myself to see beyond the surface, and to question the beliefs and value systems that have been handed to me as truth as a member of the white middle class.  Times when I’ve had to risk the acceptance and understanding of my peers because of something I believe is truly wrong and unjust, or because I’ve been given a rare internal access point to what life in the other shoes feels like (something I don’t take for granted, nor assume is comparable to actually being in those shoes on a daily basis).  And then there’s the frequency with which I see racial injustice.  Which is daily, if I’m being honest with myself.   

In the States, I consider myself an ally for my students, colleagues, and friends who struggle with having their voices heard.  Which has been a spot I've earned through years of relationship building and trust-making, not a spot immediately granted.  I’ve found myself in a career that indirectly supports a lot of people who are victims of institutional racism.  Who are products of a system that could be challenged as having done more harm than good, now multiple generations deep in Welfare-supported families and school systems that have never truly educated their children because of the color of their skin, and the lack of money in their pockets.  And I’ve been blessed to be let in to some intimate circles in these communities.  A place not all white folk can find themselves.  I’ve been accepted as honest enough to trust and privy to conversations that not all white people get to hear (and not all white people could stomach to hear).  And smart enough to keep quiet when I need to keep quiet, because that's part of the trust-building and the relationship making.  And yes, these communities have transformed into complex, deeply misunderstood places.  The “inner-city”.  The “ghetto”.  A  place many people talk about but few have truly stepped foot inside to see what’s really happening there. 

Movies and the David Simon’s of the world have taken great pains to accurately paint the picture:  broken-down systems that tangle incestuously underground and become hopelessly broken, and no one seems to care except the little kid waiting to be fed a government-subsidized lunch in a cafeteria infested with rats and cockroaches.   And people have mostly stopped there.  They’ve seen the movie.  Or the television series.  They don’t need to know more.  They don’t care about the corner store that has stopped selling breakfast to kids so that they can perhaps attempt to make it to school on time.  Or the group of retired neighborhood leaders who have decided to sit on their front porches every day from 2:00 to 4:00 pm to ensure the “school bus”, the multi-block walk most kids take from school to home, is a safe walk.  Or the group of religious leaders who raise money to send groups of kids on trips around the world so that they can attempt to be competitive with their suburban and private-school educated peers when they begin to apply to college.  These stories don’t generally make the front page of the Baltimore Sun.  But when a group of  black boys beat someone up on the public bus, it’s in every media outlet.  When a young black man kills someone in front of the Nordstrom in the County, everyone begins to cluck and shake their heads in unison about how there is nothing sacred anymore.  When a young black woman beats up a transgendered woman in a McDonalds, it makes national news.

Which is where things get ugly.  Where Kony 2012 becomes western imperialism, and not a plea for social justice.  Where Trayvon Martin becomes representative of all the racism that happens in everyday life because Americans genuinely don’t acknowledge black suffering as a part of the human experience.  Which is woefully ignorant.  The same kind of ignorance that says because we have a Black president, that we no longer have race issues.  Because we don’t acknowledge that these things happen every day, in every community.  We treat this as an exception.  And we fail to ask the most critical question:  how do the people who live there really feel?  What do the people want?  How do the people want to move forward? 

Our most painful racism is our lack of desire to know more about each other.  To dig deeper.  To really understand the people and the places that suffer the most.  Our willingness to swallow stereotypes and to perpetuate myths without ever stepping foot in a place we’ve dismissed as broken.  To label all Africans as suffering, or hungry.  To label all inner-city black teenagers as thugs or criminals.   All Muslims as terrorists.  All Latinos as lazy and stupid.

And then we have our struggles with organized social justice.  In an age of social media and technology, we are perhaps most ignorant about how to effectively enact social change without behaving like colonizers.  Or imperialists.  We’ve forgotten that at the root of injustice, is a person or a group of people who are victims.  People who are being oppressed.  And that oppression is never simple.  Or easily stopped.  And that, internally, personal agency must be employed in these communities to really begin change.  Change can’t be applied from the outside.  It must be nurtured from the inside.  Layers upon layers of heavy corruption tangle the mess and it’s damn near impossible to find the real cause of a problem, or to identify one person as the perpetuator and one person as the solution.  

Which is where I struggle the most, professionally, to understand how to best help my students who are so passionate about helping others.  Who are so out-spoken about social change.  Who are so ignorant about what’s really happening in the world, but so blissfully charged to do something anyway that it’s hard to stop them.  How to teach them to work from the inside.  To understand a community inside and out before suggesting solutions to problems they’ve interpreted through the lens of “outsider”.  To burst their bubble.  To ruin their dreams of being a solution-maker.  A peace worker.  A white savior.

Like many of my Facebook friends over the last few days, a dear friend of mine posted a picture of himself in a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin.  This friend is a loyal leader in his community, and someone who supports the young men in his neighborhood with a passion that can’t be tempered.  He is steadfast and loyal to these young men, no matter what happens to them.  Even when they fall victim to the system and become a statistic.  And he’s an internal as you can get.  He’s lived in the neighborhood his whole life, and understands what these boys are up against.  He understands the power of stereotypes.  The power of these stereotypes to lead these young men directly to the alley to buy a handgun from someone.  The power of these stereotypes to sling on the corner.  The power of these stereotypes to build a pipeline from a middle school directly to a juvenile detention center.

Next to his picture he wrote, “Prepare for War.  Pray for Peace”.  I was struck by his comment.  Simple words with a lot of meaning.  We are preparing for war.  A war that actually has already begun.  And has been raging for years quite silently.  A post-racial Obama age war.  A war on assumptions.  A war on ignorance.  And yet we are praying for peace simultaneously.  Wishing we could close our eyes and tap our heels and find ourselves somewhere else, where we don’t have to worry about our young black men being shot for being young.  And black.  And male.

We are in a unique time in history.  Just this morning I woke up to this article and this piece and this one I’m finding myself overwhelmed and nauseated.  I don’t quite know what to do with myself.  How to make sense of it all.  How to take my next step.  Short of turning off the computer and going deep in to the woods, bathing in patchouli, raising goats and becoming a potter, to hide like some crazy person.  Which is not really the solution, I don’t think.

And as I sit here and process where I’ve just been for the last few weeks, in places where the colonial structures are literally still such a part of the fabric of everyday life, I feel particularly lost.  And afraid.  Afraid that I live in a country that so narcissistically places itself superior to these places—the civil unrest in Nigeria and Senegal and Uganda, the fighting in Israel and Palestine, the ethnic wars between Middle Eastern countries—and yet here we are, fighting our own silent wars against our very own citizens.  And patting ourselves on the back for our great leadership in the world.  For our citizenry.  For our community service. 

And I’m not sure what else to do.  But prepare for war.  And pray for peace.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


I suppose late January is a tad late for real resolutions.  The truly dedicated and focused resolutionaries (like revolutionaries, but more focused) starting working on their lists of things to resolve back in November, allowing December for tweaking, editing, and reflection, and published that sucker at midnight December 31st, 2011 so that January 1st, 2012 could start with a bang and genuine determination.  They checked box one.  Two. Three.  And by now they’ve already lost 10 pounds and said “I’m sorry” to at least five people.  And probably sponsored a starving child in Somalia.  Or something.

Which would be awesome if that’s how my brain worked.  But it doesn’t.  And that’s okay.  And at least I’m self-aware of that, much to the detriment of my highly-focused and hyper-organized friends and colleagues.  Instead, I’ve somehow survived the first month of 2012, in my rogue state of dis-resolve.   I also have invented at least three words already in this post, and am likely to invent at least three more.  Which is also okay.

I'll start this rambling self-indulgent post with an existential idea:  In the first few weeks of 2012, I’ve come to recognize that time is nothing but numbers, cells, memories, life, air, nouns, action verbs, and breathing.  2012 has also started with chronic tonsillitis and an ear infection, which has perhaps influenced my judgement.  Allow me to re-focus.  Here's what I hate about January: bacterial infections and resolutions.

The thing is, resolutions are basically goals, wrapped in guilt and laced with reflections on bad choices made in “previous lives”.  I always joke that I don’t believe in goals, which is only partially true.  I do believe in some goals.  Like I want to be rich.  And go to Africa always.  And do work I love.  And be happy.  And get access to Rachel Zoe’s accessories closet.  (Oh, and marry George Clooney, which is less of a goal and more of a challenge).  But I do kind of find myself fighting against the norms of things I “should” do.  Especially if I “should” do them because I’ve already done whatever it is I “should stop” doing, and have already learned that whatever it was didn’t kill me, or hurt me (well, not that I can SEE anyway), made me feel awesome, but is socially unacceptable (bacon-wrapped jalapenos, stuffed with cheese, por ejemplo).

Other examples:

  1. I refuse to work out in January because I should.  If I work out in January, it’s because I want to.   It’s never for health.  Ever.
  2. I refuse to give up smoking or cursing or drinking because I should.  If I give up smoking or cursing or drinking, it’s because I want to.  Or because I'm dying and they told me I had to.
  3. I refuse to stop eating butter on my bread, cooking with bacon grease, or eating red-meat, gluten, or lactose because I should.  If I give up those things, check my pulse.  I’ve probably died.

I just read this great book for a community book discussion at work, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  The book is actually intended for young adults, is super-short, and a really quick read if you haven’t read it yet.  Technically, I think I still fit in the young adult category, in the same way I still think I can buy accessories from the junior’s section of Nordstrom.  The book is sweet and poignant.  A tale of a young man growing up.  We readers watch him struggle with his racial identity as he transfers schools and battles adolescence.  We watch him grapple with grief and manage the addictions of those around him.  The story made me laugh, cry, and smile.  Mostly, it made me remember my own struggles and quiet accomplishments in childhood.  Not because I was quiet (ever), but because growing up is sort of this silent process that just happens.  And before you know it you’ve traveled all these miles and covered all this ground (and blown out all of these candles) and your accomplishments start to pile up, quietly.  Serenely.  Unostentatiously.  Parts of it are loud and glaring and ostentatious.  But others, almost silent.

In looking back at high school, and middle school, I mostly remember the anxiety of it all.  While I was a very lucky kid, with many blessings, I, like most people, had my fair share of loss and tragedy.  These years are hard for everyone—some more than others.  I’ve never met someone who doesn’t reflect on middle school and high school with a kind of warrior-like stance, almost congratulating themselves on surviving those years, and reflecting on how many times something really bad could have happened, or perhaps, did. 

I remember sitting around with my friends, something we did a lot of in a small mountain town with little else to do but sit and think and talk and watch and laugh, trying to imagine what the world held for us.  We’d spend our summers in the rivers, chasing tadpoles and leaping off waterfalls, trying to imagine what the rest of it would be like.  It.  Life.  I had wild dreams about the kind of person I would become someday.  When I grew up.  Words that make me laugh now.  Grow up.  When does that happen, anyway?  We’d be architects and teachers and artists.  Doctors and lawyers.  And obviously, writers for SNL.  Because we assumed we were the funniest teenagers on earth (and we might have been).

For most of us, these dreams were largely shaped by characters in movies and television shows that we compulsively watched because we had nothing better to do respected.  I was that teenager who, rather than watching the forbidden early days of MTV or Jerry Springer (which I also watched, don’t be fooled), watched black and white movies from the 40s and old episodes of SNL over and over again, memorizing to heart the humor of greats like Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin.  And the newly emerging names—Molly Shannon, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey.   Chris Farley.  Phil Hartman.  Tracy Morgan.  My friends.  (They understood me better than most).

Because of the movies I watched, and the people I idolized, naturally, I assumed my first car would be a Scout.  Like Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats or Renee Zellweger in Empire Records (movies, and women, who defined what it meant to be young and female in the 1990’s).  I envisioned my Scout would be red.  And old and rusted in just the coolest of places.  I’d cover it in bumper stickers, ensuring that everyone in our small, largely conservative town would know I was liberal, pro-choice, and really interested in world peace (or whirled peas, because I was also very clever).  I’d wear my homemade tie-dye, and my overalls, and look shabby chic awesome all the time (and not like a chubby-Asheville-lesbian).

Before I understood anything about Sallie Mae or Toyota Financing Services, I imagined my future professional life would be some blend of Flora Poste from Cold Comfort Farm, Laney Boggs from She’s All That (before she got all de-geeked and prom-queened), and Amelie Poulain from, well, duh, Amelie.  And I’d be the mountain version of all of those women mixed together in a very Gillian Welch kind of way.  I’d travel the world.  And write stories.  And be published by twenty.  I’d have an art studio in the mountains and a cabin by the sea.  I’d paint.  And reupholster furniture.  And have a pottery studio.  I’d be smart, wispy, artistic, and unbelievably likable.  I’d be pretty in that way that everyone says, wow she just woke up like that.  Unbelievable.   

I’d drive around the windy mountain roads in my Scout, in my tie-dye, collecting junk from trash heaps, taking it to my art studio, magically transforming it into something from Anthropologie, and sell it for $2,500 to rich tourists who wanted folk art.  Half of which I would donate to Sierra Club.  Or Planned Parenthood.  Because you know, money didn’t make me lose my values.

Or maybe I’d move to New York and become best friends with everyone from SNL.  And become the funniest woman alive.  And be filthy rich and marry George Clooney.

Or maybe I’d go to art school.  Or architecture school.  Or medical school.  And become a pediatrician in rural African villages.

And I actually thought all of these things, and a million other dreams that were equally as elaborate and ridiculous and filled with “what-ifs” and “then-I’ll-bes” and “after-that-I’ll-gos”.  Dreaming on the side of a rock next to a river in Western North Carolina.  Because being a kid is all about dreaming.  And trying on different people’s shoes and shirts and pants (or skirts).  And trying to find who you are in the sea of all the choices of what you can be.  And negotiating the choices you don’t have—your race, your gender, your sexuality, your zip code—with the choices you do have—are you kind, are you generous, are you fair.  Are you a good person.  Do you brake for squirrels.

And the older I get, the more I recognize that my wants in life are fairly simple, despite my growing taste for couture.  I don't need it to be so fussy.  I just need it to be functional.  And happy.

One of my sisters recently moved to the mountains with her husband and daughter, and despite the fact that they had to fight snakes out of their walls before they could move in and don’t have cell phone coverage anywhere near their home, I’m actually quite jealous of the simplicity of the choice they’ve made.  Of the life my niece will have growing up on her very own patch of mountain.  Learning rules and cues from nature and from rivers and even snakes in the grass.  Of the opportunities she’ll have to learn about how powerful those mountains are in grounding our spirits and growing our wings.  Us mountain girls know secrets about the world that others don’t know.  And I feel confident they’ll be whispered to her while she sits in her backyard and dreams about what the world holds for her someday.

And here in 2012, I drive a Toyota.  Not a Scout.  And if I had money, I’d probably drive a Lexus SUV (hybrid, duh).  And while I do have overalls, they make me look pregnant and I only wear them when I’m house-painting.  Or if I get up really early for the farmer’s market in the hottest parts of summertime.  And I have my old tie-dye tucked away in a drawer, but every time I wear it someone cracks a Bob Marley joke and asks me to pass the bowl.   I ditched pre-med freshman year because I discovered my social life (and my real life calling, urban education).  And somewhere between 1995 and 2012, I discovered Marc Jacobs.  And Michael Kors.  And conflict-free diamond jewelry.  Which means that my ideas of being a crafty mountain woman went down the drain when I discovered quilted leather and couture.  Plus I moved to Baltimore and there is totally NOT a market here for mountain folk art.  And I’m not married.  And I don’t have babies (that I’ve birthed, although I have many that I’ve claimed as partially mine).  And I do work that fulfills me.  I’m proud of my education.  Even if it means I’ll likely turn 30 without a husband.  Or a baby on my hip.  And these things are all okay.   

And if I had made resolutions in November, and edited them in December, this might be what they’d look like:

  • To spend more time with my family and friends.  Nothing is more important than those you love.
  • To spend more time doing the things I love—reading newspapers, writing, and creating art.
  • To travel freely, without schedules.  To explore as I can, when I can.  To meet new people.  Be nice.  Learn from others.  And that it's totally acceptable to get lost on purpose.
  • To choose to be quiet more often.  To watch and listen more.  Talk less.
  • To keep it simple, stupid.
  • To walk the dog more.
  • Okay, okay.  To probably STOP eating cookies for breakfast.  Whatever.  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

When I sing in my head, I sound just like Shawn Colvin. Or maybe Emmylou Harris. Or Lucinda Williams. Some strong female lyricist who cuts straight to the point with a clear, bluesy twang. Where the heart is palpable. The pain not so far away. The solution perhaps still unclear. But the power and strength of her voice is undeniable. Unshakable. And it’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts with you, my big bad intraweb world. And mainly because I haven’t been sounding right in my head. The words I type, the songs I sing, it all comes out wrong. Flat.  Missing something.  And definitely nothing like Shawn. Or Emmylou. Or Lucinda. Because I haven’t really had the time to just stop. To sit. To absorb.

It’s Christmas Eve and I can’t get over how un-Christmasy I feel. The glow of the tree is sparkling in the reflection of the computer, the shiny presents stuffed under the boughs and stockings bulging with fun, secret little packages and bundles. These are the moments I wait for all year. The only time of year I love turning off all the lights but the Christmas tree, and just sitting. Watching. Thinking. Being thankful. And it’s all so beautiful, pain-stakingly so, that it makes me feel even less connected to it. Excited by it. Moved.

At the risk of sounding down-right depressing, this has been a pretty rough year.  Among my worst, I'd argue.  This has been one of those years that has tested my faith, stretched my skin, and challenged my assumptions. My faith that it all works out. My belief that everything happens for a reason. Which I still believe, but perhaps now with greater suspicion; without the same reckless abandon I once had for my silly not-so-serious life.

At the start of the summer, by best friend was diagnosed with a serious medical condition. We spent weeks processing what it meant for her. I went to her doctor’s appointments with her. We cried together. I got scared for her, taking on some of her burden, which is what we do for the people we love. We share more than just the good times. Not too soon after, I ended a relationship with a man I loved deeply. I spent weeks crying. Not eating. Feeling like the whole world had been taken away from me.  And I've spent months trying to convince myself I'm better off without him, something I'm maybe just now starting to believe.

Then in July, my father was diagnosed with cancer. CANCER. A scary, mean, dirty word. A word that makes the hair on your arms stand up. And no matter what they tell you, no matter how small or big the diagnosis, positive or negative the prognosis, you can’t help it. You cry. You freeze. You curl up in a ball and decide he’s dying. Or, rather, assume he is. You decide it’s over. (And considering this came on the heels of probably the most significant break-up of your adulthood, you double-time fall the fuck apart.)

And then after you’ve had a good ugly cry (underline that), and about 3 bottles of wine, and half a pack of cigarettes, you sort of sit up and ask yourself: What am I doing? You wonder why you’re laying on the deck at midnight and wearing sunglasses in the dark (which I was) and where the time went. You immediately feel guilty for being so self-absorbed and so unbelievably fragile. He has the cancer. Not me. And break-ups can't kill me.  Then a few days later, after thoroughly beating yourself up, you ease up on yourself and decide maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing after all to get stupid drunk and cry and hate the world. Or to worry yourself sick. And it goes on, thus and so, until you have more concrete answers. Until you know more. Until a treatment begins. A surgery happens. A test comes back from the lab.

And when the answers come back, “bad but not deadly”, “significant but not life-shattering”, “advanced but treatable”, you take a deep breath and pray to any and all gods you find available. You have one of those deep cleansing breaths. And you wait. And you pray. And you think happy thoughts and you dig yourself deep into your work and your schoolwork and you do everything you can to keep from going back to that place you were in just a few weeks ago, drunk, on the deck, wearing sunglasses at night.  But you never really release that worry; that anxiety that something could go wrong at any minute. Something could change everything in a matter of minutes. And in order to survive, you just tunnel. And become so heavily immersed that you actually lose yourself. Like legitimately. Because its all you can do.

And such has been my life for the last six months. And my best friend has all but been cured. My heart has all but mended. And my dad has survived. And he’s living, perhaps more now than ever before. Because that’s what surviving cancer makes you do. And the tests are coming back clear; those dumb-ass cancer cells unrecognizable. And you don’t realize how much you’ve been carrying it in between your shoulder blades and underneath your belly and behind your heart until all of the sudden it’s gone. And you feel a strange sense of relief. A spiritual release you didn’t anticipate. And you look in the mirror and you hardly see yourself anymore.

And then, because it’s just the way the world works, you start it all over again. And a million times in between. Because when you’re in this space, everything takes twice as much work. Each breath takes twice as much oxygen. And bad things never happen in isolation. One after another the bad luck trickles in, partially because you’re not exactly feeling so optimistic to begin with, which is like an open invitation to the dark side of life, but partially because I think this is just the way it’s meant to happen. It. Life. Cascading. Spinning. Rushing.

Just last week, my step-father had triple bypass surgery. Another quick, scary diagnosis that knocked the breath out from under me.  How quickly a little chest pain translated to a majorly invasive surgery.  Last Friday they split open his chest, drained his blood, stopped his heart and repaired it. They warmed him back up, gave him back his blood, and sewed him up. Put him back together again. Like Humpty. Or Dumpty. And two days ago he met me in the driveway at the end of a long drive south, made even longer by a temperamental rain storm and holiday traffic. Standing. Breathing. Smiling. Walking. Alive.  Slower.  With greater caution.  And with wounds yet to heal, but alive.  Perhaps more now than ever before. Because that’s what procedures like that make you do.

And somehow here I am on Christmas Eve. Nearly six months since my last post, feeling some mixture of happiness and content, depression and fear.  Sitting in the living room with my mother and stepfather. Listening to Nick Drake. Watching the lights twinkle. Napping with the dogs. Writing this. Wondering how it all works. Feeling so lucky to have life. To have health. To have the great blessings we have. And questioning what it has to do with Christmas. And wondering if my lack of Christmas spirit is actually a real, honest Christmas spirit that has little to do with the materialism and the false sense of joviality, but more to do with the magic and the miracle. Less about what I’ve spent and what I’ve bought and more about who I’ll see in the coming days. The boiled-down nitty-gritty parts of Christmas we rarely take the time to see, or acknowledge. The parts where we sometimes have a broken heart that isn‘t easily mended. The parts where we get scared. The parts where we don’t always know what happens next.

Wondering how these cells in our bodies are connected to our bones and our muscles and our hearts. Our spirits. Our families. Our friends. How one little cell can create such a ripple. One blockage. One group of clots. One tiny virus in our bloodstream. And thousands of tears. Nights of sleepless angst. Days of worry. Countless reactions.  One small moment.  And boom, it all changes.

How small things really do matter when you’re scared and feeling helpless. That friend who called. That card that was sent. That hand squeeze under the table that let you know you were loved. Supported. Protected.

How it’s great to love what you do, and to find solace in your work, but that you have to love yourself, too. And you can’t lose yourself so much that you can’t find yourself again when it’s time.

How much it matters to just be present. To take time to sit. To listen to music together. To hear each other breath and know it’s the most important noise on earth. The noise of being alive. Of sharing space.  Because our time together is limited. 

And maybe my Christmas take-home message is that none of us have all of the answers.  And that life is never easy.  Maybe I’ll never quite understand the year I just survived, or the one my father, my step-dad, and my best friend survived, too.  Maybe years from now I’ll look back at this moment, these collections of moments, with a clarity that helps me understand. Helps me grow. Helps me heal.  But maybe I won't, also.  And maybe that's okay.

And maybe we can’t control what happens to us, but rather we only really control how we react to what happens to us.  And how gracefully we allow ourselves to fall apart.  And come back together again.  Like Humpty.  Or Dumpty.  How long we leave the cracks in before we fill them with new stories and new ideas.  How much we allow ourselves the capacity to be alive.  How often we ask our loved ones to stand a little bit closer.  To hold hands.  And to love each other harder.

So this Christmas, which doesn’t really feel so much like Christmas at all, I wish for all of you (and myself) the great gift of compassion. Of understanding. Of time for healing.  And family.  Of great friends.  And good health.  And good food and wine.  Of life.   

May we all have grace, humility and strength.  And most of all, love. 
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


This is one of those weeks that is always difficult for me, as it is for many Americans. One of those moments in American history that none of us will forget, assuming we were old enough to understand what was happening.  9/11 happened just three weeks into my freshman year of college.

I was asked to share a remembrance of 9/11 at my alma mater and place of employment this afternoon.  One of the great things about working in higher education is that we place great value in processing experiences. In sharing our stories. And though these events are often targeted for our students, those of us who participate find ourselves thinking and weeping and learning right alongside our students. Which is a great blessing.

I spent the latter part of this week trying to figure out what I was going to talk about. How I could even begin to stand in front of others and talk about this moment that has changed my entire adult life. My 18 to 28 years. Because 9/11 infuriates me. It makes me incredibly sad. It confuses me. It makes me feel uneasy and sick to my stomach. Still. 10 years later. And not just because it happened. But because of the decade that was born out of these attacks. A decade of fear and polarized politics and racism. A day that forever changed our definitions of words like “security” and “terrorism”. A day that would change virtually every practice we had in traveling and entering and departing public spaces. In our assumptions that we were safe here. Always. And a day that would forever impact the average American’s perceptions of “other”.

And yet this was a day that our whole country stood united. That everyone stopped. And watched. And grabbed the hands of those around them for support. For some security that we were indeed safe. And we built communities inside communities inside communities, like tight concentric circles, made of human hands and warm embraces and candlelit vigils.

Here’s what I remember: I woke up on a Tuesday to a beautiful clear morning. Unaware that I should watch the news, I didn’t. I dressed and walked to class. Finding the academic buildings mostly empty, I walked back towards my dorm, confused about what holiday I had missed or what time change I had failed to make, and found a small group of people standing near a television. I stopped to watch an unbelievable scene on the television. The eery silence of the academic quad began to make sense. Though I couldn’t quite make out what was happening yet, or just how significant it would become, there were billows of black smoke and people running in fear. Alarms and noise and chaos. Buildings were crumbling in flames and chunks of concrete and bodies jumping from windows. I watched, with my heart in my throat, never expecting to see New York City in the background. And later, the Pentagon.

What I remember most clearly, however, was that there was an immediate community in that group of people. And an immediate and overwhelming sense of patriotism, fear and anger. A loss of words. A numbness that overcame us all: Was this really happening? Could it be true?

Within the next hour, the whole campus was awake. We had found ourselves in small huddled groups all over our wooded campus. It felt like everyone was crying. All day. Our shoulders heaving in unison, hands holding each other tight. Two of the girls on my floor had parents in the towers. Almost a whole day later we’d learn that they had actually not gone to work that day. Others weren’t so lucky. My dear friend Devita lost her brother, Romeo, in the Pentagon. Others lost family and friends. It seemed everyone knew someone in New York or Washington. And all of us knew someone who had been affected. Someone who had survived. And sadly, someone who hadn’t.

Keep in mind, this was my freshman year. I was nearly twelve hours away from my home in the deep western mountains of North Carolina. Just three weeks in to my first year of adulthood, I suddenly questioned if I should have ever left my beautiful blue-green valley. Or its deep purple hills that would have protected me from these planes and these loud noises. But that morning confirmed that I was in a place that would quickly become more than just my school; this place became my home. The rest of the day quickly turned into weeks and it was all a blur from there. What events I attended, how we found the strength to go back to class or to take anything else seriously; I can’t remember.

In reflection, I now can say that 9/11 was the first time I was able to place the word “gratitude” in my adult vocabulary. It was the first time I acknowledged my Americanism. My privilege. While it seemed like the whole world was falling apart, I had landed in this small community of thoughtful people. Of people from different places and backgrounds and cultures. I felt safe here that Tuesday. And so lucky. Like so many communities across America, we became one campus that day. One body of grieving souls. One community. For which I remain grateful.

Here’s where it gets hard for me. At this point, I can’t always dissect my life experiences from one another. 9/11 was an integral part of my first year of college, but moreover an integral part of the emergence of my adulthood. That same year, I lost a grandfather and a dear friend, David. I met hundreds of people and made thousands of mistakes. Over the next four years I'd travel abroad and meet thousands more. I'd watch a friend succomb to suicide and another battle with serious mental illness.  I'd begin and end (and begin again) relationships that would teach me the capacity with which I was capable of loving.  Over the last ten years, I’ve lived a lot of life in a short number of years. This community has been the backdrop for most of that life and in this space I’ve learned how to process the things that don’t make sense. To grieve. To grow. To laugh at myself. And those first weeks, and those first relationships, have remained so significant.  Perhaps because this was how we started.  This was my very first big thing.

In my ten years in this community, we’ve watched towers fall and gasped as two wars have been declared. We’ve protested and rallied together. We’ve learned how to define big grown- up words like “community” and “justice” and “inequality”. We’ve watched presidential elections and debates. We’ve heard the voices of famous politicians and policy makers. We’ve debated controversies and we’ve shared great stories. We’ve laughed until we’ve cried. We’ve listened to world-renowned musicians and held small, intimate conversations in our rooms and classrooms and offices. We’ve struggled through moments of ignorance and misunderstandings together. We’ve grieved losses and shared humility with each other. We’ve been outraged by each other and ourselves. And we’ve helped each other process it. And though we don’t always agree, we celebrate the freedoms of academia.

And for me, this day of remembrance is a remembrance of all the things I’m thankful for. For this community where we have the freedom to think critically about issues like social justice and kindness and humanity. For the grace and courage to ask hard questions. For the multitude of opportunities we have to learn about ourselves and the world. And how to make it a better place.

I’ve always loved that our College seal references First Thessalonians, chapter five, verse two: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” I find this fitting because this is what our students have always done so very well: ask questions, dig deeper, challenge the status quo, seek solutions.

On this day of remembrance, I’ve challenged myself to have deeper gratitude. For my work. For my students. For my family. For my experiences. For the ability to dig deep on the issues that I care about. For the freedoms I have to learn as much as I can and to share that knowledge back out with my community. An endless ebb and flow of knowledge seeking and information sharing.

For our greater community, I challenge us to transform a decade worth of confusion into action. To allow our anger to motivate intellectualism and compassion. To allow our discriminations to motivate democracy and justice. Our apathy to motivate empathy and civic engagement. That we move into the next decade not discouraged by our lack of progress, but encouraged that there is still great work to be done. Motivated that we are the dreamers and the thinkers and the activists and the policy-makers for the next generation. And that we all have the ability to do something. To be a part of it.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Keep on, keepin' on

I’m sorry my last few posts have been so heavy, but it’s been a heavy couple of months.  And what have I learned from these months?  Too much.  That growing up sucks.  That a hot bath and a bottle glass of wine can temporary relieve anything.  That family supersedes everything.  That life can be unfair.  That bad things happen to good people.  That keeping busy is a great way to move on but it takes time and space (and vodka) to truly heal.  And that bad television is a great distraction from real life.

One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is that you can’t avoid living it.  It.  Life.  You gotta wake up every day and do it, no matter how impossible that feels.  And sometimes, despite your best efforts to be a good person, to look both ways before you cross the road, and to pay your taxes, shit happens.  It just does.  And when it does, you have two main choices: crumble or live through it. 

The good news is that most of the time, when you choose to live through it, you learn an awful lot about yourself.  And the people around you.  And on the occasion that you choose to crumble (which doesn’t necessarily guarantee tragedy), you still learn something about yourself.  And the people around you.  Because that’s the way it works.  It.  Life.

Sometimes you get these feelings in your gut.  The ones that dictate what you do and don’t do.  Not because they’re logical, or calculated, although sometimes they are, but because they feel right or they taste good or they look nice on your feet.  And sometimes the choices aren’t great choices, but they’re choices nonetheless. 

And under most circumstances, we all survive.  Good choices and bad choices.  The sun still rises the next day.  And it generally works out, even if it doesn’t seem so just yet.  Even if what happens is the last thing we’d ever thought might work.  Cliché though it may be, we emerge on the other side of things stronger, wiser, and perhaps with better judgment.  Bruises, cuts, and all.  Better jokes.  Longer stories.  More poignant punch lines.

And when we’re in the middle of the storm, it’s hard to keep perspective on how we’re ever going to come out of it.  Or when.  Or in what shape.  But we forge forward with the faith that we’re strong enough to take it.  Knowing we’re strong enough to survive.  Even if we don’t entirely believe it.  Even if we doubt it.  Because what else are we going to do?  What other choices do we really have?  We wake up and do the damn thing.

And eventually, one day, out of nowhere, it’s over.  The hurricane goes to sea.  Our heart stops aching.  Or the worry goes away.  Or the grief dissipates.  The virus dies.  The symptoms disappear.  The cancer is gone.  The bad people eventually stop knocking on the door.

Because that what it means to live.  That’s what it means to be real.  Like the Velveteen Rabbit.  If you’re real, and you’re human, it can’t always be easy.  It can’t always work out just right.  Sometimes you gotta get all your fur loved off and get shabby in your joints.  Because that’s what life, and love, will do to you.  And I suppose you haven’t really been living if you haven’t had the breath knocked out of you yet.

Lately, I’ve been convincing myself that your mid- to late-twenties must be simultaneously the best and the worst years of life.  And perhaps also the most confusing. Which of course is easy for me to postulate because these are the only years I’ve lived through so far, and they’re by and large the hardest and most confusing years I’ve yet to live (that I can remember, let alone intellectualize).  For every amazing, awesome, life-changing thing that happens something equally devastating, unexplainable, and gut wrenching seems to happen.  A constant yin and yang of joy and sadness.  But I suppose this “with the good comes the bad” thing is fundamental to life; is universal for all people, of all ages. 

And though it has felt like the whole world is against me, and my people, I remain hopeful.  Because I have to.  I have no choice.  I still wake up each day thankful for the breath in my lungs and the carpet at my feet (even if I'd rather it was hardwood and hand-tufted wool rugs).  I continue to be humbled by the opportunities I have to do the things I’ve been granted the freedom to do everyday.  That I have a job I love.  Students who keep me balanced, mindful, and hip (mostly).  Family who loves me unconditionally.  Friends who support me.  Experiences that root me.  And a dog who thinks everything I do is amazing.  And always right, no matter what.

The best part about life is that each day is a brand new day.  Which isn't always easy to remember.  But everyday is a new chance to fix something that isn’t working.  A new sunrise to wash out whatever mistakes might have been made in the dark.  A new opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.  

To keep on, keepin' on.  Because what else are we going to do?  What other choices do we really have?  We wake up and do the damn thing.  And if we're lucky, we blog about it later.