Money Talks

Anne Helen Petersen hosts a community publication, Culture Study. I suppose one could call it a newsletter since it’s on the Substack platform, but in fact, it is so much more. Not too long ago I dubbed it “my new intellectual hub.” Anne-Helen posts at least two discussion prompts per week, some of which arise from community members and others that seem to be a culmination in response to a recent event and related conversations. This week she asked folks to talk about their understanding and/or experience of family wealth. Following the announcement of the student loan relief package, almost everyone had something to say about money, debt, responsibility and inequality.

Here’s part of her prompt:

Family wealth is similar to societal privilege, but it is also different in some tangible ways. When multiple people in a family have some form of wealth, there are also multiple wells to draw on. When only one person does, there’s less wealth to save, to replicate. Wealth begets wealth, but usually only when you’re also not supporting an entire extended family and/or community.

So the question is: what has familial wealth made possible in your life? And, alternately, what has lack of familial wealth made really fucking difficult in your life? AND EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY, how do you and your family think of “wealth”? Do you call it that? Why or why not? What *do* you call it? And what have been the effects of that choice? Be as explicit as you’re willing to be.

Anne-Helen Petersen, Culture Study, Friday Thread, Aug. 26, 2022

I first read this on my phone and immediately began reading the responses which seemed to be pouring in minute by minute. I wanted to respond too and also knew that I needed time and to be seated at laptop keyboard in order to get my thoughts together. When I finally found the words, here’s what came out:

Wow, this is a powerful prompt and necessary discussion! There’s a lot that comes up for me as Black person who grew up in a family of educated working class folks in the 70s. I’m hesitant to call us middle class because the disparities between white and Black middle class are simply too great to consider them equivalent experiences.
My parents were homeowners who borrowed against the house to put 3 kids through college between 1975 and 1987. I was able to pay off my undergrad and graduate loans in my mid 30’s. My siblings and I (at 75, 61 and 57) seem to be in relatively stable financial shape which is great news! But the house my parents worked so hard to own was virtually worthless once they passed away. Through no fault of their own. It was simply located in a deteriorating Black neighborhood that was not being gentrified (and therefore invested in). My siblings decided to let it go and gave it to the city in order to stop paying taxes on a property that they could not use or develop. So that major potential source of wealth creation did not materialize for us as a Black family.
Now in middle age, I feel like the best I can do for my own kids is to try to leave this earth without any debt for them to have to deal with. It’s hard for me to think in terms of inheritance and having the potential to pass on wealth to my kids. It might happen but I’m not (nor are they) tied to that outcome. For me the financial stability I enjoy living in Central Europe, with great health care and without debt, is my first real taste of wealth. I am cautious in my optimism and fierce in my realism. I have no expectation that the advantages that I now enjoy will necessarily grow or expand for my children and their children. History says Black wealth is never a safe bet. Which helps me understand my parents’ emphasis on cultivating our *independence*. That was their mission: to see us become independent adults and we did it. That’s a more enduring form of wealth in our family it seems.
I’m sure these questions will keep turning in my brain for a while to come. Thanks to everyone who has contributed here. It’s eye opening and instructional to read so many different stories.

In both reading the hundreds of other responses and thinking about my own experiences, I felt grateful for the degree of financial stability I have been able to enjoy throughout my life. The pursuit of wealth, however, feels foreign to me, like that’s not what I’m here for. I realize now how that has been fundamentally shaped by my upbringing. Also the very real understanding that Black wealth is never guaranteed. That’s another factor that sits deeper in my bones than I have previously acknowledged.

Instead, the legacy of independence is what I have held onto, perhaps beyond reason at times. We cannot talk about our relationship to money without reckoning with our ideas of what constitutes “enough.” While my own definitions have certainly shifted over time across various material contexts, I have generally felt most content when I have enough money to do the things I/we want to do (travel, buy books, attend desired events…). That’s it.

So when my marriage broke up a year and a half ago, while I had a lot of extra expenses with moving and other start up costs, I was financially stable enough to manage it. That’s my idea of wealth. It’s having the resources to keep going after setbacks. Where my approach seems to diverge from several of the people responding in the thread is my lack of focus on providing certain outcomes for my children and grandchildren. My cognitive financial temporal organization seems more present- rather than future-oriented.

It’s not that I don’t think of my children and providing for their needs into adulthood as needed and possible, but it’s not the primary focus in how I’m thinking about what to do with my money. This may be a fault and something I’ll regret later. I mean, I’m not in debt but I also don’t own any property. Some would call that a foolhardy and precarious position to be in at my age, and perhaps that is the case. Or not. We’ll see.

dark skinned hands cupped underneath a metal faucet with water pouring out.
Photo by Kelly on Pexels.com

One resource that has helped me develop my own sense of financial health is The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. She talks specifically about understanding money as something that flows through our lives. I appreciate the distinction she draws between allocation and accumulation as well as her advocacy of building sustainable legacies for and with our children:

More valuable and useful than any amount of money itself is to leave our children a relationship with money that is healthy. Leave them with an understanding that money flows in and out, that it should do that, and that it is a privilege to be able to direct the flow toward their highest commitments.

Lynne Twist, The Soul of Money, p. 241

That seems worth striving for. What is financially attainable at any given time can shift. Developing the kinds of supportive relationships that allow funds to flow when and where needed becomes the greater investment of my lifetime. Which also means rethinking my reliance on stalwart independence. So there we have it: the investment and the challenge – hand in hand.

Let’s talk about fear

Of course the terms I would rather use include trepidation, hesitancy, or reluctance. Fear seems so stark, too strong a word to describe the feeling I get as I marshal my resources, gather my gumption, brace myself and go meet that class.
Fear before teaching? Before greeting a boisterous line of bubbly seven year olds or know-no-patience fourth graders? Fear of children seeking the the things that children seek: excitement, fun, attention, distraction, etc? What on earth is there to be afraid of?

I stopped saying 'practice makes perfect' because nothing can ever be perfect. I know it's just a saying but it's easy to get attached to the perfect part. I've been practicing showing up for kids for most of my adult years and I am no closer to perfect than when I started. I am practiced. 'Practice makes practiced' is true but has no ring. So there I am, practiced and handling my reservations (there's another nice term) like a too hot potato with no one to toss it to. I appear before students, practiced and masked, moderately prepared, while hoping against hope that the worst that could happen, does not.
 
The worst that could happen is this giant unknown - unpracticed, unrehearsed, unpredictable - that travels with me, never fully identified but weighty nonetheless. Visibly invisible, kind of like my fear (there, I said it!), the giant unknown turns out to be a me rather than a you problem. Turns out, the giant unknown is me. I arrive practiced and masked but know, by chance, by circumstance, by 9:45- the mask may drop, and I shall be revealed - the monster within becomes the monster without- and then we have a real problem on our hands.

Routines help. Rituals soothe. Sometimes there's a groove that cradles us all, holds us captive in an engrossing, absorbing kind of way. We run out of time, happily. Sometimes all my practice produces mysteriously inventive interludes; I exceed my wildest expectations. We experience a learning high. We - the kids and I and our ridiculous imaginations - pull it together and pull it off - the impossible possible: A good time, no take-backs.

A balancing act, the act of balancing. but that's exactly not it. Balance remains a myth, a thing we talk about in the abstract because we know it hardly exists in reality. I know no balance. I am present and I am praying. My spirit perturbed and jumpy; vigilant and at attention - time seeps through me from one end of class to the other. Not even the illusion of balance, my body performs a lucid survival ethic. I go down on one knee, I stand on my hands, I do cartwheel of uncertainty.
My education is physical.

Directions, instructions, reminders, requests - a relentless parade of communications. Containers for procedure, often leaky, never airtight. Written, oral; direct, in passing; an elaboration, a gesture. A shopping cart's pile of options, so often an excess. What needs saying can be hard to find. It takes time to dig through all that's there. So I improvise and miss the mark or catch the drift. Hearing and listening are not the same thing. I employ loud music to cover my tracks. What you see is what you hear is what's happening. What is happening?

Hello, experience, my old friend, home of all my educated guesses. Even knowing what I know, having seen what I've seen, when the going gets tough, I'm sure that's when you hide. I become a novice all over again. but not young. No, an old and tired and uninspired novice. How it feels to meet my match, to catch the resistance, to counter the pushback. I throw up my shield and appeal to their better angels. From the outside looking in, I am holding my own. I am breathing through the storm. Disaster averted. Miraculously, we are back on track.

The fear, the trepidation, the dread, the frightful anticipation - These all reside in me, in my practice. 
I recently received the most generous valentine from a students who wrote:
"You are a great PE teacher and always make the best out of terrible situations."
The best out of terrible situations... 
The fear and the discovery, the fear and the movement, the fear and the next time.
make the best out of terrible
make, not take; best out of, not best instead of
make the best out of terrible.
grow alongside fear; change while scared; shift under stress.

So this is what it means to be seen.
Sherri (black woman in a fleece red panda onesie wearing a black face mask) stands in a small gym with equipment set out in an obstacle course with mats, benches, wall bars, low balance beams.
Subject as masked red panda.

Two Words: Snow Day

The view today

A snow day is a gift, rare and unexpected. It’s an opportunity to pause, breathe, not go anywhere. I am at ease and grateful.

Lots of things have happened since the last time I wrote. I’ve participated in two large virtual conferences, published a newsletter, helped coordinate the launch of regional accountability and affinity groups, made the first batch of bourbon balls, and finally discovered the secret of speedskating. A good bit of growth for a short stretch of time.

The two big conferences were first the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual, Nov. 18-20 and the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (NAIS PoCC/SDLC), Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2021. As member of a substantial contingent of educator-writers from the #31DaysIBPOC project, I joined a session co-hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker: “We Teach Who We Are: Unpacking Racial Identity and Literacy.” The title rings academic but the experience felt like a reunion, a revival, a rest stop. To be in the same room with so many folks I admire and cherish, both up close and from afar, almost undid me. It was not the words I remember as much as it was the love, the warmth, the care – the reasons I said yes, when the invitation was first issued the year before.

It was Tricia and Kim’s invitation that brought me to #NCTE21. But, as much as I love literacy and how it comes to fruition, I cannot call myself an English teacher as it is suggested here. That said, the conference focus on “equity, justice and antiracist teaching” produced a lineup of speakers and workshops that captured my interest on multiple levels. I felt more at home than I anticipated, more in my element that I imagined possible. As a run-up to PoCC, #NCTE21 felt just right.

At #PoCC I had the honor to offer a pre-recorded workshop with my dear friend, Minjung Pai, “A Love Letter To Women Of Color.” Min and I have only seen each other in person a handful of times and always at PoCC but our sense of sisterhood across continents and time has remained remarkably steady and deep. When we collaborated on the proposal back in the spring, we were envisioning a room full of women of color holding space for each other, celebrating the fullness of our gifts in an atmosphere of unconditional love. Then we prepared to bring that atmosphere to life via zoom and then we learned that our session would need to be pre-recorded. Although disappointed about not being able to deliver our session live, we created a presentation that felt meaningful for the two of us, and agreed we would make the most of the chat box when our session was aired during the conference.

Well, friends, again I learned: You don’t know what you don’t know. Over 160 folks turned up for our session on the platform and the engagement throughout exceeded our wildest dreams. Folks were not just watching a presentation, they were feeling it! And letting us know! It was humbling, astonishing and one of the most incredible online experiences I have ever had and I would not have had that possibility without Min!

The rest of the conference held mighty surprises and highlights. Teacher/librarian and activist, Liz Kleinrock, gave one of the best keynote talks I have ever heard at an education conference. I mean, she took us to church! This tweet from Jonathan Ntheketha captures the mood so well:

Having rewatched Liz’s keynote and the Q&A that followed, there were simply so many moments of connection. I also was deeply pleased with Kalea Selmon as moderator who kept it real and brought her full self to the conversation. The fact that Liz has consistently worked in schools, and continues to deal with all the aspects of navigating an institution at the faculty level gave her message a sense of proximity that I often miss in mainstream keynotes. I felt seen, heard and genuinely understood.

Kalea Selmon was the perfect vis-a-vis for the Q&A session with Liz Kleinrock.

At one point Liz asked: “Thinking about professional development and learning this year, what does that even mean in a pandemic?”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

What Liz also did in this talk was differentiate particular pieces for specific audiences: white folks, BIPOC, and school leaders, for instance. That’s not as common an occurrence as one might expect among speakers. She asked school leaders, “How have you redistributed power since spring of 2020?” and suggested that if various members of their school community cannot name what has changed as a result of any anti-bias or inclusion or equity initiative, then they are not being fully honest with themselves or their communities. *mic drop* Meanwhile, BIPOC were encouraged to build in cross-racial solidarity as she offered multiple historical examples. Further, she insisted that white folks get used to holding two truths simultaneously, to let go of the tendency to buy into either/or binaries.

As Jonathan’s tweet makes clear, there were many more gems in the 76 minutes we got to spend with Liz. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, just to be able to hold onto those gems beyond the immediate post-PoCC afterglow.

Which brings me to a final thought about all this professional and personal learning-to-go or on-the-go. On the one hand, there’s something very humanizing and grounding about spending time with folks speaking from their home and office spaces. Picking up on details in the background – bookshelves, pictures, posters, furniture – helps us see each other often as the real and regular folks we are with lives beyond the topic in which we’re engaging at that moment. On the other hand, we’re delving into themes that demand more of us than passive listening. At an identity-focused conference we are asked to show up differently than within the framework of a traditional professional learning event. In nearly every session at PoCC I was encouraged to bring my full self into the space, to take risks, to engage honestly and thoughtfully with fellow participants. And in many cases I did that to the best of my ability.

PoCC has always meant more to me that attending a conference. And particularly in these virtual renditions, I have felt both a need and responsibility to contribute what I could to help the event live up to its vision of being a true oasis for BIPOC at independent schools and in related organizations. As I carve out time to watch or even rewatch sessions that intrigued me following the live event, I am asking myself some key questions:

  • What am I trying to hold onto from this experience?
  • What are my key memories and how do they make me feel?
  • Where and when did I contribute to making the conference meaningful for someone else?
  • What can I let go of without fear or worry?

These allow me to center my experience as a whole person, complete with the full range of emotions that that entails. Clearly, I’m a feeler. I take lots of things to heart. I’m trying to do stuff with what I’ve learned – not necessarily to suddenly toss these ideas into my classroom – but allow them to work their way through my consciousness, to let them bump up against previous instances and find a place to settle for a time. This is what the writing of it is for.

Of course, the snow day I had when I started this post is a few days old. I’m well into the following weekend and still surprisingly deep in my feelings about all the things mentioned. That’s the news, and it’s good.

56=7 X 8 An Accounting

56 opportunities to say a thing, more than less, perhaps enough
Born, yes, in Cleveland. A negro of negroes. Documented.
Raised right, in the church Lutheran and steadfast
We lived down the street and had the extra key to St Philip's.
Wordy child, moody and temperamental
Youngest, some said spoiled; an entertainer.
Black neighborhood other
You talk like a white girl.

Independent School of East Cleveland
a mouthful
Belonging and not belonging, in and out
School life in a nutshell
Brady, Eric, Tia carpool 
Dads who called each other Mister
After school at Mrs Atwater's until mom came
I remember those days.

Middle school, Lutheran school
Desks, bells, grades, rows, blackboards
Obedient and built for it
3 wishes: cheerleading, saddle shoes, to be liked
Meatloaf sang: 2 out of 3 ain't bad.
Billy Joel sang: Vienna waits for you
Steely Dan sang: Sure, he's a jolly roger
Until he answers for his crime

I didn't know what that was about
Still I sang.
High school, preppy prep school
Button downs, corduroys, turtlenecks
Fit the fit, fitting in, to fit
Everybody's friend, 
bravely naive, blessedly compliant
Never a fuss. So nice.

Good girl goes to college
East coast Ivy league
Solo arrival by Greyhound with a heavy chest;
a literal cedar chest with my stuff
Best friend roommate from the coast of Maine
My biggest takeaway from the Hill
was Cath, the lack to my luster
What college was for

Everything else is Vienna
Everything else is German and English
Everything else is language and misunderstanding
Everything else is men, kids and change
Everything else is stories of the story of why I'm still here
Everything else is choosing and making the most
Everything else is living without so much knowing

What's missing is all the in betweens
What's missing is all the details no one needs
What's missing is where you fit in exactly
What's missing is when the scales tipped
What's missing is the time I chose to be me
What's missing is all the times I chose to be someone else.
What's missing is all the squishy parts
What's missing is the end.

Saying Some Things/Hearing Some Things

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.

Coming Clean

Image by Leohoho from Pixabay (Alt text: abstract photo of orange merging into blue background with raindrops across entire surface)

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.

Middle Aging

No one told me that aging amounts to a steadily escalating confrontation between us and our vanity.

Aging = facing myself

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.

Aging means becoming more of who we are.

Photos: ©Alexandra Thompson 2019

Audio Version can be heard here.

Speaking Truths, Acknowledging Loss

image: S.Spelic

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.

I’m fine.

This week I read a post by Sara Rezvi for the #31DaysIBPOC series and it made me stop, think and catch my breath. In it, she asks:

“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.

Journal Leaks

Brown skinned left hand with gold wedding band lower left corner rests on bottom edge of two notebooks/journals. Top journal has Klimt painting of women angels dressed in gold. Brown leather journal underneath.
A Piece of Scarf

I've made you a piece of scarf.

Yes, a piece of scarf.
It's blue and bluish in a
crisscross kind of pattern I've just learned
called a basket weave.
Except it's not a basket
and I didn't weave it.

It's a piece of scarf.
Quite striking actually,
interesting at the very least.

And yes, I suppose it is only the very least
a piece of scarf you can never wear,
you can never wrap around your neck
or drape over your shoulders.
It's only a piece, mind you.

A piece of scarf
for you, though
a token of my affection
a hint of warmth and coziness
that I can't quite deliver in full.

A piece of scarf that is visible
in its incompletion,
whose potential shows up
in thousands of missing stitches.   

(November 2017)

    
Es hilft nichts
  sagt sie
Da ist nichts zu machen
   sagt er
Das wird nichts mehr
   sagen sie

Nichts.
ist nichts
wird nichts
hilft nichts

Eben. 

(Februar 2018)



I amI might be
a routinea regret
a habita challenge
a dutya mess
an appeasementa hassle
a compromisea detriment
a reality checka deal breaker
a mismatchan assignment
an Americana mistake
a riskan exhaustion
a volatilitya strain
an accusationan impossibility
a dismissala reminder
an exclusiona dread
an expensea warning
a lossa vulnerability
a gaina chore
an ambivalencean anger
a reasona resentment
an excusea departure
a disappointmentan absence
a draga damage
a mixed baga cost
Identity calculus

(November 2020)

On The Way To DPL #DigitalIdentity

It’s happening. Next week Digital Pedagogy Lab will commence. Participants across multiple time zones will be chiming into conversations from kitchens and living rooms, attending keynotes, workshops and their selected course. As circumstances require, we’ll be all online for this explosion of digital exchange and encouragement. The lab will be different this year and we’ll be creative in building the special world that has marked the on-site event in past years. In my corner of the DPL world, we’ll be unpacking, examining, then likely repacking Digital Identity for ourselves and each other. I’m hopeful and excited.

woman drinking coffee during daylight
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

I’m hopeful that I and my mighty cohort will develop a shared space that offers plenty of opportunities to speak up, share out, meet up and hear each other across varied media, time zones and modes of communication. I suspect that the variety of ways each of us is able to show up during the week will, in and of itself, give us plenty to think about in trying to get a handle on what digital identity is and can be.

I came across an example of inspired critical thinking in a short talk by Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom in which she dissects the cultural and political significance of the Harper’s Letter which made the rounds in early July, . #TheLetter as it was soon called on Twitter was signed by several prominent knowledge and culture producers railing against the toxicity of “cancel culture” and in defense of free speech (on their terms). There are numerous hot takes on the letter and its intent but for me it was Dr. Cottom’s analysis in conversation with radio host, Chris Lydon that sparked all kinds of creative thinking in its wake. Describing the relevance of social media in catapulting this debate onto center stage among the thinking class, she commented:

Social media, as we now know it, which is, let’s be clear, just because we can all freely participate in social media does not mean that it is a democratic space. So Twitter and Facebook for example are actually not the public square. It is just that, this is what the public square has been reduced to. They’re a new set of terms that have been introduced about how discourse will happen because platforms have incentives. They are there to make money off of our engagement and our intention and the platforms are designed to drive, aggressive interaction, because those are the types of things that drive people to participate in the platform, we become valuable to Twitter, when we are angry. It really is that simple. It is our attention that is being resold to advertisers. It is not the public square that we are seeing in Twitter. Pew data shows that fewer than a quarter of the American population are engaged in Twitter, even casually. This is not a huge swath of America, right. It is a highly self selected group of people who want to have a certain type of discourse. The problem that makes for a lot of academics and I think especially public intellectuals, is that we want to be in that space. It is a space designed for us! It’s text-based, is discourse based, but the terms of the space are just a bit too democratic for them to dominate the space the way they probably prefer.

In under two minutes, she offers us clear and accessible means to make sense of this portion of the online world many of us subscribe to, for better or worse. Particularly when we disagree with others on online platforms, we believe ourselves to be responding to that person or that group. Yes, and. As Dr. Cottom asserts, we are also responding to an environment that rewards our discord, that actually generates profit from and through every stage of outrage. Further, we may think we’re talking to our city, country or even the world, when in fact we are addressing a fraction of it, of which only a fraction of that fraction is likely to register our loudest cries.

For those of us who have willingly immersed ourselves in some form of digital media presence, it’s possible to overestimate our relevance. And when Dr. Cottom notes how traditional print-based public intellectuals may be experiencing the widening of the public discourse via social media as a damper on their assumed influence and reach, it serves as a tiny reminder that all of our efforts to speak and be heard on public channels are fundamentally about exercising power and agency.  So when we talk about digital identity next week, power and agency are the canvas upon which we will draw our maps of digital engagement and purpose.

In a structured dialogue with a colleague which I recorded in preparation for DPL, I responded to the prompt: “Tell me something you wish people thought more about regarding digital identity.” My response on the second round surprised even me.

“I want people to understand positionality…Now that more folks, I’m going to say white folks in particular, have learned to call themselves white and recognize that that’s a thing. That whiteness is a thing. We’ve always known that being male was a thing. And now we have to also recognize, oh wait, there’s a gender spectrum; that non-binary is a thing. So understanding positionality means recognizing, first of all, who am I? … What are my social identity markers?

I identify as a Black woman, American, cis-gendered, straight, able bodied and all those things contribute to how I move through the world, those are all lenses that I apply in the way that I see things, perceive things, the way that I respond to things.

So, I need, I really, really need people, especially online, when I engage with them to have some grasp of that; to understand who they are when they are speaking; from what position they are speaking.

For some that may sound like a burden, an extra set of things to think about, that perhaps gets in the ways of speaking more freely. If that’s the case, it suggests that it’s not a way that a person has ever had to think because they fell into the default or assumed group. Naming things is an act of power that takes some practice. In Digital Identity, naming ourselves, claiming our full identities will be part of what will allow us to more critically investigate the platforms and services that claim to want to help us in those endeavors (read:personalization).

Alas, I’ve invited a wonderful group of people to come talk about digital identity for a week. We’ll listen and explore, question and respond, create and convene. Digitally. In that unique space we’ll consider both who we are and who we think we are. We’ll try to come to terms with how different platforms see and treat us as users; that is, who platforms think we are and what they encourage us to be more of.

Joanne McNeil, author of Lurking: How A Person Became A User (2020) talks about the difficulty of describing the embodied fragmentation that is the internet. She writes,

…it feels like every user inherits a job, an unpaid library science gig, just for having to think about classifications and representation, the epistemic meaning of data and the written word and images. Identity becomes scraps of enterprise, content and dis-content, an unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse. p. 6-7

There were are, people as users, users as people; amalgams of a gazillion data points over a lifespan – individuals with unique identities. “Scraps of enterprise…and unceasing whirl of desiderata and refuse” – this may not be the way we are most accustomed to seeing ourselves in digital environments. Yet in the massive churn of internet facilitated activity across the globe, in that context, the description strikes me as apt, although not especially flattering.

Our challenge in the coming week will be to make our power and agency tangible while simultaneously acknowledging stations of positionality along the way which necessarily will shift depending on the context. Seeing – differently, more consciously, generously; Listening – more intently, less defensively; Discovering – openly, bravely, collaboratively. I hope some -or even all – of this is possible in our cohort. That’s my excitement.

excited barefoot ethnic mother and cute girl doing stretching exercises together
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com