Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Compassion and the Legacy of MLK

My son went to day care for Dr. Martin Luther King Day.  I had to work, my husband had to work, so there was no day of service for him, no Letter from Birmingham Jail, no "I Have a Dream" speech, which I've made him watch parts of for two years running now.  My daughter's school was also closed, but hosted a day of service, for which I was grateful.  So there's that.  But I also felt like our conversations yesterday fell short of what I really want to say.

I feel conflicted about the celebration of Martin Luther King, more so this year than ever.  For many people, it seems like Thanksgiving: struggle, martrydom, and at the end, the Native Americans and colonists sat down together to eat turkey.  Nice and neat.  I feel like there's some sense of satisfaction, some suggestion of completion implicit in the holiday. But as we all know, the arc of the moral universe is long, and if you remember anything the way curves and limits behave in mathematics, you know also we could could be a long time waiting for it to arrive at justice unless something happens to interrupt that equation.

And maybe something has.  Maybe what has happened is that finally we're hearing a different narrative that we're finding difficult to align with completion.  Making us uncomfortable.

When I was in college, I thought I was going to study comparative literatures of the U.S.  I was interested in what was then called "minority voices," interested in the writing that told a different story than the one I read everywhere else.  I took a different road after a few years, for many reasons, but I continued to seek out those voices.  The ones that made this look like a different country than the one I knew it to be.  The ones that revealed Dr. Martin Luther King's dream to be unfulfilled, the ones that showed the holes in what I was taught about equal opportunity.

I was listening to a short conversation between Maiken Scott and Dan Gottleib yesterday morning in the car (I can't find the audio version of it anywhere, so you'll have to go with my spotty memory of it) about MLK's thoughts on compassion, and I was struck by this thought: that compassion is the ability to listen to someone's story without judgment, without frustration, without getting caught up in our discomfort and helplessness.  And try to imagine living that person's life and having that story as yours.  Because if you know that race is constructed, then you need to understand that their story could just as easily BE yours.

I don't know.  There's a lot of "well, what do we do" going around.  There certainly are things to be done.  But maybe part of what we do is also just live with being uncomfortable.  We let it get under our skin.  Because maybe doing too quickly just tries to make the problem go away, when maybe what we need to do is live with it for a while, to think about how these systems and categories got constructed in the first place, and realize that they were created to do exactly what they did..

In South Africa, after apartheid, there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Commission gave people an opportunity to voice their experience of human rights violations, offer support for victims and healing for survivors and their families, and express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and commitment to building a better society.  Part of me thinks that race relations and the history of race as a construct that has shaped our present has been silenced for so long that it's time for something like this.  Something more official than what we see on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. I realize that this opens up the Pandora's Box of reparations.  But we can't even go there until we can hear--really hear--other people's stories.

Maybe that's where my conversation with my children can--or must--begin.
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Thursday, January 15, 2015


Once upon a time, I got an email from a colleague, saying that she needed to talk with me.  I have some bad news, she said, "well," she qualified, "bad for me."  Health news, she called it.

When we finally connected, she talked about having to possibly be out for a while, possibly have surgery.  Something about not being sure what to expect.  That maybe it was nothing.  That she needed to go back to the doctor.

She talked to me for a good ten minutes about things that might need to happen while she might be out, about things she hoped I might help her with.  Qualifying it all, at the end, with the statement "but maybe it will all be moot."  Not once did she say anything about what might be wrong.

Something in me knew, but I asked anyway.  "If it's not too personal," I said, "what do they think it is?"

A beat of silence on the other end.

"Breast cancer," she said, finally.

F&@%, I thought.  I told her that I was going to keep her in my thoughts, hoping that they would find it had been nothing.  "But they're pretty sure," she said, promising to keep me posted.

She was the second friend in two days to give me news like this: "health news," news about being in limbo, news that couldn't actually be spoken out loud, but that had to be shared like a charade.  Sounds like ... yes, yes, that's what it sounds like.

It turned out to be what they thought.  She went through chemotherapy, working almost all the time, and keeping her health issues and treatment very quiet at the office.  Things worked out well; they caught it early, and she's a survivor.  She is also an extremely private person, and I respected that privacy, and her ability to make choices about what she felt able to do as she went through treatment, even though part of me wanted others to take better care of her.

Not long after that conversation, my aunt had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, after they'd found pre-cancerous masses in her breasts.  When my mother called me, just two weeks before the surgery, to tell me, she commented that maybe she shouldn't tell my brother.  "Why not?" I demanded.  "Some day he may have a wife, or a friend, or a daughter who has breast cancer; why would we protect him from that now?  Why not talk about it?"


More recently, two more women I know were diagnosed with breast cancer.  One of them, a colleague of my husband's and the mother of one of my son's best friends, went in for surgery late last week.  We went to their house for New Year's Eve, and I found myself both wanting to ask and not wanting to ask how she was feeling about it.  We finally managed to talk about it, thanks to her kind opener about her "recent visits to New York," but without actually saying the words "breast cancer."  I think we said "cancer," but not until later in the conversation.  And she said the word first.

The other friend has been posting Facebook statuses with pictures of her in her bed getting ready for chemo.  She talked about clumps of her (signature long curly red) hair falling out.  I see her as brave and beautiful, as much as I know she feels like complete shit right now.

In both cases, I was deeply grateful that they created the opening in the conversation, but felt awkward about not being able to do so myself, especially given my resistance to those ridiculous Facebook memes, the ones that ask you to do something silly like post a bra color as your status "to raise awareness for breast cancer."  The irony is, in some ways, we already talk around breast cancer.  Me included.  We claim that we have plenty of awareness, but sometimes we still can't name it out loud, just like we have trouble naming infertility, and miscarriage.  Posting our bra colors is actually just another way of erasing or obscuring what's there.


I'm overdue for a mammogram.  I keep postponing it, telling myself it's not important.  I told my ob/gyn that I lost her referral for it last year.  She rolled her eyes.

Please, let's not keep any more secrets.  It's time to name names.  To use other's stories (when they are shared, and with their permission) to raise awareness.  To stop creating absences and elisions in our conversations.  Our lives depend on it.

You can:

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Dharana, The Practice of Focus, and Food for Thought: Candied Pecans

Part of me wonders if it's the fault of social media, or the lack of good sleep, or the competing demands on my time and attention; whatever the reason, I find it more difficult these days to focus.

It used to be that I could read for hours, becoming completely absorbed in a book.  Now, I notice my attention wandering away.  I get up and take a walk to the kitchen.  If I'm reading online, I scroll down the page to get quickly to the end, and read backwards.  Sometimes even poems seem too difficult.

The other day, I went to yoga for the first time in months, to my favorite teacher's studio.  She has been integrating more meditation classes into the studio offerings for some time now, and using the regular yoga classes to help students improve preparation for meditation; this month, she is focusing her classes on Dhāraṇā, which is the sixth stage/limb of yoga described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Loosely translated, Dhāraṇā means the act of concentrating the mind (joined with the retention of breath) or steadfastness and certainty: in short, focus.  At this point in the practice of meditation, the meditator is still conscious of the act; in later stages, only the consciousness of being/existing and the object of concentration exist, and finally, even the ego-object division dissolves.

While I'm nowhere near achieving the eighth stage of yoga, over time, I've actually gotten pretty good at Dhāraṇā.  I can find a drishti, or a point to focus my gaze.  I can tune out sound, and I can be attentive to my breath.  Sometimes I slip away, but I'm generally able to find my way back.

But somehow, I fail to translate this skill to my own life.  My attention is divided between my phone, which continues to buzz cheerily throughout the day announcing incoming email from students and texts from others, my children's needs and demands, my shopping list, my mental list of chores, my ongoing list of things to put on my agenda at work, the dates of upcoming events and evenings when I'm working late or S. is traveling.  I am a pro at multitasking, but I've become bad at sitting still.

How do you get out of this once you've fallen down the rabbit hole?  Given that none of these things are particularly negotiable, how do we find a drishti in the everyday?

Candied Pecans
Nuts are notorious "brain food."  Granted, adding sugar to them may not be the best way to boost your health, but at least you can tell yourself that you're getting choline, which boosts memory and brain development.  My husband loves this recipe, and always makes a batch around the holidays.  It's one snack that we're sad to see go.

1/2 c. sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
1 egg white
4 c. pecan halves

Combine sugar, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl.  In a separate large bowl, whisk egg white until frothy.  Add the pecans to the egg white and toss to coat.  Add the sugar mix and toss thoroughly.  Spread in a single layer on heavy large cookie sheets.  Bake at 350 until toasted and crisp (about 20-30 minutes).  Use a spatula to loosen; cool, and store for less than 2 weeks in an airtight container.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Activism, Giving (Enough) and the Effect of Hopelessness

Have you ever decided not to act, or to give, because you thought you couldn't make enough of a difference?

A few weeks ago, NPR featured a short piece on the effect of hopelessness on generosity.  Vedantam (whose micro-commentary I love) explained the basic premise of the research this way: in situations where we decide to give, or to help someone, emotional connection to the people in need is important (we get what he calls a "warm glow" from that shared humanity).  But also important is the feeling that we can make a real difference.  Statistics about the enormity of a problem actually reduce, instead of increasing, our emotional response; the "warm glow" is overshadowed by the negative feelings we experience (e.g. guilt) about people we're not helping.  So essentially, when they're given the opportunity to respond to a big problem, people don't do what they can do because they feel bad about what they can't do.

A friend of ours gave the sermon in church in December.  He's incredibly well-read and an excellent speaker, so we were looking forward to his talk; in general, whatever he has to say is interesting.

But this time, he made everyone squirm.

Because he called us all out for not giving enough.

Imagine standing up in front of a bunch of liberal tree-hugging do-gooders, and telling them that they don't give enough.  That they're too comfortable in their lives.  That their commitment to several key social justice projects is an embarrassment.  That they ought to be supporting their church better.  That they ought to be giving what they can, whatever that means.

It was a pretty ballsy move.

But he's right.  If you're going to stand up and call yourself a (insert your identity here: activist, Christian, UU, philanthopist, feminist, friend), you should pony up.

I live a comfortable life, all things considered.  I do give.  And I could choose to ignore (or simply be sad about) the news about domestic terrorism, racism and injustice, sexism, poverty, Muslim extremists, because there is so much I can't do.  I could feel like I'll never measure up to a former student who has moved to Sierra Leone and become know for her work with Ebola patients.  Or I could act, in whatever small way I can.

This week, I'll find a way to help the family down the street who just lost everything to a house fire.  I'll spread the word about the talk being given at my church on Saturday about the social construction of race, in a county where most people outside of my town are white.  I'll help to collect food for our local food banks, which are running lower than ever.  Maybe next week, there will be something else for me to do, something that's a little harder.

What do you avoid doing, because you feel hopeless about what you can't do, because it seems like an impossible issue to tackle?  What small things can you do to overcome that inertia?
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Monday, January 5, 2015

#Microblog Mondays: Break Free

Over the break, we visited a friend in Boston, and while we were watching a street performer on a pogo stick near Faneuil Hall, saw an advertisement for Nathan Sawaya's "Art of the Brick" exhibit.  My son loves Legos, so we figured we'd go take a look.  It was a little expensive, but the wait wasn't long.  And we were completely blown away.

The first part of the exhibit featured Sawaya's reproductions of famous works of art, in two dimensional and three dimensional interpretations made entirely out of Legos.

The second part of the exhibit focused more on human figures, in primary colors, and explored the boundaries of surface/interior, anthropomorphizing Sawaya's emotions.  I loved the play of color and figure, and was particularly moved by this one, entitled, "grasp."

For more than five years in the early 2000s, Sawaya had raced through the fast-paced lifestyle of a corporate lawyer in New York City. But he grew weary of the long hours, the paperwork, the conference calls, all meaning nothing to him.

About this particular sculpture, Sawaya writes: "No matter where your heart wants to lead you, there will be hands that try to hold you back. Life's challenge is to find the strength to break free."

From what have you broken free?  What still holds you back?

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

#Microblog Mondays: Cherry winks and a Charlie Brown Christmas

Not sure what #MicroblogMondays is? Read the inaugural post which explains the idea and how you can participate too.

When someone asked me the other day what my "favorite holiday music" is, I answered "the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas album."

Immediately, I felt sort of stupid: of course, I've gone to midnight mass on my own sometimes, sneaking up the block, to hear carols like "O Holy Night" and "O Come O Come Emmanuel," and I love listening to my daughter sing what seems to be a depthless repertoire of Jingle Bells (in Spanish) and Frosty and Winter Wonderland and Up on the Housetop, and we have a book of Christmas piano music that contains great loungy versions of "No Place Like Home for the Holidays," and in quiet moments I can almost hear my father singing the "rum-pa-pum-pum" of Little Drummer Boy.  And Franz Biebl's Ave Maria? Sung by an all-male choir?  Is guaranteed to make me weep every time.

But there's something about the Charlie Brown album that makes me want to listen to it in the car, on the way to work, while I'm baking.  It's unfussy, unpretentious, warm, approachable.  Yes, Charlie Brown's Christmas is at is core about a baby being born in a stable (Linus' recitation of Luke 2:8 was hard won for Schulz, who demanded it be included),  but it also makes Christmas something we can all do, without many resources besides love.  Which is a welcome reminder in these dark days.

The Charlie Brown Christmas celebrates 50 years on the little screen this month. Today, as I wandered in and out of dollar stores today trying to find some last-minute things to put in stockings, dodging some seriously reckless drivers in crowded parking lots; and as we talked with a perfectly lovely and reasonable and generous colleague of S. last night whose son will be getting an XBox for Christmas (he already has a PlayStation), Schultz's timeless challenge drew me back to what matters most about the season:
Christmas time is here
We'll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year... 

Cherry Winks
These cookies were a part of my childhood, and even older than Schultz's TV special: they were born in 1950, the winners of Pillsbury's second-ever bake-off.  Now, given Pinterest-perfect cookie plates, they're not going to win any beauty contests, but like Charlie Brown's tree, they're fit for Santa's cookie plate, with just a little love.

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3/4 c. butter (or margarine, if you're going old school)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 T. milk
1 t. vanilla extract
1 c. chopped pecans
1 c. chopped dates
1/3 c/ maraschino cherries, chopped
2 1/2 c. corn flakes, crushed
15 maraschino cherries, quartered

Preheat oven to 375 and line baking sheets with parchment.

Sift together flour, baking powder, soda and salt.

In a separate bowl, blend butter and sugar till fluffy. Add eggs, milk, and vanilla extract.

Add dry ingredients a little at a time and blend well. Then add pecans, dates and cherries. Mix well.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls into corn flake. Toss lightly to coat. Form into balls and place on baking sheet. Top each with 1/4 cherry. Bake 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned.

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Sunday, December 14, 2014


It's been tense on campus since the Eric Garner verdict.

A panel discussion on socioeconomic diversity, scheduled long before the grand juries convened and sponsored by a group that bills itself as promoting constitutional history, ended in a heated debate about affirmative action and racial diversity at the university, and with a gaffe that left the many in the audience furious.

Two protests were organized: the first, along our equivalent of "fraternity row" just before Thanksgiving, on a night referred to as "Dranksgiving" when most students were out getting plastered before the holiday weekend, drew a small crowd of mainly students of color; the second, a die-in two days after the Eric Garner verdict (though it was initially organized to respond to the Michael Brown verdict), drew a much larger and more diverse crowd, but also made more evident--in the days that followed--the dissent among the organizers about the purpose and direction of their activism.

There was a public statement from the president, sent to university email addresses via one of his administrative staff members, decrying "unfairness that persists" despite our nation's "aspirations"; stating that the university "has a responsibility to bring its scholarship and teaching to bear on these urgent problems"; and charging the university Council to "develop recommendations."

Finally, days after the protest, an email came from the provost, outlining a task force with three working groups that the university will form to "make recommendations to the President about how to strengthen ... diversity, equity, and inclusivity as well as provide opportunities to discuss national events."

In the midst of all of this, I saw a few students who trusted me enough to talk to be about how they were feeling, tried to offer comfort, offered academic accommodations for those who were grief-stricken, who were not in a position to do academic work.  They felt like no one had heard them.  They wondered by the president hadn't said something more comforting in a personal email message.  They felt like business was going on as usual around them while they were protesting: classes were still meeting, and they still had hours of homework to do.  Two parallel universes.

"What do you think they want?" asked one of my colleagues.

"I think they want to be supported," I responded.

"But what does that mean?" he countered.

We talked about the ineffectiveness of being critical of administration (because that's what students are supposed to do, and yet, it's not exactly productive on its own).  We talked about whether the students want to change the campus or change the world, about whether they ought to take the same kind of responsibility that students took during the Civil Rights era, whether they ought to worry about their grades if what they really wanted was to make change, that back then the students weren't "supported," so why should we do things any differently for them now?

I came away from the conversation feeling a little "schooled," but also feeling like I hadn't finished thinking about it.  And as I ran this morning, sucking wind and stopping to walk every mile and a half or so, this is what I thought.

First, the university is a different place than it was in 1960.  I would be curious to explore the origin and evolution of the phrase "university community," but I suspect that if it was used in the 1960s, it meant something different. I could be completely wrong, but I feel like there's an imagined warmth in that phrase now that I don't think existed before the 1980s.  Sure, dorms have been around since the first universities were founded, but the university-as-home was a foreign concept to my parents.  Now, there are people whose job function it is to make everyone play nicely in the sandbox together.  To architect relationships.  And if we're going to establish expectations among students and parents that the university serves in loco parentis, then how can we turn around and suddenly say those expectations don't apply here? 

The question--"what do they want"--is itself problematic.  Because it suggests that there's an "us" and a "them."  So who is the "them"?  The non-white students?  Why aren't we asking what we want as a community, if that's really what we are?  I thought about the little girl sitting in the pew in front of me in church this week, the adopted daughter of two white parents, and thought: would I be telling her that this is her problem, not mine?  Why isn't it a problem we all have to face together?  Why does a memo sound like we treating this as an academic problem, or as an administrative problem to be "advised" by committee?  Yes, shifts in campus climate often require new infrastructure.  But infrastructure alone isn't going to change the way we relate to one another.  That's a much different sort of educational problem.

Teaching, really good teaching, is an act of love.  (With apologies to my readers in academe, who may decide you're never going to read this blog again:) Not just love of the content.  But love in the way Freire meant it: profound shared commitment to our humanity.  Freire urged critical educators to build communities of solidarity as a form of networking.  Not to leave the work to their students.  Yes, we're there to listen.  But I don't think we can stand on the sidelines, either.  We're all in.

The thing is, the situation right now is not like the Civil Rights movement.  Or the Vietnam War.  Our students were protesting police brutality (and they've since organized panels to discuss that, too), but they were also protesting something much more amorphous.  Not a policy, but a lack of civility.  The Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice verdicts are metonyms for their own struggle to be seen for who they are as full human beings, for the inability of others both to see the color of their skin and to look beyond it.  Any one of them, at the wrong place and at the wrong time, is just as vulnerable.  Honestly?  In my mostly-blue-collar-white-and-Latino-laborer town, when you see someone who doesn't fit that description walking around, you wonder where they're going.  Why is that still the case?  The students on the ground at our university die-in could actually be dead in some cities, a case of mistaken identity.  These are our students.  Brilliant, talented, highly motivated young people.  And how do we reconcile that reality with the kum-ba-ya admissions-brochure portrait of "diversity" that is the prevalent narrative?  Do we expect our students to leave that heartbreaking truth behind when they step foot on campus?  To pretend it doesn't exist? Because police brutality is only possible in a state where it's supported by someone.  By educated voters who believe that violence and force is more necessary in some communities than in others.

Why, I wonder, did the university take no action after a (white) freshmen wrote an incendiary piece last year about being asked to "check his privilege"?  What would the response have been if a black student had written the piece?  Did the fact that it was a white student change it?  Why weren't we having real conversations about white privilege back then?  Why did the dialogue unfold in the media (social and otherwise) but not on campus?  And why did we let it drift away?

We applaud our students for standing up, and we charge them to work for something better, but students find it very difficult to walk away from their academic responsibilities, even to protest.  And they can't participate in the broader conversation about justice on campus if they're not keeping up with their work, enabling them to stay here.  It's a catch-22.

Our students are headed home for winter break this week, to the communities--as my boss reminded us--where this is all being dealt with in different ways.  It will be interesting to see what happens when they reconvene, what they bring with them, what energy will have been deflated or defused.  Some of them will have participated in the marches in Washington or New York.  I hope that the conversation doesn't end here.  I hope that (as I mentioned in my response to Ferguson) the humanities step in once they're back on campus.  That we start watching movies and reading books together, trying to understand each other better, talking (not just listening, though that, too) about the things we find it difficult to name, and figuring out we're all going to do to make this world a more just place to live.
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