What’s My Story?

img_20181108_144324

Helsinki Airport Baggage Claim. Surprise representation.

 

Truth: I’m at a 2-day seminar for women educators interested in leadership. It is being led by a dynamic current head of school who has made it her mission to help stock the pipeline with capable women who belong in international school leadership.

We’re talking about the power of storytelling. Strong stories, told well and with intent create connections. The premise makes sense. Neurological research suggests that our emotional responses to stories feed and change our social brain. Being inspired has physiological consequences.

Our stories matter. How we receive and process stories matter.

And I am stumped. Because I consider exactly this – storytelling – to be an area of weakness. It’s why I never try to retell a joke or describe a supposedly funny thing I did. I’m willing to read fiction but not create it. Even true stories from my life feel odd to relate. To think of a story that is of emotional heft for me that then bears out some truth about my larger message feels like a significant hurdle that shouldn’t be.

Which is why I have taken on the expense of coming here, of taking part, of learning from fresh voices. As I run through my mental files, searching for the story I might need or that might do the job, I keep coming up with a blank. Or with stories I can’t find a connecting thread to. This is the point: facing the challenge of not knowing, of feeling off-base. By tomorrow, something will emerge. And it will be the right thing because it will be what I have at the moment.

From there I can build.

Right this moment I don’t know what my story is. Or which story is mine. Tomorrow I’ll know. I can hardly wait.

The Problem That Is/Isn’t

labyrinth-1738039_1920.jpg

“The problem,” she said, “is not that I read too much. It’s that I feel too much of what I read.”

“The problem,” he said, “is not that I watch too much, It’s that I have seen more than I know how to handle. And I cannot turn away.”

“you know what your problem is?”

“My problem? My problem is that I am empty and full at the same time.”

My responsibilities are not my regrets, but they do cost me some energy. I take these responsibilities. I have chosen these responsibilities. They give me purpose and keep me going but they are not weightless. They don’t defy gravity. I get tired. I run out of steam. And my stuff still gets done. That’s the deal. That’s how this works. You know that.

I put words on the screen. Not even on the real page. So that I’m writing without really writing. Just putting stuff down. And then someone will come along and say, hey, I get it. I hear you. That’s the shit! And I will feel humble and arrogant at the same time because nothing is just one thing anymore. It’s always more than one thing. Multidimensional both/and, never ever just tidy and set. And it tires me out. And here I come again, scrolling right through to the next set of problems I want to think about but don’t have time because you know, I need to hang up the laundry and clear the dishwasher and thank God, the cookies are already baked and packaged for tomorrow.

Then someone asks, “Hey Sherri, can you…?” And I say “sure, not a problem.”

Because what is and what isn’t a problem can shift.

“My problem,” I said, “is, in fact, nothing more and nothing less than me just trying to live a life that makes sense some or even most of the time. I’m a beginner and a veteran at once. I’m gifted and I suck. I need more sleep but I keep staying up late. I’m a mess and a marvel.”

“Hey,” they said, “what you need is a vacation!”

And I said, “you know what? You are right.”

 

What We Mean When We Talk About Quality Of Life

Vienna, Austria is consistently rated among the cities with the highest quality of life. I agree with that evaluation. Here’s one example.

I had some time on my hands early on a Saturday morning. I decided to visit a public park that I normally wouldn’t visit.

Playground spaces always speak to me: How much room is there to run and jump? How many different ways can kids challenge themselves and their dexterity? How many pieces of equipment are designed for multiple children? How is fun built into the design of the space? This part offered a series of playgrounds and play spaces, including the skater park at the top. All of it looked so welcoming. I was fascinated by these giant swings that I actually put down my backpack and had a go. It was calming and delightful.

While I was composing this on my cell phone, the post published before I could finish. I wanted to describe the things I saw and how they struck me, like this tree above. I had never seen one like it before. It was a needle tree but in the shape of a deciduous tree. I was genuinely fascinated. Trunk like a cypress and these very bright light green fingers of needles hanging down and the roots threatening to burst its concrete casing.

img_20181006_083644

Since it was so early in the morning, the park was nearly empty and gloriously peaceful. Ponds, fountains and rolling green spaces made me feel incredibly grateful for the time I took to explore and discover. Privilege in action. That’s part of quality of life.

img_20181006_084553

Ski Jumping and Parental Awe

The more I write, the more I ask myself: Which stories are mine to tell?

My youngest son participates in ski jumping. It’s a fairly spectacular sport: Jumpers in a squatting position on especially wide and long skis, place the skis into a metal track, zoom down the steep track at high speed and cast themselves into a straightened body position which allows them to glide down the steep hill and land safely in an upright position before returning to a squat in order to brake the skis.

By now I have watched this process hundreds of times, weekend after weekend, performed by children as young as six on small hills, to the 8 and 9 year olds who advance to hills from 15 to 30 m, on up to the next group of older kids who may jump on hills anywhere from 40 to 70 m in length. As a family we’ve been at this for a little over 2 years and our son’s progress has been swift.

As a spectator I have learned a lot but I remain remarkably ill-informed about all the ins and outs of the scoring process, the finer points of measuring the distance jumped, and which wind is the good kind. I suppose, this is part of what makes watching a joy. I can lose myself in the aesthetics and daring of the enterprise. The risks are real, yet observed cases of real injury have been extremely rare.

My son asked me what it’s like for me to watch him in action. “Well,” I started, “I think I hold my breath, actually. I can film you and keep the camera still but I get pretty nervous, especially for the first jump.”

Meanwhile I was thinking but could not really find the words to describe the pride that swells in my throat, the relief that settles over me every time he returns from his flights unscathed, the sheer awe of watching him test the laws of gravity a little farther each time.

There is an unusual joy in being able to see our children succeed first hand. To witness my son’s satisfaction with his own performance becomes its own great gift.

While I cannot tell his story of sailing through the air on skis, I can tell my story of what it feels like to be connected to the person doing the sailing. Miraculous.

This is what my son watches for inspiration:

 

 

SOL Tuesdays: Some thoughts on The Marrow Thieves

It was my librarian friend who pressed the book into my hands. I wasn’t sure I had time. We just started the school year.

She knew.

I began reading The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline.

Fiction often throws me into disorientation which I somehow resent. I feel feeble-minded for not being able to keep up with the cast of characters and imagine them, each distinctly in my mind’s eye. Fiction can make me feel ‘less than’ sometimes: less than a strong reader, less than an attentive reader.

I read this story anyway which begins with the opening of a big bag of Doritos.

The fiction of The Marrow Thieves takes us into a dark, vicious future not very far away and every inch fathomable. That is both its magic and its grip. The tale it tells of another wave of destruction of indigenous populations across North America by none other the white colonizers. It’s a pillaging of a population which still maintains the ability to dream by those who have lost that same capacity. The native people are hunted for their bone marrow where their dreams are held.

I think it is the comprehensive idea of destruction that grabbed hold of me and did not let go. The narrative takes place in a time when climate change has wrought irreparable damage and environmental devastation defines landscapes more than anything else. Migration, resource scarcity, disease and insanity become the norm. And these are related as “The Story” told by the leader of a ragtag group of children and teens moving north through the bush evading “Recruiters” and others who might harm them.

One passage blew me away: “Soon they needed too many bodies, and they turned to history to show them how to best keep us warehoused, how to best position the culling. That’s when the new residential schools started growing up from the dirt like poisonous brick mushrooms.” (p. 89)

It’s often necessary to read about the struggles of others to understand what struggle even means.

I cannot remember reading a book and feeling so much fear, hope and kinship with the characters. While I prayed for resolution, I hardly expected it, though Dimaline’s writing which weaves story lines so gracefully offered reward enough regardless of the outcome.

My library friend knew I was ready. This was the fiction I needed to better see reality.

Mirror, Mirror, in the Words

mirror-71418_1280

Have you ever caught a view of yourself in the mirror that surprised you? Where you suddenly notice a detail that betrays what you perhaps were feeling but you thought couldn’t be seen? That’s kind of what happened to me the other day, but the mirror I saw myself in consisted of words; a series of tweets, actually.  And each tweet seemed to bring that surprising detail into sharper and sharper focus. Then there were tears.

The tweets by Sonia Gupta described what’s at stake for people of color who decide to speak up against injustice on social media. She emphasizes that it’s not a show, and not about likeability or boosting follower counts but about claiming our right to exist in a society that recognizes us as fully human and worthy. She suggests that for those of fighting now, that we will not likely see significant change in our lifetimes; that “it’s a marathon we’ll never see the end of.” I think that’s the sentence that landed with a hard thud.

All of a sudden I had strange picture of myself ‘out there’ doing what I do: supporting, encouraging, reasoning, questioning, sharing, hearing, persisting and then crumbling under the weight. For some minutes I felt weak and deflated. Naming what was going on helped me recognize myself as both fierce and vulnerable these days.

The glimpse in that unexpected mirror reminded me of something I experienced in graduate school. Part of our coursework in Group Dynamics included attendance at a weekend Tavistock Institute. In a nutshell, a group of people convene under an artificial social structure which somehow forces participants to engage with each other and explore the elements of social organization: roles, authority, boundaries, tasks, and leadership, in the process. There were large group sessions as well as smaller group meetings where the structures given varied from nearly rigid to almost no structure at all. My whole cohort of 50 attended and another 30 or 40 people from another grad program were a part of this three day event.

A lot can happen in 3 days and being in close quarters with strangers and friends all bound to this emerging social structure we couldn’t quite understand but were constructing minute to minute – let me just say, it turned out to be pretty intense. Some folks behaved in surprising ways – they got loud, they broke rules, they challenged authority, they withdrew entirely, they broke down, they rose up. The experience proved quite unsettling for some. One breaking point came for me when I confronted the roles I had taken up in this process.

Leading up to the weekend there was a lot of excitement and also concern in my cohort about what might take place, how we might respond to this experiment of sorts. I distinctly remember being a voice of reassurance, counseling others not to worry, that we would be fine. During the weekend we were frequently asked to acknowledge the roles we were taking up in various settings. At some point it dawned on me that I, one of a handful of black women in my cohort, had taken up a “mammy” role in responding to the worries and fears mainly of my white male classmates before and during the institute. No one had asked me to take up the role, per se. I enacted it myself, with no particular forethought.

I can’t remember what event or words triggered my awakening. But I sat weeping for several minutes in the wake of that realization. Ever since then I have developed a greater sensitivity of how I select and take up various roles in different contexts. Sonia Gupta’s thread of tweets made me think deeply about the roles that I take up on social media. While my inclinations to nurture and support others remain strong, I have also become fiercer in my resistance to the social and political status quo. I find myself angry more often. I’m ready to fight.

And that new readiness – to fight, to assert, to push back, to protest – has me feeling like I’m holding my breath a lot of the time, trying to stay functional and constructive. But underneath there is sadness, fear, rage and exhaustion. Those are as real as my desire to assist and uplift. That the balance has become so delicate is perhaps the reality I hadn’t yet confronted.

image via Pixabay CC0