Again, I'm speaking in emotions, that language you find so difficult. I'm sorry not sorry, it's all I've got right now. How come feelings get such a bad rap? How come you're not supposed to speak in feelings out loud where other people can hear you? Why are feelings supposed to be bottled up? Is it some kind of marketing campaign? Is someone else going to sell my bottled up feelings and make a profit but I'll never know about it? Is that how this works? Let me say this: the right words to flimmer across my screen can make me cry. Sometimes I shout to signal that I really prefer order and my voice wants to be the law. I shout not to scare you but to command your attention. It's a primitive method, I'll agree. It often works. My emotions are talking and sometimes they get loud and don't ask permission. What I want for you and what you want for yourself are probably not the same thing but they might be related, like second cousins once removed. And if you know what that means then maybe my emotion language is not as foreign as you thought. And maybe my communication follows, falls, finagles a way into your hippocampus around about your frontal cortex circumventing your hungry amygdala but probably not. Maybe it's just going in one ear and out the other, unscathed, unbothered. This is just to say This is just to say just to say to say say nothing more. I might be done. You can stop listening if you ever were.
Two voices: a call and a response. Speaking and listening; hearing and being heard: A process.
Saying Some Things
I’ve been saying some things. Some are true. Some are wishes. Some are exhales. Some are just so damn necessary. I’ve been saying some things that keep me up at night, that make me wonder, fret, and suck my teeth. I’ve been saying some things I’ve been meaning to let out. I’ve been saying the things that might be hard to hear but I say it nicely in my white lady voice and it turns out okay. I’ve been saying some things that will tell you that I’m a little old and kinda tired and brave in a smoldering kind of way. I’ve been saying some things that matter. Not just to me but to other folks too. I’ve been saying some things and I guess I’ll just keep on.
Hearing Some Things
I’ve been hearing some things. Some are real. Some are dreams. Some are gasps. Some are silent screams for being. I’ve been hearing some things that keep me up at night, that make me question, fumble, and grind my teeth. I’ve been hearing some things that have burst whiteness. I’ve been hearing some things and responding without saying it nicely in my white lady voice and it didn’t turn out okay for me, but it’s okay.. I’ve been hearing some things that will tell you that I’m new at this and kinda exhausted even though I’ve just begun. I’ve been hearing some things that matter. Not just to me, but to my students, the future. I’ve been hearing some things and I guess I’ll just need to do more.
Saying Some Things first appeared on Sherri’s Slice of Life Project and Hearing Some Things was shared by Melanie White in response. She was kind enough to allow me to post it here.
I love our school libraries. I try to be a frequent flyer in both the elementary and secondary collections. They never disappoint. While coping with the brief disappointment at discovering that Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, was checked out (bittersweet, because also, Yay! someone else is enjoying excellent fiction!), I browsed the shelf for reasonable alternatives. In that case, I tend to select based on how the title lands and do a quick check of the cover dynamics. That’s how Khaled Khalifa‘s novel, Death Is Hard Work, ended up in my hands.
Originally published in Arabic in 2016, Death Is Hard Work relates the struggle of three estranged siblings transporting their father’s corpse through war-torn Syria from Damascus to the father’s birth home of Anabiya. It is Abdel Latif’s dying wish and his second son, Bolbol feels obligated to carry it out with the help of his sister and older brother, Fatima and Hussein. What Khalifa weaves together are relationship strands that run through the past of these family members and shows how these play out in their at once terrifying and matter-of-fact commitment. On a trip that would have taken a few hours under pre-war circumstances, the family requires over three days to navigate checkpoints and territories of various combatant factions.
I was a little worried at the outset because my knowledge of the conflict is Syria is abominable. My ignorance defines my relationship to the region. I need to be honest about that. Through these richly portrayed characters, Khalifa leads the reader into a Syrian society of lower middle class families where a full range of human possibilities are on display. Bolbol, the selectively dutiful son of small time revolutionary, Abdel Latif, serves as the primary narrator. Through him we learn the histories and heartbreaks of his father and siblings and their further relations. Bolbol is a wonderfully complex and somewhat tragic character. We get the feeling that he’s simply not cut out to ever, ever get what he really wants. Only in the last third of the book do we learn that our narrator’s real name is Nabil rather than Bolbol, a childhood nickname he gave up trying to correct.
On many levels, Khalifa writes about longing and disappointment; the constant struggle to make do with dream remnants in the midst of sour realities. The metaphor that appears several times is that of a bouquet floating down a river.
“Discovering love is like seeing a bouquet floating down a river. You have to catch it at the right time, or the river will sweep it away: it won’t wait for long. You have only a few intense, mad moments to give voice to your profound desires.” (p. 65)
Later when Abdel Latif describes his late stage marriage to an early sweetheart, Nevine, the floating bouquet makes another appearance:
“But his father surprised him when he added the following night that every door should be thrown open to love, that love could sweep away the past all at once, which had helped cleanse his being and strip away the withered branches that would never put out leaves again. It was agonizing, of course, to slice off your awful past and throw it away, but it was necessary if you were to catch the bouquet of roses floating down the river and carry it safely to the other side…” (p. 71)
Bolbol offers us insight into everyone’s peculiar form of suffering, from his own cage of fears to his brother’s unrelenting anger and his sister’s wounded pride – these all against a backdrop of a nation descending into the civil war through which the protagonists end up traveling. Of course, while transporting a rotting corpse across a landscape where the primary distinctions are degrees of physical devastation, death is constant companion. And, as the title makes clear, death is and becomes hard work. (Translated literally, the title would be Death Is Hard Labour)
Precisely Khalifa’s handling of death – the grossness of decay, the numbness that develops by constantly being confronted by it – demonstrates the author’s remarkable craft and sensitivity. The book has its share of humor. I was struck by this crisply related image:
“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue-tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers or checkpoints.” (p. 127)
Rather than build our sympathies with a particular faction of the conflict, through Bolbol’s desperate attempt to survive and experience a modicum of respect, we are confronted with a kind of futility. At the final checkpoint run by an extremist group, Bolbol is arrested and his siblings are allowed to proceed. Unable to pass a test demonstrating sufficient command of Islam, he is held for religious re-education. It’s here that he contemplates the emptiness of existing in constant fear:
“Bobol reflected that when the walls of fear around you crumble, there’s only a strange emptiness inside. Nothing can fill it but a new type of fear, perhaps. You don’t know what to call it, but it’s still fear, no different in flavor, really than the old type. It makes you feel like you’re the only one afraid in a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living … He was convinced this was his own personal problem, not the problem of humanity as a whole: each human losing themselves, then finding themselves again by banding together with the other humans who seemed to most resemble themselves, or else transforming themselves in order to resemble those groups . . . all drowning in emptiness.” (p.174)
I had no idea what to expect when I pulled this book off the shelf. Death Is Hard Work caught me unawares. It has, as a reading adventure, convinced me again that fiction matters. Invented stories allow authors to tell us truths we need to hear without exactly designating which ones are ours to believe. How to write about the callous inhumanity of war while bearing witness to the range of human behavior that makes war not only possible, but commonplace? Khlalifa’s answer seems to be: You make space for regular degular people to reveal their own stories of survival. As outsiders looking in we are forced to acknowledge that folks have so much more going on in their hearts and minds than living to see another day, precisely when no next day is guaranteed.
Fiction reading is the art of listening to characters as they are, not as we suppose they ought to be. That has been my lesson here. Read Death Is Hard Work. Savor its characters, its humor, its craft, and its capacity to teach us what we think we mean by “life and death.”
Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Faber and Faber, 2019.
image by S. Spelic
One of the main reasons I keep a personal blog is that it gives me space to say what I need to say where others can also see it and also keep it moving. There’s a lot of bad news in the world and at the same time I must know that it has rarely been otherwise. Climate collapse feels imminent and will likely spell out our grandchildren’s realities in gruesome syllables. The related crises of existence that arise out of dwindling resources, persistent and exacerbated inequality, capitalist greed and self-sabotaging governments leave their marks on all of us, in varying degrees of severity. So, no, this morning I am not feeling particularly hopeful or optimistic.
I was listening to a podcast featuring the novelist, Katie Kitamura, talking about her recent book, Intimacies. I devoured the novel over the weekend and was eager to hear the voice of someone capable of such penetrating and precise insight. One of the things she mentioned was the desire to explore “how we make do with fragments of information” even as we are awash in torrential loads of stories, newscasts, articles, etc. We hardly realize how it is virtually impossible to learn or know a whole truth about events, about others, even about ourselves. And I’m struck by the notion of “make do” – how we work around the pieces we don’t know, can’t know. All the ways we fill in the blanks to compensate. “Making do” becomes our natural habit; a trick of the trade of general sense-making.
I’ve lately felt a bit of public disorientation, meaning that I wondered if maybe I have said all I can say to any topic of relevance. I don’t really know how to make anything better. I keep writing at topics. Throwing texts onto the screen, into the e-channels of Twitter and seeing where they land. If they land. I hardly have solutions that go beyond asking people, asking us, to get better at examining ourselves. Not in the sense of egotistical navel-gazing, but in a critical fashion where we finally open our eyes to the ways we have impeded fairness; stood in the way of another person’s or our own right to thrive.
And I can’t ask other folks to do what I am not willing to do myself.
My school year is off to a roaring start. Covid protocols in Austria are fairly clear. High levels of vaccination and regular testing of staff and students have allowed us to start at full capacity. Masks are also part of the formula. I have a new team colleague who is energetic and knowledgeable. We’re almost through our first 6-day cycle of classes and routines are becoming familiar to students and teachers. Here’s what I’m noticing: as much as I pride myself on being open and welcoming, I’ve found myself struggling to adapt to new input about “how we do things around here.”
Surprise, no surprise, I’m not the easy-peasy, hyperflexible colleague I frequently envisioned myself to be. When confronted with the prospect of change – or reconsidering taken-for-granted practices – I have, in various iterations, found myself tumbling into a defensive stance. Not feeling attacked, per se, but certainly unsettled and caught in a flurry of sudden self-doubt. That’s my truth. It has never felt good and cognitively, while I know better; emotionally, I have hardly been able to help myself in the moment. As the days have passed and I’ve gotten to know my students and my new colleague, I’ve been able to relax a little. To gradually lay down my institutional and personal armor. My fear of loss, because that’s really what it is/was, has subsided. I’m going to be alright.
I want to unpack those fears though because it might help someone else. I think I was afraid of losing power – of my standing through seniority, of popularity, of my own sense of efficacy. Simply the presence of a new individual with their own history, experiences, expectations and curiosity, was a welcome change but also a destabilizing one. My fear response was about me, not them. My emotions anticipated scarcity, that the addition of new ideas and impulses implied a loss for me and my perceived authority, importance, popularity. This is as real as it gets, friends. To what degree this was visible to others I cannot say. I do know that it cost me some extra mental energy I hadn’t anticipated.
The good news is that I’m over that initial hump of adjustment. The school is incredibly fortunate to have my new colleague. My own process or adaptation is certainly unfinished but my awareness of it allows me to navigate it differently than if I tried to pretend that it was not at play.
And this is where I hope more of us will get better, which means getting braver, about acknowledging where we need to grow. It doesn’t need to be public. Do it in a journal or in conversation with a trusted friend. We need the power of reflection to accompany us throughout our practice. We can never have enough rehearsal for being honest in the ways we show up for and with others.
We would also benefit from recognizing that in most cases – with our students, colleagues, friends and family – we are constantly having to “make do with fragments of information.” Let’s bear that in mind and resist bridging our gaps in understanding with judgment and assumptions. It’s rare that we’ll know the full story of anything. Here’s where we can exercise our capacity for compassion. Also with ourselves. I suppose that’s what I’m wrestling with as I write now – exercising self-compassion. How do I forgive myself for feeling slighted and defensive in the face of new impulses? I’m not good at this part but I’m practicing.
If you’ve read this far, thanks for hanging in there with me. Maybe this disclosure/insight kind of post can help others get some perspective on a thing they’re working through. Even if I feel neither particularly optimistic or hopeful in this moment, I at least feel the release of having said the thing I hesitated to say and being able to move along. That’s what this space is actually for.
My life now is different than it was a year ago. I moved during the pandemic; settled into a new place closer to work and surrounded in three directions by wooded hills. When I agreed to take the apartment I did not know how much I needed to be right where I landed.
I’ve spent most of the summer break here in my new home. Aside from a couple of getaway weeks in July, I’ve hunkered down comfortably in Neuwaldegg (the name of our neighborhood, pronounced NOY-Vahld-egg). To my delight I’ve found a new rhythm of movement that has helped me find a top-to-bottom joy I wasn’t sure was still possible.
Gathering life as I go
I wake up, drink water, put on my running stuff. Think to myself what the route should be. Schafberg, Heuberg, Exelberg, Hameau? In any case, all routes will lead uphill. Sometimes there's a stretch on the sidewalk before I can turn off and reach a trail. Other times, it's a walk along the periphery of small garden homes, now refashioned into pricey real estate bordering on the Vienna woods. Houses on hillsides, a few with ridiculous views overlooking the city. I walk through these spaces on my way to the trails that criss-cross these hills. At the start I sought out marked paths, keeping my eyes peeled for stripes on trees: white-yellow-white, white-green-white, white-blue-white. By now I have a handle on which trails lead where. Each trek takes me a bit farther afield, not just up the hill but also down and around until I circle back another way. I try out the occasional unmarked trail and note how it links up with my familiar route. I begin with the long walk, pausing where I please, listening lending my ear to the birds, bees and all the other life gathering itself. I look up at trees even though I can barely call them by name I thank them for their shade, I salute their resilience and adaptability. I can hardly imagine how tired they must be of humans. The paths are varied: combinations of rock, mud, roots, gravel and packed leaves. Weather adds variety: soggy, slippery after last night's rain; parched and cracked following three days' baking in the sun. I note these details as I go, measuring changes that sharpen my sense of scale and belonging. While I walk, I let my mind wander. Ideas get tossed up. some stick in my mind; others follow that dragonfly or catch me up before I trip. I'm open to what comes lingers and fades. these moments feel expansive I savor my aloneness, the quiet, a peace. There are few others out and about so far, a couple of mountain bikers, walkers, with dogs and without; runners. We greet each other and keep it moving. I'm glad not to share I am relieved of any shame of being too slow or too fast; of going too far, not far enough. Every day I can make up my own pace; determine my own course, change my mind as often as I like. I'm giving myself this gift and I always make sure to receive it. At some point it's time to turn around, to head back to where I came from. The route may be the same way or the other half of a loop. It's usually a descent so I jog. And as I jog I complete this puzzle of a gazillion micro decisions about where to place each foot to leap the puddle, clear the roots, to dodge the brush, hurdle the log. On my way down I feed my brain. Eyes are on high alert, ears attuned for potential scare. As trails become my friends I can anticipate their tricky curves and slippery rocks. I know I can't afford injury so there's caution and daring accompanying my every step. When I work my way back to solid ground, to forest drive, the sidewalk home my pace is steady and pushing it just enough to know it's working; I am accumulating a new sense of self and place. I reach the entrance to my building a sweaty mess and proud. This is what it means to hit my stride.
No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.
When I was in 8th grade and Tammy Fish was in 7th she said, “Sherri, you are so vain!” My feelings were hurt, not so much because of the insult but due to my ignorance. I didn’t actually know what vain meant. I was ashamed that Tammy had shown, once again, that she was smarter, more bookish and more mature than I. We two Black girls in a small Lutheran middle school and she had one up on me. Again. I did go home and look up vain that evening. “How could she know that word?” I asked myself.
Growing up, people used to tell me how much I looked like my daddy. As a girl I hated hearing that. I did not want to hear that I looked like a man. More specifically, folks often pointed to my thick eyebrows and long eyelashes. And when I say folks, I really mean heavily perfumed and powdered church ladies whose eyebrows were painted on. That said, it was long before I could appreciate my father’s legacy in my own face.
I really only knew my mother from middle age on. She had me at 42 and by the time I was paying any real attention to her example of womanhood, she was already in her 50s. She wore girdles and control-top panty hose. She went easy on the make up and I don’t remember that she had any skin problems to speak of. She mostly wore her hair short and practically dared anyone to say something about it. “People have asked me for a lot of things, but hair was never one of them,” she claimed. I do remember her stepping on a scale somewhere, in a store maybe, and being outdone that she was over 145lbs. I didn’t really know what that meant besides the fact that 145 was too much.
My dad was also middle aged when I came along, 4 years farther in than my mother. He didn’t talk much, it seemed to me, but later I understood that he chose his moments. He could be animated at family gatherings, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter, after a few drinks. He could tell a story and get folks to laugh but he used center stage sparingly. It felt like I almost had to catch him in the act to believe it. I guess he was handsome in a way. He was slender and muscular, wore glasses and was clean shaven. He was my dad, so I thought he was alright looking, nothing special. Only once I was an adult with my own child could I appreciate that back in the day, he had been quite a hunk.
My eyebrows are thinning. And why wouldn’t they be? I’m mid 50s for crying out loud. It’s a gradual process. I wanted to say ‘slow’ process but that’s not entirely accurate. The process has begun and I don’t see a way to stall it. (Nor have I looked into it.) Those beautiful eyebrows I had as a child and never touched as an adult are changing; slowly fading, one hair at a time. Today I bought my first eyebrow pencil. I’m not ready to say goodbye just like that.
The messages I got from home about body size and taking care of oneself were clear. Don’t get “big” and cosmetics are mostly not worth the trouble. It’s astounding how deeply anchored these are in me. In old age both of my parents were shrunken. But my father, even at his weakest, had nicely defined forearms. Decades of carpentry work still visible in isolated parts of his physique. My mother grew thin, both her body and her memory. Her skin sagged but the complexion stayed surprisingly even and clear. Make-up was always optional for her. When I observed her in old age it was apparent to me that she had never really needed it. Who among us should be so lucky?
I believe that I own a nice lipstick. I cannot, however, tell you where it is located.
When I was a teen and curious about make-up, my mother confided in me, “If you want to look like your sister when you’re her age, then don’t start with all that stuff now.” My sister, Carol, is 19 years my senior and a poster child for “Black don’t crack.” She has always had a full round face that defies recognizing her actual age. I like to imagine myself following in her footsteps.
Most of my wardrobe consists of sportswear. Sweat pants, t-shirts, tights, hoodies. I have dresses, too, but rarely wear them. My career as a physical educator affords me good reason to stay outfitted in stretchy, comfortable clothing. For the most part I have stayed roughly the same size since undergrad. I have savored all the years that I was able to shop for myself and my sons in the same section of H & M. Slowly, sadly, that door is beginning to close. My middle aged hips and softening tummy are no match for teen boy cargo pants. The realization is as baffling as it is sobering. I am not the same as I once was.
I so often thought: “I don’t care about how I look.” But that of course was a lie. It usually is. The older I get, the more I understand about deception and trickery. The things we do to deceive ourselves, in order to better deceive others. We are not who we once were; instead we become so much more of who we are. And that’s a lot, a load, to manage. We grow tired of holding up the series of masks that keep us from disappearing. Our vanity turns out to be remarkably more enduring than we ever knew.
I don’t expect old age to be kind. I hope it will be gentle. My parents lived to be 83 (dad) and 90 (mom). Heredity suggests that I will have some time. For now while I’m middling, I’m grasping for clarity. There are ways that I want to be; ways that I want to show up; ways that I hope to be seen. Today’s clarity is a new eyebrow pencil and a confession: I am vain. Tammy was right.
Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019
Audio Version can be heard here.
It’s summer and I’m finding more time and space to read. But more than that, I am experiencing my reading as immersive, as feelings-laden. I’m reading for more than pleasure. I’m reading to participate in life from a variety of vantage points while also testing some theories within. I am reading myself back to life. Over and over again. It’s wild.
Perhaps now you’re curious about the what. What is she reading that has got her waxing philosophical? I could offer you a list: title after title with succinct summaries to entice you to do the same. But I’m not feeling that. I recently stumbled upon an insight about writing: mostly I’m writing for my edification, not yours necessarily. I write to scribble myself clear from one end of my thinking to another. Putting words and thoughts on the page are relics of me moving (literally) through my processing. Reading, as I’m experiencing it now, falls along similar lines: I’m reading to take myself someplace else; traveling with varied levels of attending baggage. For fiction where the characters seem farthest removed from my contexts, I carry barely anything. I’m a curious spectator stepping lightly with few sensitivities of possible calamity. In stories closer to what I have known and seen, I can feel my backpack of anxieties bearing down. For whatever I’m reading these days I have a rare openness and vulnerability. I have enough bandwidth.
Meanwhile, I’m undertaking a side project of perusing my journals of the last decades, culling particular insights and events. These are not particularly easy reads. A lot of it feels redundant, whiny, tiresome. Reading my way through these pages I am easily impatient with my minor and major sufferings. It’s no fun being reminded of my naiveté; of difficult feelings in difficult relationships. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable archive of writing energy and stamina. It offers some fairly strong case studies in adult development. For better or worse these hundreds of entries have provided both urgent and not-so-urgent self-sustaining spaces for me to flop, writhe, celebrate and sigh over time. I’m grateful they exist.
Against this backdrop I’ve been able to dive into others’ books with astounding abandon. Young adult literature has featured strongly: Darius The Great Is Not Okay, When You Were Everything and Sanctuary have all proven very rich in their character development and plot lines. My teen’s middle school summer read, Look Both Ways, was a charming diversion I enjoyed. A friend sent me Theory by Dionne Brand which I devoured in the space of a few days. Pew by Catherine Lacey was nearly as unsettling as Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam. Of course, I dropped whatever I was doing to read How The Word Is Passed as soon as it arrived in my mailbox. At the beginning of the summer I read Claudia Rankine’s Just Us which prompted me to purchase Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which is up soon. Taken together, these books have consistently brought identity to the fore. While several characters are sorting out their particular responses to “who am I? Who are you? and/or What are we?” in most of these reads “What is society telling me/you/us to be?” turns out to be more pressing in several ways. Negotiating between who we want to be and who else has a say in what we may or may not get to choose about our identities and positions is an ever present struggle.
Which brings me back to my journals. Which brings me back to myself and all the inadequacies that implies. My joy in summer reading is the opportunities I have to wander away from myself, to leave some of my baggage unattended with the knowledge that these excursions also act as stepping stones towards perhaps new and unexpected insights. The point is that I leave and return. I go away and come back. I observe others, I observe myself. In the process I learn, I parse, I reason, I feel. I read, I keep writing.
All photos: © S. Spelic
It may not be easy to recognize but sitting in quiet is a kind of dare. It’s personal but deeply connected to our social understandings. When I sit in quiet – maybe stare out the window, or leaf through some printed thing – I am challenging my own impulse to ‘look busy.’ For what?! For whom?! I am at home on vacation with my teen and we are literally chilling out. And it’s not natural. Inside I’m holding onto all these ideas about time, productivity, domestic responsibility, and being an adult. It’s almost as if I’ve told myself that I am not built for rest, recovery and full relaxation.
In my late 30s and early 40s I invested a great deal of time, energy and money in developing my understanding of self and others. I attended a series of courses that usually extended over periods of 4-6 months at a time. Usually it involved 3 day weekend seminars with intensely interactive sessions which for me tended to be highly emotional and revelatory. These courses formed the basis of my later practice as a life coach. Above all, these experiences trained me to ask better questions of myself and others – questions that brought us closer to the core of a topic rather than dancing around the fringes. That training has served me well.
In a short post I wrote yesterday, some unusual questions emerged. Here are two:
Whose budgeted affections will we overextend to then regret our hasty indulgence?
Which personal histories are you writing today?SOL Tuesday A Gentle Reckoning
When words show up like this I know that they have emerged out of my feelings, not my rational mind. Quiet time invites my feelings to show themselves. What I think of those feelings is rarely as pressing as what it is they are asking me to do: Back up? Slow down? Guess again? Let go? Hold on? Breathe? Quiet time is like visiting hours for all the disparate parts of who I think I am and who I might actually be to show up and mingle. If I’m lucky I’ll have a chance to write down a few things once the party is over.
I suspect this may become a series of posts.
It’s a fairly recent development in my reading life that I know enough to anticipate a particular book’s release. This has a lot to do with social media and following writers and readers who regularly geek out over what’s hot and what’s not; who is ascendant and who is new on the scene. Having followed Clint Smith for a few years and shared his poetry with friends, colleagues and followers, I was aware that his next book, following the completion of his PhD (I, mean, what??), would be a reckoning with slavery and how it is handled (or exactly not handled) in America’s telling of its own history.
As the publication date drew nearer, I read some articles, listened to podcast interviews and also included an announcement in my social justice newsletter for educators. I was ready. Or, so I thought.
At the end of his talk with Brene Brown, Clint Smith reveals that people often presume him to be older than he actually is. He graduated high school in 2006. He’s only 34 years old. I can say “only” because he’s more than 20 years younger than I am. When I think, HS senior in 2006, I think of my track team that spring. My strong sprinters claiming their flowers before they left the stage of international school track meets. It blows my mind to think of Clint Smith as someone I might have coached or taught (based on age, not geography).
At any rate, I almost immediately began reading. Here’s what I noticed:
The book presents places, locations, sites as leading characters that help us get proximate to the book’s central question of how we come to understand the role of slavery in American history. As I read I am thinking about place. Clint Smith takes us with him, sharing details with a poet’s eye for detail and nuance.
I’m also thinking about this book in conversation with other things I’m reading. My nightstand currently looks like this:
These texts are in conversation with me and with each other. All three address the overlapping concerns of history, education and liberation. They prod me to observe carefully, acknowledge what I don’t know, to stay curious especially if and when the material is difficult.
I’ve noted in other places that history has never been my strong point. How The Word Is Passed takes me on a series of distinct field trips. Clint Smith uses remarkable sensory detail – the sound of the wood beneath his feet, the roughness of the jail cell wall, the reddening of his conversation partner’s face – to place us in each scene with him. I found myself needing to take deeper breaths while reading about him sitting in a replica of the electric chair at Angola Prison. I marveled at his patience in probing the thinking of Sons of Confederate Veterans at a Memorial Day event at a Confederate Cemetery. I can’t quite get over how he maintains the level of mental and emotional presence that these encounters, individually and taken together, require to bring them to the page with such immediacy.
I’m nearly done reading and I’m sure I’ll have more to say later. For now this is me taking stock of the book’s initial grip on me. Someone on my timeline described it as enthralling. Yes, and/but/or consuming, piercing while also fundamentally clarifying and mind-shifting.
That’s a lot for one book, for one author. And yet, here it is.
I’ve been feeling a little emotional lately. No specific cause, really. I mean, we’re healthy, school is fully back in session and it looks like we’ll end the year on a positive note. But I keep feeling … a lot. This evening I’m a bit teary; other times I’m just spent or a little extra cranky. My teen navigates all these mood appearances with remarkable equanimity and for that I am extremely grateful.
“What if we were honest enough to bear witness to our pain?”from “We shall revel in the abundance of each other”
Lord, what if?
I remember when it dawned on me and my siblings that my mother’s memory was deteriorating. The initial signs were subtle but presented a clear enough pattern. As her dementia progressed she managed to retain so many of her distinctly prosocial qualities. She was kind, gracious, appreciative and curious. Any upset was quickly forgotten. At some point it was no longer possible for her to stay angry. When she passed away, it was the sound of her voice that continued to ring in my ears. That upbeat tone of interest whenever she picked up the receiver. I believe she left this world thinking the best of everyone.
Of course in her dementia, she also knew pain, frustration and sadness. But her reservoir and access were severely curtailed.
Through the course of this pandemic year plus, I have had some ups and downs but my existence was never threatened. My health and that of my loved ones was never significantly impaired. We have come through this world crisis relatively unscathed.
But not untouched.
At the end of her post, Sara encourages us:
So, reader, speak whatever must be said. Speak for what you know is true. Speak when your body tells you something isn’t right. this…isn’t right. Speak even if you are conflicted (maybe especially so). Speak and release this energy that threatens to consume you. Speak because you know that ultimately this action is fundamentally one of armed love.
Speak. And know that you are not alone in the telling.
Precisely here is where I felt fully unmasked and my losses were revealed. I haven’t cried a lot during these pandemic months but that doesn’t mean I didn’t want or need to. I experienced loss and change and painful adjustments. My marriage of 15 years broke up. Not in a knock-down, drag out kind of way but in an entirely practical and unremarkable way. Our common household was dissolved and two separate but satisfying new living arrangements established. There was mainly agreement and cooperation. But it still hurt. It still constitutes a loss.
I’ve muddled through a year of pandemic teaching and my students are alright for the most part. I learned some new skills, discovered some hidden capacities. Progress showed up in predictable and also surprising places. And yet, I wasn’t able to teach my best. The year was rife with improv and scrambling to adjust to shifting conditions. My case was not at all special, I know. At the same time, I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t disappointed. I missed teaching with the benefits of consistency, routine and a dedicated enclosed space. That was a loss and I feel it in lots of small ways. Taken together, they’re like a slow-healing bruise. Not really painful but tender and sore; sometimes on the surface, other times deeper in the tissue.
Thanks to moving house and making the most of a new set of circumstances, I’ve been confronted with myself in a way that hasn’t happened in quite a while. I’ve had to ask myself some hard questions about who I am and who I intend to still become. What do I like? What are my priorities? Who is on my team and what is worth doing together? In principle, I love these kinds of big picture questions. I’m a trained life coach, after all. But the introspection remains challenging. I don’t have more or better responses than anyone else. I get tired. I lose steam, motivation and sometimes heart. Here, too, amid discovery I also found holes.
The older I become, the more similarities I find with my mother as I remember her in her 60s and 70s: I keep mini Snickers on hand in my pantry, I’m more interested in cooking by recipe, I like gin with tonic or ginger beer, I’m concerned with what ails the world, I still celebrate and relish independence. It’s a funny/not funny thing to notice. If I can stay stay so stubbornly optimistic about humanity like my mom, then I’m pretty sure I’ll pull through these and the next challenges and the ones after that just fine.
In the meantime, I hope I have courage enough to speak my losses and hurts. Also that I may bear witness for others with humility, honesty and presence. In speaking my pain, I also tell you: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here and for now, we are alive.
That’s a lot and also a gift.