Boxes of Thought

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Photo by furkanvari on Unsplash

Reading is so often about searching, whether we realize it or not. An excitement, a secret revealed, a worry, a fulfillment – we don’t always know what it is we’ll get, but when it comes, we know it and recognize it as ours. This is for me. We feel seen, realize we’re not the only ones. Sometimes it’s a comfort. But horror is also a possibility, I suppose.

To read is to be on the lookout. To have your eyes peeled. Reading lets us pretend that we’re ready. At least that. The truth of our inner state is not the point. Words on page after page that mysteriously hold us – in suspense, in awe, in shock. Reading is a magic trick we keep learning and relearning. The same trick that keeps changing and changing every time we perform it. I do it but I don’t always understand exactly how.

To write feels less like a trick, more like a bodily function, sometimes voluntary but not always.

I regret that this format is so boxy. My blog posts show you boxes of thought (paragraphs), neatly stacked which is a very poor and inaccurate semblance of what I would rather express. What I would rather show you today is the chaos of my thinking, the conundrum of too many threads which resist being woven alongside each other.

The platform itself wants to steer me towards greater boxiness with its “block editor” which I continue to reject as long as I can. I want less standardization, not more. And yet, I keep writing here, where whatever I type begins Black against white but once published, lands Black against cornflower blue – a design choice of questionable merit. The typeface is always Black like me, though.

I will now plunge this post into the chaos I intended.

  • Never have I felt a need for a king. But now that the greatest of fictions has left us, I mourn. Wakanda forever.

 

  • Identity has become my latest soapbox, the one folks ask me to speak from of late. I have mixed feelings about this.

 

  • Sometimes I feel a little guilty about how well our school reopening is going so far.

 

  • In a conversation about the link between acknowledging the multiple aspects of one’s own identity and seeing the need for anti-racist action, for a brief shining moment it felt like I had an answer that made sense.

 

  • I hope that folks do not make me out to be wiser than I am. I try to remind myself that I am more parts ignorance than knowledge. I keep reading. I listen.

 

Reading can be such a delightfully private affair, especially offline. No one is tracking my tastes, habits or timing while I read a bound book. I wonder how relevant this will be in the long run.

I am grateful for a lifestyle which affords an incredible access to the printed word in myriad formats. This is my parents’ most enduring legacy. They raised me a reader.

Here’s what I’m reading right now: Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall, In The Country We Love by Diane Guerrero, Überseezungen by Yoko Tawanda, and How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow.

My thoughts are scattered, fragmented. I am used to this state. My young students call me back to attention in a heartbeat. I need them to keep me upright and on task. While I’m away from them I read and write with abandon. It’s a form of balance; the very nature of my both/and.

Weekends are for remembering. I forget so much as I go. I fall apart as the week goes on. I pull myself back together  – re – member – in these few days of rest.*

Yesterday I had no words but lots of feelings. Today I have the morning and an almost clear conscience.

I wish I could make this post into an assortment of baskets for you to rummage through at your leisure. Instead, I and wordpress give you these boxes of thought. Packaged, contained, labeled.

Even our freedoms are full of constraints.

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Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

*The idea of re-membering was introduced to me by Gregg Levoy in his book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

 

 

Like A *&%$# Boss

If you’ve read my blog or my tweets before, you’ll know that I use swear words only sparingly. That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking them or using them in more private contexts, I am simply cautious about when and where I write them out or share in other people’s posts for public consumption. But this morning, however, I had an experience that was swear-word worthy, in a good way.

I tweeted this as part of my thread of #delights:

I was feeling so damn confident!

In my late 30’s I lived with a bike messenger for 4 years and he taught me how to ride my bike like I belonged on the road. Once, I shadowed him for a half day and it was certainly one of the best forms of teaching I have ever experienced. We were riding assertively, intentionally with speed, drive and adequate caution. While getting shit done. I live that learning every time I jump on my bike now.

I was thinking of that this morning and how my well of confidence is largely rooted in my body – my body’s ability to perform. In my early thirties I had a phase as a competitive runner. I ran road races and on the track. The 800 ended up being my favorite but my 400 and half marathon best times are objectively the more impressive ones. As a competitor I learned to trust my preparation, to risk more than I thought possible and also to cope with the disappointment when it didn’t work out the way I wanted.* In those countless processes of trials and testing and proving, I enjoyed some great successes. My efforts were rewarded more than a few times. I won some races, picked up my fair share of trophies.

This makes a difference.

I know how to win.

I know how to kick ass

and enjoy doing it.

So now that I’m this older lady and spending time on very different pursuits, I note: the roots of my confidence extend deep into the soil of so many wins. Not only the physical ones, also the intellectual and academic successes along with some professional and personal highlights. It also means that I have learning templates that allow me to grow confidence.

This summer I’ve been doing more inline skating. I’ve got a nice routine that involves about 30 minutes of biking and 50-60 minutes of skating. I LOVE IT! Every time I repeat this exercise, I get a little better, a little stronger, more enduring, more confident! As a middle aged person I chalk this up as a big friggin’ win! It’s something I’m doing for ME! Because I WANT TO! And in those brief shining moments when I can feel the full effect of all that healthy growth and striving and satisfaction and reward – all of that coursing through me while I pedal or push off – well, you better believe I am gonna celebrate LIKE A BOSS!

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Glory Days indeed! I was on the poster because I won it in 1999.

So the next time someone wants to disparage you for thinking back to your glory days of whatever, know that they are missing the point. Glory Days remind us of who we really are, what we’re capable of and that we are here to do the thing! Check your confidence roots. How are you feeding and nourishing them? Are they housed in the right soil? Do you require a repotting, replanting, relocation or, in other words, a significant change?

Writing this post felt urgent, probably because that sense of badass confidence tends to be so fleeting.** I don’t usually wake up feeling like this but I do know it’s possible. I’ve learned how to increase the probability that it will show itself again. And again. Getting on my bike often works a charm. It’s a little lesson and extremely effective. Find your confidence roots, friends. Especially my friends who identify as women. Make sure you own some confidence somewhere. And feed it. I’m here to support that.

 

*On this vidcast with Rissa Sorenson-Unruh, I got to talk about the background to this understanding which I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Our general topic is self-care but the elements contributing to growing confidence run throughout our conversation.

**This is simply too true. I could barely get this out before I felt someone actively stealing my joy. (Perhaps not intentionally, but still.)

“Läuferzehnkampf” = Runners’ Decathlon – 4 days of track races: 60 -1500 -400; 100 – 3000 – 800; 200 – 1000 – 5000; 10K

I Worry

I worry.

When I hear the call for help that comes by e-mail looking for a

trainer,

consultant,

someone

who can help us

“have conversations … about these areas.”

I worry.

When I hear the institution is prepared to pay good money

to hear what they already know and continue to pretend not to understand

what is really required for change.

One can always call a task force, form a committee, commission a study

while power remains in trusted hands, there to insure

that the transformation we keep hearing about

does not get out of control, does not go too far,

lest we perish

and our storied bodies turn to salt.

I worry.

When the urgency is so sudden,

the need so dire

since last week, last month

but not since 2014 or 1995 or 1986 or 1968.

When the solutions sought

are thought best to be provided,

imported from elsewhere,

laid upon the institution like bandages

with magical powers.

I worry.

When I hear administrators talk about the need

“to empower students”

and that it’s now, now

“more important than ever”

“to confront the ways”

which were tolerated for decades and centuries with nary a care

about how that looked

to insiders, outsiders or anyone else.

I worry.

When we mistake saying for showing

when answers come before questions

when there is no time for the time it takes

when power relations never enter the room

I worry.

When I worry

I may forget to wish

that we dedicate ourselves to learning as we teach

that we practice having the conversations we need

and get better

while we go deeper.

When I worry

I may forget to remind you

to look around

and consider the resources right where you are.

I bet you they’re there.

When I worry

I may forget to dream

dream

dream

Of what I hope tomorrow

might bring.

 

 

 

 

The Toll

Too much\ too many

enough\ enough\ no end

how things add up\ take their toll\ leave you drained

Not my child/ or my nephew

Not my brother/ or my uncle

Not my niece/ or my cousin

Not my best friend/ or my co-worker

Not my neighbor/ or his son

No one I knew

personally

And yet, all of them

all of them

my people

gone.

 

 

#BlackLivesMattering

#BlackLivesMatter

And #BlackDeath over and over and over

viral

and inescapable

Now makes it possible for you

to wrap your tongue around those

three bold words

and suddenly see the shadows of

400 years worth of distributed brutality

as part

of the problem.

#BlackLivesMattered

I fear the past tense.

It’s a killer.

 

 

No Good Mourning

It’s not a phantom sadness

because I know its name

and where it lives.

I  know the mood that conjures it,

the temporal passages

it favors.

 

No, this is a sadness

that inhabits me by now;

sometimes it stays small

in a pocket,

a piece of lint I needn’t notice.

 

Then other times it covers me

inside, then out

looms like a fog, like smog

that doesn’t lift

easily.

 

Not a phantom sadness

by any means

Rather, a steadfast messenger

always prone to remind me

this life is neither short nor long

but chosen,

chosen.

Dis appointment

Disappointment happens when our expectations are not fulfilled.

From some we will hear that our expectations were in fact

the mistake.

Dis appointment – could easily be mis appointment

In correct

Dis connect

ill timed dispatch

which shall find no repair

or rematch

Dis joint time out of mind

Or mind out of joint

Or simply out of time

Disappointment stings not once but now again

and again

Disappoint me

measure my sag

Put that dent in my swag

Watch me deflate

go flat

step back.

 

I hear you revving up your optimism machine. Ready to aim it in my direction, pump me up with your elixir of cheer. Save yourself the trouble. Let me have my struggle and sway with my slump. There’s value in the valley so I’ve been told. Let me conduct my own investigations here in the dust and dregs.

The disappointment here is not just here

It’s part and parcel of an

enveloping

dismay

Me to the future: so you legit gonna be like that?

And the future’s like: Yup.

To hell in a handbasket

we thought we never knew what that really meant

but Surprise!

Now we will.

We’ll be in the basket

(In fact, we are the basket)

hands waving

careening hellwards,

our expectations

finally spot on.

Disappointment is no longer the word.

It is all that’s left.

Soccer unit inside and out

“Welcome to our soccer unit – highly anticipated for many of you – it’s on!”

(Some of them can hardly contain themselves, can’t wait to launch the ball towards the goal at record speed. Watch this one dribble like a pro, make the cross then execute that heel pass into the net right through the mystified goalie’s legs.

See how they run – chasing down that ball, beating the opponent – so much glory in 5 seconds before the ball is reclaimed by the better dribbler.

Soccer, my least favorite unit to teach. There, I said it. Yet, every year I get a little better at it. I let go of the reins a little more; observe and coach. I take on their input. I spend less time “curbing” their enthusiasm; more time letting them find their way into games they will deem satisfying. The know-it-all-bend-it-like-Beckham-watch-me-I’m-Messi Saturday morning experts can get under my skin if they press me too hard. But now I’m prepared for them: Yes, there will be games throughout the unit but small-sided. No, we’re not playing boys against girls, ever.)

*Students engage in free soccer play around the gym. No one is idle.*

(Why do I resist this unit so deeply? What am I afraid of? I can answer that. I am afraid of failing, of looking foolish, of missing the mark, of being mocked for my lack of visible expertise… Is that enough?

Every time I meet my classes, this fear is lurking beneath the surface – what if they resist my plans? What if they don’t follow the plan? What if they hate what I’ve written on the board? I am steeled for their push back and it almost never comes. Or when it does, it’s perfectly understandable. Like my Pre-K friends who resist anything with too much teacher directed structure. They all run in different directions and in their own way broadcast to me “WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR!! Which absolutely makes sense and they are simply demanding that I, too, make some sense.

So when it comes to soccer I am programmed for pushback. “Why can’t we play a game? When are we gonna play a match? This isn’t real soccer…” Feels like I have heard it all but actually, things go fine when I let them lead with their interests and introduce one bit of skill practice, a quick skill oriented activity and then another low stakes game that’s fun and lets players choose their level of active risk. It’s fine, fine, fine.  I’m ok.)

“What? It’s time to go? Are we doing soccer next time, too?”

One final kick into the goal. Smashed it.

Balls in the bag, please. Thank you. Tomorrow’s another day.

Wrong Way Round: A snag in the planning

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Struggling to do a thing. Of course I wrote up the proposal months ago. It sounded great. Even now it still sounds great.

When I conceptualize a workshop I constantly remind myself: I offer thought material, practice space and helpful structures for interaction. My purpose is to facilitate conversations, not deliver a lecture.

I promise not to waste people’s time and to be responsive their needs as participants.

This time I’ve felt stuck. I’ve been dragging my heels; avoiding the real work of planning the actual thing.

The workshop title is “Leading By Invitation.” And I think my mistake in planning has been letting myself get hooked on the “leading” part, when the actual game changer lies in the invitation.

Isn’t that funny? Simply by placing Leading at the front of the title, my brain assumes that’s where everything begins: Defining leader and leadership, assessing our affinity for leadership, and other blah, blah. No wonder I’ve been holding off. I’ve been looking at and trying to grab the thing on the wrong end!

Everybody and their cousin has a story to tell about leadership. Who spends time on the art of invitation?

When we talk about invitation we naturally need to talk about our audience – to whom is our invitation addressed? And based on that, what vision and purpose do we share? What urgency brings us together?

Identity enters: Who are we to invite others? We are the door, window and floodgate openers. Which discoveries are we welcoming into our midst? We cannot know in advance. We are the welcomers. We create and hold space; we listen, we organize and coordinate, we encourage.

To invite, we say: come. Welcome. Also become. Come learn, come laugh, come study, come wonder, come and weep; come and feel support.

To create a workshop with other humans, with other educators that sings a melody of invitation as a way to build the things that are needed – this is a gift and a privilege.

We invite others to share the work, share the load and also the joy! A workshop highlighting the power of invitation holds so much promise, offers so many entry points and leading is not the focus. Leading is not the priority. Building, growing, learning in community – these comprise the invitation.

Leading in this case emerges as a capacity to facilitate and mobilize; to coordinate and schedule. Leading in this case develops in dialogue and is shaped significantly by the community from which it arises.

It all makes so much more sense now!

Being stuck was my wiser self trying to call me back to attention.

Why am I inviting folks to come talk about this? Because I have some of the most compelling examples to share! And in doing that I hope to fire up some enthusiasm for folks to see the projects and initiatives they’ve always wanted to start, join, support, build. I’m inviting participants to a celebration of wonderful community ideas, led by living, breathing, working educators that offer avenues for us all to do better and be better.

OK, now I know what I’m doing, where I’m headed, what the thing is going to be. Thanks for listening to me unravel my confusion.

image: Spelic

In The Church of Grown Folks’ Music

Saeed Jones opens his memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, and this happens:

“I Wanna Be Your Lover” comes on the kitchen radio                                                     and briefly, your mother isn’t your mother –

… Spinning, she looks at but doesn’t see you,                                                                           spinning, she sings lyrics too fast for you to pursue,                                                      spinning, she doesn’t have time for questions like:                                                               What is this nasty song and where did she learn                                                                    to dance like that and why, and who is this high pitched                                                      bitch of a man who can sing like a woman and turn                                                              your mother not into your mother but a woman,                                                                  not even a woman, but a box-braided black girl, …

( “Elegy with Grown Folks’ Music,” p. XI

My God, this scene. I can see it; I can see myself in my own kitchen caught in a revelry that envelopes me like a cloud when the right old school jam is on. One time I’m Chaka Khan singing “Sweet Thing,” the next time I am party to my own undoing while Barry White sets the stage. Grown folks’ music is right. It’s those tunes I knew and sang sitting on the back seat of my parents’ Chevy Impala and then later the station wagon.

WJMO – Cleveland’s soul station was on as long as my big brother was in the car. On the way to middle school, I memorized the lyrics to “You Are My Starship” in Mrs. Robinson’s carpool. I could sing all the songs but had less than a clue what they were really about. When I was maybe 7 or 8 our neighbor across the street, Mr. Bogan, liked to hear me sing “I’m Chairman of the Board” because I knew all the words and had it down. It always made him laugh and I was sure I’d become an actress one day.  My neighbors down the street, the Wheelers, their favorite song for me to imitate was “Can This Be Real.” Song imitations were my out-of-house social currency. Mimicry seemed to be a gift I had.

Like special aromas, the right melody can take us back to who we were in another time, practically in another life. Which how I can see Saeed Jones’s mother become the girl she was when Prince was brand new and “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was all any of us wanted to hear on the radio. I always dreamed of myself doing that silky hand dance to “Yearning For Your Love” with a handsome Black gentleman who would have all the moves and eyes only for me.  It never turned out quite like imagined, though. That young gentleman I envisioned never materialized and the consolation prizes who showed up lacked both moves and real interest. Alas, the hand dance of the century would not be my destiny.

When I allow myself to dip into my soul music revelry for real, I am usually alone, free to hit the high notes without shame, to shoop and swing like back in the day. I throw on a little nerve, some attitude, close my eyes and testify.

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photo by Alexandra Thompson

*For those who can’t get enough of these sounds, here’s a playlist I made earlier this year for #31DaysBIPOC

 

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.