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.
Pin It

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:

Pin It

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.

Pin It

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?
Pin It

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.

Pin It
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...