On Reading “Death Is Hard Work” By Khaled Khalifa

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.

Cover of Death Is Hard Work (white background with Black lettering, pencil detail drawing of minibus where bullet holes on a wall are where tires should be.)

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

On summer reading

A summer’s worth of reading

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.

#YALit has really boosted my enthusiasm for fiction.

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.

Several years’ worth of journals.

All photos: © S. Spelic

First thoughts on ‘How The Word Is Passed’

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:

Image of 3 books on a flat wood surface: Cultivating Genius by Gholdy Muhammad, We Do This Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba and How The Word Is Passed by Clint Smith

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.

In Sickness and In Health: Reading ‘On Immunity’

Book cover of On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss features a Reubens painting, Achilles Dipped In The River Styx. Baby being held by one leg and dipped in river up to navel.

When you are pregnant in Austria, you receive a booklet called the Mutter-Kind Pass (Mother-Child pass) which records all the exams during pregnancy, details of the birth and forms for mandated doctor visits including the immunization schedule for the first 2 years. As a mother I found it an incredibly useful and reassuring thing to have since it kept so much information in one place. It also saved me from having to think too much about what needed to be done. I’m a rule follower so the document hit my compliance sweet spot.

Looking back, I can say that the document provides an effective public health nudge to parents. For every encounter with physicians from pregnancy through the first two years, there’s a place to collect and track a slice of family health information. While I was able to see myself as a beneficiary of sound public health policy, through my compliance I also became an agent of public health. Few of us think of public health until there’s a crisis.

Author Eula Biss invites us to  accompany her on a journey to understand the interplay between health, immunity, disease and society. On Immunity: An Inoculation was published in 2014. In it Biss asks readers to consider how we arrive at and think about public health, particularly in response to disease prevention through immunization. To follow her lead in 2021 through this multifaceted and complex set of topics in the midst of a global pandemic feels like a lifeline I didn’t realize I needed.

COVID-19 has put us all on notice: We are interdependent. Public health is a shared endeavor. Individual actions hold consequences for the community with or without direct intention. That so many folks choose their personal privilege to publicly shop, dine, socialize, etc. over the opportunity to make their communities safer for everyone by putting those activities on hold tells us a lot about the trouble we are already in. Capitalist consumerism (and its destructive toll) seems determined to have the last word; sooner rather than later.

Eula Biss raises questions in these connected essays that offer us dry ground in an informational swampland. How are we related to each other in health and illness? Who is responsible for the health of the community? Which metaphors do we use to talk about immunity and how do they inform our actions? What does it mean as a parent to protect our children? I found myself both unsettled and sobered through these explorations. In each chapter we learn precisely how deeply these questions and their answers overlap and intersect. Biss consistently acknowledges the dark, the murky, the foreboding and the promising.

In considering the nature of risk perception drawing on research by Cass Sunstein, she notes

“…risk perception may not be about quantifiable risk as much as it is about immeasurable fear. Our fears are informed by history and economics, by social power and stigma, by myths and nightmares. And as with other strongly held beliefs, our fears are dear to us.” (p. 37)

I’ve been thinking about this quote ever since reading it the first time. Yes, our fears are dear to us. In an age where disinformation can take hold in the popular imagination faster and more fervently than ever, those dear fears mutate into an arsenal of potentially deadly actions (or inaction) that can hold communities hostage. We are living this reality right now as anti-maskers continue to assert their right to put themselves and others at risk of infection. The fear: that their rights (power) are being removed or curtailed. The threat of illness (to themselves or others) is not permitted to enter the discussion. Fear can make us do outrageous things. Our positional sense of power will influence our sense of appropriate measures we can and should take to counter those fears. In a different context I wonder about how the most entitled among us may respond when they feel threatened: call the police, demand protection, escalate violence, claim immunity

Biss raises the question “What will we do with our fear?” (p. 152) And I have to acknowledge that it very much depends on who you are and where the fear is coming from. Throughout the book, she bears witness to the ways in which race, class and gender impact who is most often in a position to decide how medical care will be administered and whose health will be prioritized in the face of contagious and other forms of disease. Eula Biss does not allow readers to dwell solely in the realm of well educated middle class whiteness from which she hails. She shows us other times, places and circumstances and how these connect to a present day health care system which still caters to privilege.

On Immunity is a work of tremendous care and nuance. Where we might be inclined to jump to conclusions, Biss offers us earnest words of caution. In describing the tendency of anti-vax adherents to buy into shaky research, she suggests that they

“…are not guilty of ignorance or science denial so much as they are guilty of using weak science as it has always been used – to lend false credibility to an idea that we want to believe for other reasons.

Believing that vaccination causes devastating diseases allows us to tell ourselves a story we already know: what heals can harm and the sum of science is not always progress.” (p. 70)

Her use of “we” is instructive. Underscoring the interconnectedness of individuals, communities and societies, she reminds us that “we are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here…Those of us who draw on collective immunity owe our health to our neighbors.” (p. 20)

Biss refuses to cast us in our anticipated roles. She resists painting sides with a broad brush. On the contrary, she uses detail from immunology, the history of medicine, vampire literature, and personal experience as a parent and daughter to provide us multiple ideas which both contribute to and complicate our understanding of disease and society. In the end, we are still in the swamp but perhaps better able to appreciate all the ways we are also of the swamp that we create on the daily.

The pandemic has not yet left us. As the vaccine rollout reaches larger numbers we can begin to hope for better days, safe in the company of friends and family. Some of us have learned more than our fair share about the limits of a society running on unchecked capitalism and worker disposability. The weight of our losses will bear down on us longer than we can imagine. Given the socio-historical moment I am grateful to have spent time with this exceptional writing. I step away mindful of my role in supporting public health and also wary of the faith I have to place in others to keep society afloat. The more I know, the more I fret. Thanks to Eula Biss my fretting at least has a home away from home.

On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss, Graywolf Press (2014).

Truth Lookout

edifiedlistener

Truth is slippery in certain folks’ hands. I say

I’m looking for truth and what I mean is that I’m expecting

an insight I can connect with,

a plausibility that makes strong common sense.

My ears are open for that deep, drumming undertone that I felt before I could actually hear it.

I long for one clear explanation

a sermon on the mount to relieve all my worries that I might be

out of my mind and yours, too.

Ed Yong writes that America Is Trapped In A Pandemic Spiral and he’s correct it seems to me.

I want to clap, say Amen and ‘Truer words were rarely spoken”

He produces a laundry list of reasons why America, home of the brave, is marching resolutely in unwitting pursuit of its own demise. Like ants in a circular death march. The comparison is apt and painful.

In a country that seems to prefer off/on switches rather than dimmers or dials for EVERYTHING including thought patterns, it makes sense that

“Showiness is often mistaken for effectiveness.”

“Fixing systemic problems is more difficult than spewing moralism, …”

“…we started working our way through a serial monogamy of solutions, and, like spiraling army ants, marched forward with no sense of the future beyond the next few footsteps.”

That feels truthful. full of truth.

From where I sit and where I stand

I can know what it means to live in a country where the virus is managed, where health care is part of the package, where a pandemic federal response exists and can take effect. It’s not perfect but at least we know what works. And those are the things that get done.

Meanwhile, I read.

This time about feminism. Not in the abstract, not in the upper echelons of corporate management, no, feminism that is much closer to home, the kind I grew up around, the kind my mother and grandmother and aunts raised me in: Hood Feminism. A survival and every-day feminism of poor folks, working folks, queer and trans folks, Black, brown and Indigenous folks. I was familiar with academic feminism, with ‘we need more women CEOs’ feminism which felt like yeah-I-get-it-but-that’s-not-me feminism.

Reading Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism feels like a homecoming. She takes on everything from gun violence to housing to health care to eating disorders and explains how white feminism has managed to sidestep or purposefully limit the scope of concern about topics that affect a much higher proportion of women in the US and the world.

Over and over again, Mikki Kendall illustrates all the reasons mainstream (read white and middle class) feminism has failed women who do not fit that demographic, particularly women of color and poor women.

“…you can’t “lean in” when you can’t earn a legal living wage and you still need to feed yourself and those who depend on you.” (p. 36)

“Why is it that we’re more inclined to create programs to combat obesity than ones that meaningfully address hunger?” (p. 37)

“We expect marginalized voices to ring out no matter what obstacles they face, and then we penalize them for not saying the right thing in the right way.” (p.134)

“…the reality is that white, mainstream feminism has to confront the idea that the power to do harm rests in women too.” (p. 165)

“The fact is that harm-reducing votes of marginalized people will never be enough to outweigh the stupidity of white people who vote for racism at their own expense.” (p. 183)

So much truth!

I call it a felt truth. An undercurrent truth, the kind that runs through arteries – makes a heart keep beating. Experience truth.

Black girl woman experience truth. American truth. Slippery truth. Threatened-to-be-ignored-dismissed-overlooked Black girl woman American truth.

When Ed Yong is describing the American hankering for normalcy, the insistence on either/or framing, a media and public resistance to embracing necessary complexity, I hear reality speaking. I recognize the commanding voice of grade school film strips and pledge-of-allegiance-first holiday ceremonies. I know that America he’s talking about. I am a product.

An export.

Like most folks I want to believe that I will know truth when I see it.

For now I’d rather be honest.

Quantities of truth have not saved us so far. There’s more truth than we know what to do with. We’re not acting on the truths of climate destruction (we can really dispense with “change” by now). We’re not acting on the truth that rampant inequality is a societal design feature not a bug. So many truths!

Qualitative truth? Is that a thing? Should it be?

Truth with a quality that causes us to bend, to stretch, to reach, to remember.

These truths, the ones I feel and have felt, that have kept and keep me alive. I’m holding onto those and finding mirrors where I can.

Truth doubled makes me braver.

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

 

 

The Education Can Begin: Meditations on Midlife

Middle age keeps surprising me.

I keep running into things I think I know only to realize that I was

mistaken

misinformed

under a false

but lasting impression.

These surprises are not always pleasant

or friendly.

some carry a force upon arrival

that’ll knock you down

flat

especially if you haven’t been paying close attention.

I thought I knew love,

thought I knew racism,

thought I knew how to show the former

and counter the latter.

Middle age presents the tests

but doesn’t ask if you studied;

doesn’t question your readiness.

Middle age says

work this out.

And there you are

grasping at straws

watching the clock

scouring your memory.

And there you are

stuck and stuck and stuck

unprepared

to be so utterly clueless.

But middle age saw you coming,

sees your indignity

at being caught

unawares.

Now, she says,

the education can begin.

 


 

Middle age has been on my mind A LOT lately. I identify as middle aged and regardless of how many folks kindly remark on how young I may appear, I know exactly how old I am and how many years this particular body has been in operation. On the one hand, I have some decades of life experience to draw on – full of family, work, and accomplishments, on the other hand, I face a great unknown of what will come next. After 60? 70? Even after 80? I’ve learned a great deal up until now, how much more will I learn before my days are at an end?

I’ve been reading bell hooks’ trilogy on love: All About Love: New Visions (2001), Salvation: Black People and Love (2001), and Communion: The Female Search For Love (2002). It’s a course of study I didn’t know I needed until I was deeply immersed in the material. Bell hooks is a patient truth teller as she guides us through museums full of mental models we apply to make sense of love; how we crave, practice, misunderstand and shun it. She speaks from a specifically American frame which helps me to connect it to my own upbringing in the Midwest and understand the ways I’ve applied those beliefs in adulthood in Europe.

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At the same time I am making my way through Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (2019). Similar to hooks, Dr. Kendi leads us step by step into a steadily more complex and nuanced definition of what an antiracist is, but more importantly he shows us what a true antiracist human does on the micro and macro levels of life in progress. What’s interesting is that both authors share episodes of their own lives – of their youthful fears, adult struggles and bracing insights along the way. Their lessons are personal AND intimately connected and embedded in the social structures they illuminate. We learn about personal actions and decisions and then witness how these can be seen in light of what we know about the impacts of race, gender and class.

I take note: None of us is operating in a vacuum as we lead our private little lives. On the contrary, our private spheres become sites of social interactions deeply impacted by the dominant culture’s overarching messages in favor of racist, sexist and classist ideas. Resisting all of these influences requires more of us than we often realize.

In an early chapter on dueling consciousness, Dr. Kendi introduces duels in Black and White, in the past and present, between assimilationist and segregationist thinking. In a remarkably poetic passage he describes the duel within the Black body:

The Black body in turn experiences the same duel. The Black body is instructed to become an American body. The American body is the White body. The Black body strives to assimilate into the American body. The American body rejects the Black body. The Black body separates from the American body. The Black body is instructed to assimilate into the American body – and history and consciousness duel anew. (How To Be An Antiracist, p.33)

Every time I reread this passage, I see it play out – sometimes in my own childhood, or on a recent news report – this back and forth without ever fully arriving: I know this duel. In my own ways, I live it. Then it hits, the other duels happening within.

Reading about love in heterosexual relationships, I am struck by the recurring duels that appear in hooks’ considerations: between feminism and patriarchy; power and love. She laments that feminists of the ’80s and ’90s while able to demonstrate significant gains in jobs, money and power, failed to share the discovery “that patriarchy, like any colonizing system, does not create a context for women and men to love one another… that domination and love do not go together, that if one is present, the other is not.” (Communion, p. 71-72)

I don’t remember ever having thought about relationships with that kind of clarity. I am familiar with the draw to compete; the unspoken patterns of one-upmanship that couples can fall into. To claim we want to love and be loved, but at the same time show with our actions that we also want to win. These are features of the dominant culture coming home to roost. Even when we believe ourselves to be beyond such influences. It’s the cultural air we breathe.

Given that lesson, the path to love that hooks sketches for us in Communion demands new lenses, above all for seeing ourselves. And she suggests that midlife lends itself particularly well for this endeavor. The timing of this reading could hardly be better.

I’ve had 4 lines written on a notepad next to my computer for about a month which means that I keep seeing them, rereading them, imbuing them with further meaning.

It doesn’t matter if I say

how much it hurts

the answer is always a question:

what did you expect?

Again a duel, playing itself out: answer and question. Midlife seems to be asking: What did I expect? Now I see that it is homework of a whole new variety. Work that may, in time, bring me home to myself.

“Now, she says,

the education can begin.”

 

References:

hooks, bell, All About Love – New Visions, William Morrow, 2001.

 – Salvation: Black People and Love, Harper Perennial, 2001.

 – Communion: The Female Search for Love, Perennial, 2002.

Kendi, Ibram X., How To Be An Anti-Racist, One World, 2019.

 

 

 

 

Winter Reads Bringing the Heat

Over the winter break, I was privileged with an abundance of reading time. I finished whole books! Each in turn provided so much joy, sustenance or entertainment or any combination of the three that by the end of the break my literary appetite was temporarily sated.

What did I read, you ask?

Going into the break I was finishing up, Dr. Joy Degruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, which after having heard her speak at the NAIS People of Color Conference offered a welcome and necessary recap of her arguments. Reading allowed me to deepen my understanding of the lingering impacts of  slavery over generations. I had never invested in making those direct connections previously between slavery and my own family’s (behavior) history.

After that, I was ready to read Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous. Written as a letter from an American born son to his Vietnamese mother who cannot read, as readers we are drawn into personal spaces at once intimate and charged. I don’t know what I expected but I found poetic passages page after page which blew me away.

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But the books I really want to tell you about turn out to be a rather unusual pairing: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty and Burn It Down: Women Writing About Anger, edited by Lilly Dancyger. Death and Anger, Anger and Death! What a combination for the holidays!

Caitlin Doughty has made a name for herself on social media with her youtube series, Ask A Mortician and goes by the handle @TheGoodDeath on Twitter and Instagram. Smoke describes her initiation into the undertaking industry at age 23 when she got her first job at a crematory. Besides being a gifted storyteller, Doughty shares her wonderings about the way death is done in modern Western societies, particularly in the US. In the tradition of excellent non-fiction, she provides tricks of the trade alongside a bit of historical background mixed in with squishy messy details of preparing the dead. Author Doughty had me interested in all of it. Smoke emerged as an unexpected page-turner.

Before arriving at the conclusion that humans are “glorified animals” and that “We are all just future corpses,” Doughty describes how she came to this point early in her career as a mortician:

Less than a year after donning my corpse colored glasses, I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies anymore to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world. p.168

She reminds us through stories and wit that “death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.” (p. 228) And this makes so much sense to me. Considering what my own “death values” are and where they come from is certainly a mental-emotional exercise in my future. Smoke provided me with an basis for reframing death and burial as processes that complete my humanity rather than erase it. That’s pretty significant.

If Smoke was the beer, Burn It Down was an extraordinary chaser. Behold, 22 essays by women from a variety of backgrounds all illuminating ways of thinking about, experiencing, managing, and expressing anger. So many spoke of the taboo surrounding feminine expressions of anger – about the shame and also manipulative capacity of tears, of being labeled hysterical, emotional, bitter, deranged… That rang entirely true and at the same time, I could also see parts of myself in the stories of those women who flew off the handle, who got loud and vocal when necessary.

While reading I thought of my many girlfriends and how seldom we have chances to be this frank with each other. Which is the beauty of having this collection of women’s voices which validate our right and need to feel and express our rage, particularly when we open our eyes to the underlying patterns in society which place all manner of hurdles in our paths. Especially striking for me were two essays, each penned by trans women, which made me think again about what it means to identify as woman.

Sheryl Ring caught me with this:

“…the reality is, I am a woman, and therefore, I am what a woman looks like. Every trans woman is what a woman looks like. It’s not that we all pass – it’s that whether or not we “pass” is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. (From “Crimes Against The Soul,” p. 191)

And in her essay, “On Transfeminine Anger,” Samantha Riedel proposes a vision of what could be:

Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation.

That is a form of vision that I don’t find everywhere. Until I read that passage, I hadn’t really recognized my own deep appetite for  pictures of what we could create, what alternatives to abrasive and harshly competitive existences might look like.

A different perspective that resonated profoundly came from Lisa Factora-Borchers, a daughter of Philippine immigrants who writes about living in middle Ohio and why she stays. She describes conversations with her kids and I am reminded that my friends, colleagues and I are navigating similar talks with our own kids and with students.

When we drive on Highway 62 and pass the Confederate flags and the billboards declaring “one man, one woman = real marriage,” I see it now as an opportunity to give my kids what I wish I always had: an example of how to embrace anger; how to use it as a natural resource, whether facing injustice of critically interpreting political and religious propaganda. “You see these big signs?” I ask my kids when we pass religious billboards. “There’s a lot of people out there who are afraid of anything different from themselves. People who are afraid will try to tell you who to love, how to love, or who to be friends with, but we’re not afraid of other people just because they may be different from us. That’s just not who we are.” (From “Homegrown Anger,” p. 189)

The struggle to convince our children that we have agency when there are whole industries dedicated to demonstrating the opposite can weigh heavily. In Factora-Borcher’s essay, I am reminded that I am far from alone; that as I teach my children, I can teach myself.

I’m sure it’s no accident that I raced through these essays and Doughty’s account of the undertaking industry in the matter of a few days. I clearly was in the market for some #RealTalk. Doughty takes time to meditate on what it means to handle the dead and death in a society that would prefer to pretend they don’t really exist. Throughout the book she makes a strong case for reclaiming death and its subsequent ceremonies as a natural part of life. Meanwhile, Lily Dancyger’s curated essays assure me that acknowledging  and expressing my anger will not kill me. Either way, I’m better prepared on at least two counts.

 

 

Get Ready For PET

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I loved a story – its texture and colors, the surprise and its depth. It caught me unawares; didn’t know what I was in for but once I started, the story would not let go. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi is young adult novel I would recommend for grades 7 and up.

Set in the city of Lucille which prides itself on having eliminated monsters, the novel is   populated with caring adults, curious young people and familiar structures – family, school, home. There are secrets plus a frightening history that should be remote but is not. The characters are black folks, people I can imagine in my family: big bold talkers, well-intentioned aunties and uncles, slick cousins. There are knowns and unknowns; patterns and assumptions, multiple lives unfolding at once.

And there’s a creature who arrives to enact a justice that it claims may not go unpunished. To accomplish its mission, it needs a human accomplice. The creature is Pet, teenager Jam is its accomplice. To be sure there are fantasy elements here but they interact reasonably with the rest of the story. Akwaeke Emezi is not offering us another planet, but a wider variety of ways of being for every single character. The names alone point to an almost poetic approach to building a cast: Jam, Bitter, Aloe, Redemption, Moss, Whisper, Beloved, Pet and Glass.

What struck me while reading was the way wisdom was dropped throughout the book, almost casually.  Like in this exchange between Pet and Jam:

If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen…

…There is more. There is the unseen, waiting to be seen, existing only in the spaces we admit we do not see yet.  p. 71

or when Jam’s mother, Bitter, explains how angels eventually rooted out the monsters of Lucille.

“It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things”…”Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet talk a monster into anything else when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.” p. 13

I have read and re-read these passages baffled by their profundity and charmed by their perfection. It’s the way these insights are woven into dialogue and emerge both authentic and extraordinary.  This happens not just once or twice but literally every few pages. There’s a nugget, a gem – a trail of the author’s craft that pulls the reader in to join the hunt.

And the hunt – a mystery wrapped up in questions of morality and ethics. To whom are we responsible? Whom are we required to protect? Which of our mental-emotional weaknesses will lead us astray, away from the truth we must pursue?

As Pet, Redemption and Jam inch closer and closer to an unraveled mystery, there are exchanges that as a reader, nearly stopped me in my tracks. (Pet and Jam can speak telepathically.)

All knowledge is good knowledge, Pet said.

I don’t know if that’s true, Jam thought back.  It doesn’t feel true right now.

Truth does not care if it feels true or not. It is true nonetheless.  p. 140

Pet is a sumptuous read that might easily go unnoticed especially by adults. Dig into this book with kids or on your own, it will not disappoint. Author Akwaeke Emezi has given the world a gift of mystery that calls forth understanding in the space of about 200 pages. Imagining that the book is crafted for young audiences makes me so much more hopeful about the power resting in our future generations.

I also tweeted about it here. This thread by Sarah Waites also sings its praises.

Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

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Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

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Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.