He’s Just Seventeen

He’s seventeen, handsome, graceful and smart, plays mid right wing for a very good soccer club. His shoulders are broad, so is his smile, and he is getting taller. He is African American and I am his white mother.

We live in Vermont, where hippies still thrive raising carrots and kids on small farms. This is a state with only 626,630 people, 95.2% of whom are white. There used to be more cows than people, but those days are gone — well, at least the cows are. Folks answering demographic surveys around here are predominantly well educated, and aren’t partial to organized religion, though we have a lot of Buddhists practicing in these hills. Despite such mindfulness, I hear comments like, “There is no racism here.” “Everyone knows everyone and everybody helps one another.” The state motto is Freedom and Unity; Kindness could rule if Vermont were a separate Republic.

Even so, the Southern Poverty Law Center gives Vermont a grade of ‘F’ for civil rights instruction in the public schools.[1] It seems like teachers want to do the right thing and, along with most white people, they don’t want to say the wrong thing about race (or class or LGBT or adoption or disabilities) so they just don’t bring it up. Most white folks I know here don’t see any evidence of racism unless someone points to specific incidents or talks through the issues, like Driving While Black or Shopping While Black. Even then, some of my white friends, and many of my students, get exasperated, “Racism is so old-school,” I’ve been told. They don’t want to believe that racism exists. This essay is for them, and for my kids.

None of the parents I know have had to teach their white kids the skills to be safe in stores, schools, highways and neighborhoods, as I have. I thought about this as I read a piece by self-described upper middle class Attorney Lawrence Otis Graham in The Washington Post.[2] Graham and his family are African-American. He offered a list of nine rules he and his wife have taught their children, among them, never leave a store without a receipt, keep your hands free and visible, and always be polite, even in the face of disrespect. Even with this careful preparation, Graham’s fifteen-year-old son called home terrified, having been harassed by white men in a car, shouting the N-word as he walked on the sidewalk of his elite prep school.

African American men and boys are incarcerated or killed by the weapons of racism in countless numbers. Most of us have learned about Emmett Till, brutally murdered for the possibility that he had whistled at a white woman in Money, Mississippi in1955. His mother braved threats and opened his casket for the world to see what happened to her 14-year-old-son. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, walking home with a fistful of Skittles in Sanford, Florida in 2012 is in our more recent memory. The summer of 2014 presented us with many more dead black young men and boys: in Ferguson, Missouri. Staten Island, New York. Los Angeles, California. Beavercreek, Ohio. Victorville, California. [3]

I recently discovered the stories of two boys (they called them Negro then) shot after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. They are not remembered as are the four girls who died in the blast.[4] The New York Times, September 15, 1963 article describes the shooting of one of the boys, 13-year-old Virgil Wade, “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.”[5] No apparent reason. General racial disorders. Our nation has a long history of bullets flying into innocent black youth. I knew this history, but it became mine when I became a mother.

I also have a daughter who is a year older than her brother. On my first trip to the grocery store in 1996 with my eentsy weentsy baby girl, a white employee collecting carts in the parking lot asked, “Is that a Negro?” I immediately responded, “Yes! And isn’t she beautiful?” Despite my initial (and intuitive) reaction, I have learned to be ever wary of the inexperience and obliviousness of other white people when it comes to my children. Sometimes I get a pleasant surprise; when my daughter was only a few months old, I steeled myself for a diatribe when a guy came over to my table at a diner. I confess, he fit the stereotype of “redneck” that I hadn’t yet overcome. The baby was too small to sit up on her own, so she was in my lap. He extended his finger for her to grab as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. He was smiling ear to ear as he proudly showed off a picture of his biracial granddaughter.

On another occasion, my son came home from kindergarten to report he’d been washing his hands after art with other classmates and one told him his hands were still dirty. My son responded, “Mine are clean but yours are covered with paint!” Another time, an elementary teacher was adamant that “black” was the proper term for her to use when teaching civil rights. My daughter was uncomfortable, “But I’m not black, I’m brown,” she told me. I asked her what she’d prefer the teacher say. She thought for a moment and proudly said, “African American.” When I talked to the teacher, I suggested she talk to the kids in the future to find out what they liked to be called. I have had a lot to learn about negotiating the world crisscrossing color lines.

A pivotal moment in my awareness occurred one luscious summer night at the beach. The kids were two and three, we were walking along the shoreline as sunset approached. It had been a lovely day, just the three of us, strolling around town, playing tag with the waves, tossing stones in the water or watching construction on the wharf. We could while many hours away in these pursuits. Our after dinner stroll was the icing on the day. Big sister was leading little brother down the strand. As they wandered ahead, I followed along happy to be in the midst of their joy. The infant and toddler years were receding and I was thinking how big and independent they were becoming. A tall and very strikingly handsome African American man watched us approach. I waved and called, “ Hello.” He boomed from his doorway, “Are they yours?” When I nodded he continued, “They’re cute now but what are you going to do when people cross the street when they are bigger?”

I had no words. Was this one of the what- right-do-you-have-as-a-white-woman-to-adopt-black-children challenges I had heard before, or simply a bold forewarning? There was no way to have a conversation; his was not an invitation, and the kids were already far ahead. That man’s question has not haunted me with doubts about whether I was right to adopt my children. Their birth giver settled that for me when she decided their destination and made sure brother got to be with sister. No, his question has provoked all of my work as an educator, community member, and mother.

I don’t want women to fear, as Sandra Bullock’s character did in Crash (2004), the sight of my son on the sidewalk approaching her. I don’t want people to duck into a store when they see my kids coming. I’ve led ‘interrupting oppression’ workshops and classes to guide people to understand the amazingly complex intersections of all prejudices and to appreciate and honor the variety of perspectives and ideas a diverse group can inspire. The forewarning of the man on the beach, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s plea to have our children recognized for their character rather than their color—- are motivation to always be in conversation about understanding skin and gender and privilege and power. And fear.

The Color of Fear (1994), a documentary by Lee Mun Wah,[6] features eight men talking about race in North America. They are African American, Latino, Asian American and Caucasian. The clothing and eyewear is dated but the dialogue is still, (sad to say), relevant. One of the men, African American Victor Lewis, tries to find the words that will get White David Christensen, to understand the depths of the differences between them. David only wants to see America as just, full of people with the kinds of positive experiences he’d had. He resists believing that the lives of men of color have been traumatically different from his experience as a white man. My white students get very uncomfortable watching the scene where Victor declares that he is black man, not white, as it seems to him white people want him to be. He says he cannot trust David until David is willing to really listen to the stories of the men of color in the room. After the film someone always says, “He is so angry!”

When I first saw the film, I saw anger too. But having lived the years since, learning to see the world through my children’s eyes and paying attention to current events, I now say, “I see him as frustrated and extremely passionate. Wouldn’t you get impatient and heated while trying to talk to someone who so resisted the truth of what you were saying, the truth of your lived experience?” I have learned that passion is often misinterpreted as anger. I have been thus misinterpreted, as I get riled trying to be understood. Every time I watch this film I also think of my son. Will he be misconstrued?

Just as that man leaning in the doorway on the beach knew he would, my son has grown beyond cute. Will people cross the street when they see him coming now that he is no longer a small child but a tall, graceful young man?

My son wanted airsoft guns when he was 13. I told him then of an 8-year-old I had read about who would not hand over his toy and was shot by police. My son immediately dismissed my concerns, “But Mom, I’m playing in the woods with my friends. And really, come on, we’re in Vermont.”

Is that enough of a safety net?

It’s true; Vermont is not Ohio or Mississippi. Men We Reaped is Jesmyn Ward’s (2013) memoir remembering five men in her family circle who died young. These African American young men were whole, until they were thwarted by the economic and educational apartheid of their Mississippi. The young men she describes were hindered and emboldened by stereotypes of masculinity and African American. Drugs, guns, despair or white men driving while drunk murdered them.

Guns and guys. Economics. Rural landscapes. There are differences and similarities between rural Mississippi and Vermont. Our winters are for sledding, skiing, reading by the woodstove. Folks in Mississippi rebuild after hurricanes and slog through heat no Vermonter could abide. If it reaches 98 degrees folks practically faint around here. Many Vermonters want to do right, be good, be green, be advocates for every cause. They take pride in the history of the stalwart New Englander. There are many markers of Civil War veterans in Vermont cemeteries. Vermont is the first state to approve of civil unions for same-sex couples. They want their guns for hunting. They tend to leave one another alone but help out in a pinch without being asked.

But perfect we are not. Vermont has a statewide problem of prescription drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers and an economy that prompts our young, educated population to go out of state to find good jobs. Vermont gets an “F” while Mississippi gets a “C” on the Teaching Tolerance report card. Drugs, guns, and economics are all factors confronting youth in Vermont and Mississippi. I have faith that, with support, Vermont educators will rise to meet this challenge, teach beyond tolerance and tests, to deep understanding of stereotypes and prejudice. It is time to inspire students to desire and create a society, a new civil social paradigm, which will address school shootings by white children with high powered artillery and which does not accept the shooting of unarmed children, young adults, and citizens of color.

Vermonters are proud of the state’s dedication to justice and hold kindness as a rule. I’m grateful for that. But if we are too attached to an image of being kind and progressive, we miss the real racism that occurs to those who are darker skinned. We miss opportunities to understand our privilege as white people to walk down the street and not have someone cross the street or call the police because we are here. We miss the fact that our white children are not being shot for holding toys, as seventeen more brown children have since I had that conversation with my son four years ago. [7]

We don’t have to wait for this to change. History offers examples of non-violent activism that resulted in fast-moving changes. In the early days of AIDS activism we shouted, SILENCE=DEATH. No media, government agency, or pharmaceutical company seemed to care that so many gay men were suddenly dying. Men and women organized to work with doctors, lawyers, medical researchers, poets, and playwrights so political activism started to bring change and hope to people who were HIV positive. The primarily privileged white, male, educated provocateurs of this movement were determined to get their demands met, they assumed they had the right to health care and attention. That civil rights movement was organized with unprecedented immediacy and voice. We need that kind of momentum to gain justice for black boys and men dying by excessive police force and incarceration.

As I write this, there’s a huge crescent moon in the clear Vermont sky. That same moon shines over all of us. It shines in Ferguson, Missouri still smoldering after the riots over the grand jury’s decision in the case of Michael Brown’s death by Officer Wilson. It glows over Cleveland, Ohio where just last week twelve-year-old African American, Tamir Rice, died when white officers didn’t distinguish his pellet gun from a real one at a playground. Why are lethal shots fired? Not one shot, but many?

Thousands of lives – my son’s life — depend on our not being silent.

We have wonderful mentors and models for our crusade for justice —Suffrage for Women, Civil Rights for Native Americans and African Americans, Women, Gays, Lesbians, Transgender, and Disabled, Peace Movements and the AIDS movement. None of these efforts has lead to permanent success though. Constant vigilance is our responsibility.

At seventeen I was marching against the war in Vietnam. Now, I see that we were practicing hope. Hope for change, hope for humanity, hope for kindness. I adopted my African American daughter because I wanted to walk into the future as the future would be—multicultural, full of difference. I adopted my son knowing I had to guide a boy to becoming a man. I became a mother in the anticipation of joy and hope in a bright future for my kids. I am an educator because I believe knowing history and social constructions provokes understanding, especially of people who are different from us somehow.

Every young person killed is a son or daughter.

Every shooter is too.

[1] Teaching the Movement 2014: The State of Civil Rights Education in the United States. http://www.tolerance.org/TTM2014

[2] Lawrence Otis Graham

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/06/i-taught-my-black-kids-that-their-elite-upbringing-would-protect-them-from-discrimination-i-was-wrong/

[3] Summer of 2014

Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri.

Eric Garner of Staten Island, New York smothered in a chokehold.

John Crawford of Beavercreek, Ohio shot in the chest in Walmart holding a .177 calibre BB rifle.

Ezell Ford of Los Angeles, California shot in the back after an “investigative stop.”

Dante Parker of Victorville, California Tased repeatedly and died in the hospital.

Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Florida in February 2012 and, always, Emmett Till on August 26, 1955 in Money, Mississippi.

[4]  http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0915.html (accessed 10.17.14) 14-year-old Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair) were found beneath the rubble in a basement restroom. Ten-year-old Sarah Collins, who was with the other girls, lost her right eye, and more than 20 other people were injured in the blast.

5 http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/birmingham-church-bombing

6 The Color of Fear. (1994).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nmhAJYxFT4

7 http://www.mydaytonailynews.com/data/news/17-shootings-that-involved-fake-guns/ (accessed 10.17.14)

Cute and Beauty

 

Cute and Beauty came about while attending a workshop at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. Poet, essayist and memoir writer Michael Klein orchestrated The Original Idea: A Memoir Workshop. If you know Michael, music and poetry are what really surges through his heart, so conducting us in a symphony of creativity is an accurate description of the experience. We read essays, worked on assignments, and dazzled ourselves with ideas.

Although each member of the group had the same directives no two pieces were remotely alike. We all come to the writing from various life vantage points. What’s important to one person hasn’t crossed the mind of another. Perhaps that is why we all worked together so well.

It isn’t my usual nature to write this way but I opened the computer to begin and a playful, yet philosophical, sprite took over the keyboard.

Cute & Beauty

“Oh, isn’t that cute?”

“You look so cute today.”

“Did you see what they did? It was the cutest!”

I hate cute. It is so demeaning. It is so perky and wide-eyed, innocent and coy. Cute is soft. Cute is naïve.

Cute is dangerous for small beings in some situations.

Beauty, on the other hand, is laden with life, draped in knowing, saturated by light. Quiet beauty takes a seat while cute runs around in circles and wears out.

Beauty sits in the kitchen and peels potatoes while cute rushes to the store for parsley.

Beauty has time to listen.

Beauty knows disappointment, has the stitches to prove it.

Beauty loves cute, knowing the time will make the sharp edges smooth.

 * * *

 Mrs. Cardinal, the bird, is beautiful. Mister is flashy as all get out, while Mrs. is subtle in russet plumage, sassy crest and orange beak.

Cute is baby anything—except perhaps the sharp begging beaks of unfledged robins still in the nest.

Cute is an insult to an older woman, praise to the young gay boy testing his new tight pants.

***

Beauty is your profile when I see it out of the corner of my eye, when you don’t know I’m looking, and you are listening and thinking.

Cute is me in my wetsuit, showing off for the photographer. Maybe.

***

Two gay men walking down the street pass another guy by the telephone pole. “He has such a cute ass,” one says admiringly.

But isn’t that a throwaway line? What about a smart ass, a total ass, a firm and shapely ass? Would one use cute for any other body parts—a mind, an elbow, a foot? What a cute mind she has, just doesn’t work. Cute isn’t for everything. Some things are not clever.

How about a beautiful derriere? That might work. Handsome too.

Beauty is bolder, even if we are talking about the same cute thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Up Close: Photography by Shelley Vermilya — opens tonight in Burlington, Vermont

For those who are local, I hope you'll consider joining us tonight, or coming to se e the show while it's up.  This site will soon expand to include Shelley's photos and upcoming events.

For those who are local, We hope you’ll consider joining us tonight, or coming to see the show through June and the start of July.
This site will soon expand to include Shelley’s photos and upcoming events.

Take Back the Night – Again

I was invited to present the keynote speech for the April 17, 2014 Burlington Take Back The Night Rally, March & Speak Out Against Sexual Violence. I would like to thank the organizing committee, folks from the University of Vermont, HopeWorks, and Saint Michael’s College, for this opportunity. It really got me thinking.  Here’s the text of the speech:

39 years ago –Microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth left her office on an April evening to walk home. She was alone, and she didn’t make it. She was stabbed to death by a stranger just a block from her house. Her murder in Philadelphia sparked the first Take Back the Night march.

39 Years ago and WE ARE STILL HERE—- what do you think about that?

What can I say that hasn’t been said over the past four decades—or is it the past few thousands of years?   Talk about patience…..perseverance….resilience.

When it comes to sexual violence against so many of our bodies: women, trans, gay, lesbian, sex workers, those incarcerated, or in the military—men and women—-we are all still up for grabs.  The elderly, the infirm, children too. We must continue this march and rally.

I am amazed at our patience –yeah—- I know change takes time……. THIS is a long, LONG time— and I want to say we need to start thinking differently about our approaches.

Talking about time —-Here is a little bit of my story—a little bit of why it is so important for me to be here tonight with you:

I attended my first march with other ten and twelve year olds in Woods Hole, Massachusetts one summer. It was against the war in Vietnam and we were kids and proud of our effort. It would be a few more years before that war was “over.”

It would be another few years before I understood how important our voices were for speaking out about women and gay liberation. Abortions were not legal and women died cloaked in silence. Gay bashing was a sport, also drenched in silence.

I walked down city streets in a boy’s cap and baggy pants. I counted on my androgyny and converse sneakers to protect me. I experienced date rape thinking it was my fault because I was drunk and I’ve been beat up by a girlfriend because I was leaving.  I quit drinking and to this day, I am still learning to speak up.

In my first teaching job an older student talked about her upbringing, the abuse she encountered as a child. I encouraged her to write about her childhood. She chided me, adamant that her experiences were not interesting— “Why should I write my story? Sexual abuse is an occupational hazard of being a girl.”

NOT ANY MORE!

It is important to me that we are together—telling our stories, realizing we are not alone—refusing to accept that date rape, sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence and murder is just the way it is and

living in constant fear is inevitable, to be expected. But too often it is still true.

We now know too well that sexual and physical abuse is equal opportunity-perpetrated upon all people. So this belongs to all of us! The Soccer moms I hung out with the other night *yes—totally— I am one! * were talking about being wary of running alone. One of them — a forty-something traditional woman, her hair getting just a little gray, talked about a van that slowed down next to her on a dirt road near her house, and she heard a voice from inside,  “Never mind—she’s got a dog.”  Yes—this is Vermont—and this story is so global.

We’ve accomplished so much through legislation, political awareness, and education— We wear our seat belts, don’t smoke so much, don’t pollute so much. We recycle, eat less salt, fat, sugar. Gays and lesbians can even marry—at least for the moment. We know legislation doesn’t always equal change—the real open mind and heart kind of change. That takes time, doesn’t it?

But when it comes to sexual violence, we are all vulnerable.

No mother raises a son to be a rapist, an abuser, or a violent criminal. A whole convergence creates the individual who harms another—and this convergence is where we have to incite our new revolution—we have to come together—queer, straight, trans, fundamentalist, fragile, male, female, macho—parents, neighbors, social workers, health care workers, government officials, bus drivers, educators—we have got to cross all barriers of thinking and believing to get to the root of this culture of violence, harm, and disregard.

Let’s gather the voices of the fathers of daughters and sons who have been raped. We need to hear the ER doctors and nurses who dress the wounds of violence. We need to inspire every teacher from preschool to college, the dentists, the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, grands and friends who know the violence exists, who know from their own experience or the experience of loved ones, that this violence, random and premeditated—happens—and give them the courage to fight against being held hostage—being so afraid.

EVERYONE is harmed and all of us hurt—

Sexual violence is older than these hills, and we won’t snap into a new era overnight–however—

This pandemic of power is impacting all of us. There are messages all over the place dedicated to the eroticization of violence—how sexy to carry an automatic weapon, how cool to play with guns, gaming with killing, singing along with lyrics about sex that is demeaning and objectifying our bodies. And there also seems to be a renewed insistence on gender codes from the fashion and toy industries. Have you been shopping lately for kids’ clothing or toys?  You know—all that PINK and camouflage……

Bully attitudes prevail -and paralyze- our democracy, our school hallways– and…. what do we call it????—this, this pandemic of power over –over— –over all of us—

How can we be creative and incite change?

How do we counter all of these messages—how do we be cool without the humiliation and violence?

Let me tell you a story—

My children, (teenagers now) at the ages of 3 and 4 were singing ‘Eric and Annie sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-I-n-g in a tree’….and I interrupted asking if they realized how heterosexual the song was, no baby had to come of kissing, protection is easy  (So you see I started my safe sex and awareness training very early) and my daughter –all of 4—listened and sighed, “MOM—it is just a song.”

Little did I know then what we’d be listening to now!  Like Blurred Lines

“But you’re an animal, baby, it’s in your nature”

You all know how it goes…..

“I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

…..It is just a song…….

It’s just a song, it’s just a movie, it’s just a word….and it gets passed down generation to generation, it is ‘just the way it is’…..and it has been 40 years and it seems the violence has only spread.

So how do we think outside the boxes we are popped into at a very early age?

How do we learn to cross the divides that have kept us from working together, kept us from hearing and knowing one another’s story?

Good beat/ denigrating lyrics—do we buy it?  Literally and figuratively!

How do we claim our power, resist, create our own media messages?

How do we think carefully about our everyday assumptions –and even acceptance –of all this violence?

There is something happening that’s taking our nights and days. We are here on a college campus to learn. Okay, so let’s GO! Let’s learn. Let’s figure this out.

People in my generation have been working at this for at least 40 years, we need your fresh thinking.  So here’s my challenge to you – take this question back to your dorm rooms, your apartments, your classrooms, ask each other the question: what is going on?  How can we change it?   You can find the way—create the right conversation—figure out new approaches—

Here’s an idea to start you off  — You all know social media  — can we turn that sword into a new ploughshare?

OH…and by the way  I don’t want us to just take back the night—I want all day too—-we have work to do and —it will take all of us—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Babies

Babies don’t last. A blink of the eye and she’s asking for the car keys. Suddenly the little cutie with luscious long eyelashes towers over me as he opens the door with the utmost chivalry. My babies are sixteen and seventeen years old. I really have to pay attention.

Babies are the most intense mindfulness training I have ever experienced. I remember thinking I had the rhythm of the newborn down, the exact sequence of diaper, bottle, burping, humming a monotone calming tune, and Bingo-a new twist developed, another decibel of crying and bigger tears required a whole new approach. I could hardly keep up. I was forced to interpret non-verbal communication, without knowing that the vocabulary is so intricate and extensive. I learned to go with the flow, do whatever it took to attend to the needs of the Tiny One. Walk quietly around the bedroom one thousand times at three in the morning to achieve the newborn’s return to sleep. How can something so small be so exhausting?

A baby is the youngest in the family group, a baby mama the birth giver of your child but not the partner you are involved with.  Baby is a term of endearment, an involuntary exclamation during sexual acrobatics.

It all depends on the context and your inflection.

Oh, Baby!

And I determinedly wanted one.

Nine months after all the required appointments with the social worker, fingerprints for federal criminal background check, home study paperwork, and the required payments, the phone call came to announce that she had arrived. After a nerve-wracking day of canceled and rearranged flights to the Big Easy, my partner and I had just settled in and unpacked when the social worker knocked. I opened the hotel door to my adventure to motherhood.

I fell in love with her feet. They were sticking out of the hospital issue blanket in the crook of the social worker’s elbow as he stood in the doorway. He gave me his wife’s phone number in case I had any questions as he headed out the door. He was swiftly off into the rainy warm October night to deliver another infant over in Baton Rouge.

I never knew a baby could be so small. She weighed less than a five-pound bag of pure cane sugar but she was all complete.  I was unconditionally in love and instantly captive of her sleeping face. Her eyes fluttered open and our gazes met. ‘Hello, welcome to the world little one,’ I whispered. She slammed her eyes shut and continued her snooze.

Zora, after Neale Hurston of the Harlem Renaissance, was clearly strong and insightful, obviously a budding literary diva from the moment I first held her. She listened intently as I read a Cajun folktale to her on her third day out of the womb. As we strolled along Canal Street people black and white would smile and try to look into the carrying apparatus on my chest. They could see those wee feet sticking out but the rest of her was hidden, she was so deep inside the pouch. We wandered through the French Quarter, peered at a bayou, and I learned the secrets of what to expect in the first year, but this time of your African American baby, from the hotel staff. There was no such wisdom in the popular baby book. The manager said to check at the base of her fingernails to find the color her skin would become. The women who came with fresh towels warned that she would have a bad case of “arm-itis” if I didn’t put her down once in a while, but how could I? I eyed a vegetable scale in the grocery store to weigh her but decided it was too precarious. I didn’t want to risk her falling into the lettuce and peanuts below, so I’d have to wait for the pediatrician visit once we got home to see how much weight she had gained.

The funny thing about babies is that everyone who has one acts as if there had never been another one on the planet before.  Every new gurgle, every new physical accomplishment required a phone tree of announcements.   My sister was tireless, calmly listening to every amazing milestone. Other friends immediately glazed over and nodded, but I was oblivious to their ambivalence.

Babies require gob-smacking adoration and relentless patience. People think they don’t do much. Sleep, eat, coo, snooze, poop, and cry. That’s about it. In reality a lot is happening, undercover and below the surface. They gain a little weight and get a little longer when really their brain is developing at warp speeds, synapses are snapping at a rate Verizon and Google would pay billions to mimic.  Those neurotransmitters are the makers of memory and the sleeping Teeny One is preparing to receive a life of information.

Their bodies are a front for all the personality and temperamental development they are up to.  Their experiments in motion as they strive for physical agility are hardly a match for their verbal skills. Zora soon sang jazz riffs in her car seat and inadvertently played kitchen percussion as she crawled into the cupboards. The Border collie grew weary of the multigrain cereal — I called them the Multicultural Cheerios — Zora spilled on the floor until her fingers grew adept enough for her to toss them with purpose.

As inexplicable as their defining personality traits are their expressions. Where does the self come from?  The wonder of babies is also in their androgynous nature. Cooing, smiling and learning to sit up are all gender free. My baby girl was distinctive in her smile and her penetrating gaze.  She would gather every facial muscle into an expression we called her “what you talking about white woman?” look when too much was happening and everything around her was getting confusing.

In those late Nineties, our little state of Vermont was instantly diversified as many couples adopted children of color and adopted internationally. We were a spontaneous grassroots multicultural movement.  Ten years from now, the majority of children under the age of 18 will be currently so-called minorities. The USA will have a whole new way of thinking about who we are as Americans.  I wanted to adopt an African American infant because I knew there were many kids in our country in need of parents and I wanted to walk hand in hand into this diverse future with my child.

On our first Vermont outing we encountered a grocery store employee collecting carts in the parking lot. He stared at my swaddled infant and asked, “Is that a Negro?” I was startled,  yet as my heart beat loudly, instantly replied, “Yes, and isn’t she amazing?” as I put my bags in the car and popped her in her car seat.  Later that week a lady at the town hall exclaimed, “Oh, she’s colored!” and I quietly replied that ‘colored’ was an archaic term, that people usually used ‘African American’ now. I was learning swiftly that walking into the world as a transracial family required constant and very calm responses.

Babies inspire smiles and lots of ooohing and aahing. Zora got them all from the people at work who would hold her during meetings. She started going to classes with me, listening to the sound of students talking about civil rights, and women’s and gay people’s history.  She babbled along or slept contentedly in the fray of conversation. Pretty soon she could tell a whole story. Anne Lamott calls this early verbosity Latvian in her memoir about her son’s first year. As we were getting seated on a plane to visit my mother someone commented on her baby talk. I said, ‘Oh she speaks fluent Latvian,’ and heads popped up over the seats two rows ahead, ‘My mother is Latvian!’ I was busted. I confessed the whole story of Lamott’s Operating Instructions and my baby’s love of the rhythm of language she couldn’t yet speak. It was funny after the embarrassment wore off.

The answering machine was blinking when we came in after an autumn romp in the leaves. Zora had just had her first birthday. I was thinking she was such a big kid, so capable and toddling with a vengeance. I missed the essence of babyhood in the drooling head clunking onto my shoulder as she suddenly fell asleep, the baby powder smell after the bath, the inability of movement beyond the corner of the blanket, the safety of small beings. I reached for the ‘play’ button on the machine. The message demanded a quick response to the question, would I take the brother?

So I found myself on another plane to pick up another itty-bitty baby. He was just a little heavier than that bag of sugar, but not by much. He slept with his fingers touching over his head. When my sister saw the photograph she dubbed him the Buddha Baby.

Dashiell and I arrived at the airport where Zora just smiled and patted his head. All week she had refused to talk to me on the phone but she had gone on and on in her Latvian, speaking directly into the remote control for the television. She must have worked out the idea of a brother coming because she greeted him with that pat on his head as if she had been expecting him all along.

Adoption is a funny thing. There is not a drop of blood between mother and child. It is extra uncanny how many things we share: language acuity, insight into how things work, impatience with small talk, being especially outraged by unfairness, a sense of humor, fury at being misinterpreted, supreme gentleness with little kids, puppies or kittens, and intense intuition.

Then of course each child has skills and innate sensibilities so different: she singing, he soccer. She loved being with her plush lion in her crib, a tiny sachet of lavender for her to grasp and sooth her to sleep. I would rock him to sleep on my shoulder, ease him in to the crib as smoothly and meticulously as a bomb disposal technician defuses an explosive, and he would jolt awake and holler. He was my boomerang. As soon as he scooted (he never crawled) out of sight, he’d peek around the corner to be sure I was right there, along with the Border collie or his sister.  She loved being alone to read books, tell stories with her stuffed animals and his Tonka trucks. He, not so much. He’d find his way under my desk while I was working or into the story his sister was telling. He started making engine sounds to go along with her story lines as soon as he could follow along.

Babies make big people laugh. Puppies or two dogs playing in the yard can have the same affect. There is something about them (babies and puppies) that allow us to pause, gather hope, and revisit joy. A baby has the power to return big people to that deep peace place that they rarely remember to visit.  Breathing so sweet in sleep, so dazzled blinking in a beam of sunlight or happily staring at the ceiling fan, tiny fingers holding the breeze. Forget finding the moon, the fan is just astounding.

Blinking myself, I utter out loud, Baby, my dear one, the keys are right there in your hands.

 

 

 

 

Feminism’s Achilles’ Heel

Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection by Debora Spar (2013)

 

I picked up Spar’s book with trepidation: another white woman draped in pearls writing about women and power. What will she add, I wondered, to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead? In June 2013 I wrote about Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, who encourages young women to join the ranks of leadership and go for the great jobs. She says too many women hesitate, back off and don’t dive in. Sandberg assures us that there is a way to balance career, family, and joy. Some days (I’d say years) are exhausting, she says, but you have to get in there, take jobs and leadership roles.

In Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College President Debora Spar adds to Sandberg’s dialogue. Spar reevaluates the legacy of the Second Wave feminists so dismissed by the generation (including herself) of young women born to think they have everything. Today’s girls, says Spar, just assume access, are blithely entitled and clueless about the work it took to achieve such opportunities and about how vulnerable everything is.

I appreciate Spar debunking anti-feminism, and articulating the deeper values at the core of feminist efforts. She contributes to the reclamation of feminism as something not to fear and as important for men as for women. I’ve observed that feminism is the “F” word in multicultural social justice circles—at high school, undergraduate and graduate levels. It is one of Rush Limbaugh’s and other patriarchs’ favored taunts, severely misconstrued for their purposes. The burning bra myth is hard to dispel (it isn’t true– and can you image the toxins in the smoke?) because it is such a visual icon of the Seventies. Ironically, many girls and women have unwittingly assimilated this contempt and dismiss women’s issues as irrelevant.

Yet Spar blames the trouble women have today — as they try to be perfect in body, career and family — on those very feminist dreams of having access to sports, reproductive rights, careers, family, et al. Sadly, she says, too many women still want to be precisely Mattel’s Barbie even after seventy. An elder feminist activist says to Spar, “We weren’t fighting so that you could have Botox.”

Spar writes about the cost of weddings, procedures for women having difficulty getting pregnant, and plastic surgery. She examines these practices with some incredulousness: Americans spend 72 billion dollars a year on weddings, only 16 billion on books. She also writes about women hell-bent on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on conceiving babies or achieving impossible body proportions.

She observes that women lawyers and corporate executives leave their coveted positions in droves, especially once a baby arrives. Spar admits this ‘opting out is limited to the elite of the elite.’ She notes with interest that the women who continue to work (after the kids arrive) are in fields that sustain their interest and sense of meaning. She says jobs and desire need to match, not mismatch. This is a really important point, I think —philosophically and economically. What does this suggest about women’s sensibilities and definitions of success? Women want balance, to have family and meaningful work. Spar asserts that they want work that will add value to others, often over enormous salaries and benefit packages. It appears that conflict and constant one-upmanship doesn’t sustain many women for the long haul.

But does this analysis really apply to all women? Spar clearly addresses a challenge with feminism. But perhaps unwittingly, she reveals what I think is in danger of becoming feminism’s Achilles’ heel. At least as evidenced by Spar and Sandberg, feminism is still white, rich, and heterosexual with access to everything. Spar seems to be saying, ‘I know you are out there—all you other women—but I’m telling my story. This is a feminism that is so squeaky clean and privileged, it’s inaccessible to many, many women. And why would they be interested anyway?

In this version of feminism, the sparkle of everyday heroines is silenced.  There is a lot of wisdom about power in the lives of women from all parts of our society. Spar only nods in this direction. Sprinkled through the book are statements which are meant to be acknowledging but sound dismissive, if not defensive, saying she knows there are poor women, women of color, and even some lesbians out there considering these issues of sex, power and perfection, but her generalizations don’t include them, she says, because she hasn’t lived those experiences.  There are absolutely no trans folks in her realm, and physical agility and economic abundance is assumed.

She certainly misses my experience when she describes menopause as the trauma of the end of childbearing. The women of menopause that I know are not feeling tragic; they’re giddy with the freedom from all that blood and worry. Sex is fun. They are hot- flashing-power-surging-open the car windows and sing women, determined to lead with their most interesting selves. Diana Nyad just proved that 64 is a fine time to break world records for long-distance swimming.

Feminism, not just Spar’s version, has a history of inclusion and exclusion. Education level, class, race, physical and mental ability, sexual orientation and fads of moral acceptance or intolerance play into this. I agree with Spar when she says the problem is really the system, not women per se. Can we create a more fully human and humane society? Let’s encourage all efforts, and I agree with Spar when she asks to give busy women a break, let the Ring Dings slip on to the table at the bake sale, support each other in the decisions we make about our lives, and work together. We know too well that plenty of “Mean Girls” lurk in Chanel suits in high places. We know wonderful women are ready to lead and work with power in new ways. They are all ages, from all communities, they look all kinds of ways and they are wearing fancy heels to mud boots.  They are working on promoting equanimity and non-violence, teaching, farming, and living diversity, writing, dancing, and singing democracy. Despite my frustration with the heterosexual and class assumptions, and abounding white privilege underlying Spar’s assertions, I am grateful for her fundamental point; it is important to note that women in positions of power sure struggle with issues of gender, authority, perfection and the conformity these require.

But those assumptions are more than frustrating. They could be dangerous to feminism itself. During the Trojan War, according to Greek myth, Achilles’ body was unassailable, except for his heel. He was slayed by such a small vulnerability.

Feminism is a crucial gateway philosophy to human rights for women, children, and men to lead safe and meaningful lives. Unless we really do the work of inclusivity, it will be impossible to create the harmony and well being across all the divides we are born to, all the divisiveness reinforced daily by nations and individuals. We’ve just got to do this work or we too will be slayed by our supercilious heel.

 

 

 

 

Where the truth lies: Ariel Levy, writer for The New Yorker

On Ariel Levy,  Writer for  The New Yorker

Where the truth lies is somewhere, and Ariel Levy wants to find it. She is always searching for what is holding up the façade of normal. She builds her essays on a foundation carefully construed of complex legal, economic, or social information. Her craft is in the synthesizing she does with her research and insight. I think her feminist, lesbian, no-nonsense aesthetic guides her perceptions, hones her awareness; much like a master carpenter has the ability to see the way the pieces of a blueprint need to shift for alignment. Everything Levy approaches is stripped of the usual assumptions to reveal a streamlined description. She’s got attitude and pluck, but she never slips into the abyss of rhetoric or political correctness. She likes facts, but doesn’t allow them to hold her hostage. There’s room to find humor, even when she is at her most incredulous, as she was as she strode right into Spring Break in Florida with raucous vacationing college kids (her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs).  Nor did the wreckage of the 2013 rape scenario in Steubenville, Ohio (‘Trial By Twitter,’ August 5, 2013) daunt her. In that essay she hammers through the impact of social networking on Steubenville’s criminal justice endeavors. There is a lot of evidence for investigators now on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and Levy considers how bloggers can blow all kinds of things into and out of proportion. She suggests, “By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy.” I immediately thought of one of Levy’s predecessors, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, who wrote in 1936 of democracy moving at the pace of stagecoaches while fascism traveled at the speed of airplanes.

Flanner was writing about Adolf Hitler’s fascism vs. democracy, Levy about our legal system catching up with electronic communications. Both, it seems, consider social values and the speed of change. Flanner was a New Yorker foreign correspondent for fifty years. One of my favorite quotes for the prose and the perspective is, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it, watching where it is coming from and how it’s being made.”

Levy is a writer with a similar astute sensibility. Her essay The ‘Perfect Wife’ (September 30, 2013) is about Edith Windsor and the fight for justice for same sex couples. Our Rosa Parks if you will. Windsor is 84. She was in relationship with Thea Spyer for over forty years. Their life together began in the era when dancing closely or not wearing three items of clothing that matched their sex were illegal and same sex couples stayed in the closet if they wanted to stay employed.

Levy describes Ms. Windsor as the three dimensional woman she is: a glamorous eighty-four year old, irreverent, and –luckily for lesbian and gay couples– irrepressible in her pursuit of equality. Levy acknowledges the difficulties Windsor presented for the lesbian and gay rights organizations. As much as Ms. Windsor is adorable, her estate tax claim represents the upper echelon issues of LGBT folks. Windsor was an ideal plaintiff due to her femme appeal, intelligence, long-term relationship and status as widow. Her legal team did, however, want to keep her eloquence about the joys of lesbian sex from the justices of the Supreme Court. Beyond the publicity and the incredible risk Ms. Windsor took to pursue this case, it is the depth of Windsor’s loving relationship with Ms. Spyer that reverberates through Levy’s essay.

If love and the courage to break down legal and social barriers is the theme of “The Perfect Wife” then ‘Thanksgiving In Mongolia’ (November 18, 2013) is about the absolute audacity required to get through pain and demolished dreams. The prose here defies gravity, taking the reader from the very heights of the Gobi Desert into the depths of miscarriage and despair. The intimacy of this piece reveals yet another aspect of Levy’s commitment to writing truths often left unspoken. Sometimes there are no words for grief and utter sadness, but Levy discovers and articulates it all.

Levy ventured to Mongolia to write about the impact of mineral riches flowing into a nation of nomadic herders.  She describes the night she spent with two Americans who took her out to a bar, “I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.” The heartbreaking event at the core of her essay is underway, “I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory.” Her description of the placental abruption that caused the miscarriage is pounding, as intense as the little heartbeat that stopped.  The essay slaps overly sentimental visions of maternity right into the jarring reality of disappointment that many women experience. No cute cards or balloons, no flowers. Grief deserves this attention.

Levy’s craft opens a reader to witness new insight. She explains how her sorrow eased when other mothers (and one man) collapsed in tears hearing her story. Women have always had miscarriages and grief so deep, but this side of motherhood is silenced. Our society won’t have it. Such sadness is held alone. Levy’s grief unifies us all with her story of the lost dream, the lost marriage, and the resilience it takes to carry on. Nature, Levy notes, demands this of us.

On her fifth birthday Janet Flanner told her mother she wanted to be a writer.  Ariel Levy tells of being a little girl in her wooden fort, “…self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.” Two bold and curious New Yorker writers. One retired as the other is born. Luckily for us, the art and legacy of lesbians writing marvelous essays that search out truths behind the façade of facts and normal endures.

Janet Flanner (b.1892- d.1978). New Yorker foreign correspondent 1925-1975, pen name Genet.

Ariel Levy (b.1974- ). New Yorker staff writer, author Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005).

My summer reading list

SUMMER 2013 READING

 

“There is no beach reading on this list,” quipped a friend when I asked if she could make heads or tails of my summer reading list. This comes as no surprise: the winter of 1979 I took Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism by Mary Daly on a vacation to Jamaica.

 

I actually did go to the beach this summer while the celebrations of fiftieth anniversaries of Civil Rights events were in full media swing. The stories of the 1963 August 28th,  March on Washington for Jobs and Justice followed by the September 15th’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama kept these stories alive, brought people together in the 2013 marches.

 

Michelle Norris wrote in Time Magazine, September 2, 2013, “One thing I have come to realize during this summer retrospective is that the equality King called for involves not physical terrain but the geography of the mind.”  She founded the NPR Race Card Project where you may submit a six-word description of your experience with race, ethnicity, or cultural identity to be posted on the Race Card Wall. One card sent by Rondrea Danielle Mathis reads, “We wanted equality. We got integration.”

 

There is deep disappointment at the seeming lack of progress over the past fifty years. Integration has not meant equality even with the election of a biracial President and the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court.  Instances of injustice continue, and I want to understand why. You’ll notice the copyrights of my summer reading books range from 1949 – 2013. You’ll notice the themes are identity, home, searching heart and soul to understand what divides people and what sustains them.

 

Learning is key to interrupting hate. Marion Dane Bauer cites a friend in the introduction to the anthology Am I Blue? Coming out from the Silence (1994) that I often ponder when my faith in learning wavers, “I have never met a bigot who was a reader as a child.” I needed to believe in that antidote to bigotry, especially this summer, reminded as we were of 1963 as the 2013 headlines read:  July 13th in the New York Times:  “Zimmerman is acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing.”  On August 27th again in the New York Times: “ 21 year-old intern for Harlem design house Ay’ Medici, Islan Nettles, beaten to death in an apparent hate crime toward transsexuals.”

“Why can’t people just love one another?” my students from ages 17-62 plead. I’m always searching for the answer. My summer books range from textbooks to memoir. The authors are journalists, academics, theater and literary types. You may wonder why Alexander Fuller is here. Her parents’ story of expatriation offers another view on race and class dynamics. James Baldwin joined the American expatriates in Paris in a search of freedom from hostilities in the U.S. Lillian Smith and John Howard Griffin were exiled from their local communities—philosophically and in Griffin’s case, physically. They seemed a random collection as I read them, but when I think about all of these books together, now that summer is giving way to autumn, a real sense of continuity appeared as the themes filtered together.

 

History is only current events in hindsight. What happened fifty years ago is still happening today. Each movement for social justice teaches the next one, but the need to insist and struggle for equal rights is constant. In this is my sense of the continuity between the books I read this summer. A movement is a gathering of individual people designing and building change at all levels of our society. We see though the historic record how the Labor Rights Movement taught the Civil Rights Movement and the Movement to end the war in Vietnam taught the Gay and Women’s Rights movements. We need to keep moving. Our next focus, as I see it, is the quest to dismantle rape culture. The headlines put us on notice. Rape culture cuts across all lines of rich and poor, young and old, heterosexual and homosexual, male, female and transgender. We’ve got to end the glorification of guns and sexual violence.

 

So here is what I’ve been reading in preparation to teach and to live in these times, which are teeming with teaching moments. In my summer reading list I found a counterbalance to despair: hope and understanding.

 

 

Baird, Vanessa. (2007). The No-Nonsense Guide to Sexual Diversity. Oxford, UK: New Internationalist Publications, Ltd.

Vanessa Baird has compiled a concise international LGBT history and explanations of non-heterosexual expression and oppression. There have been many changes in legislation since publication yet ferocious acts of gendered and sexualized violence occur regularly around the globe.  Different gender expression and sexual desire ought not provoke forensic overkill.

Baird cites Paul Cameron, Founder of the Family Institute in the United States as saying, “‘If all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get,’ then homosexuality becomes ‘too powerful to resist.’ Marital sex, he says, ‘tends toward the boring end’” (p. 86). This offers a very different point of view as to the core of homophobia.  The emotional and economic lives of men and women shift when dependencies are altered by same sex love. This shakes up a society built on hetero-normative expectations. This is such a danger zone for traditionalists and consequently for those who do not conform.

 

James Baldwin. (1956). Giovanni’s Room. New York: Delta Books.

James Baldwin grew up in Harlem as the Harlem Renaissance was waning and the Civil Rights Era waxing. Baldwin fled the racial and homosexual discrimination of the United States and took up residence abroad. He returned to the US to advocate for civil justice believing this was “the latest slave rebellion.” His second novel, Giovanni’s Room, describes the gnawing pains of protagonist David, as he struggles with internalized and external homophobia. He attempts bisexuality as he negotiates his love of men under the guise of heterosexuality. Paris expatriates from many countries populate the novel as David searches for his identity and in the end, betrays his heart and his lover, Giovanni.

 

 

Ruth Behar. (2013). Traveling Heavy: a memoir in between journeys. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ruth Behar is a Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American anthropologist, an immigrant, a professor, and compassionate observer. She writes of her search for identity as she constantly returns to the island she had to leave as a child. Her freedom to travel is in sharp contrast to the stasis of those on the island who can’t so easily leave. Behar’s American students bask under her guidance in their Cuban semesters, finding their own meaning while their teacher continues to search for pieces of her life puzzle.  Behar visits friends around the world who have left Cuba, those thrust into exiles’ limbo, searching for work in country after country, searching for home while Behar boards another plane. She is always traveling.

“Memory, however, is volatile, slippery; we tie it down, as the classical orators did, by linking it to places, sites” (81), she wrote in The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (1996). She is still trying to tie things down.

 

 

Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. (2012). Critical Race Theory: An Introduction. Second      Edition. New York: New York University Press.

 

Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic defy the usual obtuse nature of theoretical writing and offer the hugely systematic and day-to-day pragmatism of Critical Race Theory.  This introduction puts into perspective the legal, economic, feminist, and philosophical nature of power and the construction of social roles we all are subjected to in contemporary American life. Everyone has overlapping identities; sometimes conflicting identities. We each are a wild kaleidoscope of biological and social aspects. The particles of our being are those we are born with, born into, and those we are influenced by as children– and those we can change (or know we are pressured by) as our awareness develops.

As we align the fragments and colors in the kaleidoscope we come to see how our nation racializes different groups in different ways at different times. (Consider the exotic Aladdin and the magical genie as they become evil Middle Eastern terrorists after 9/11/2001.) How do we learn to listen to all voices, search for all sides of the story?  Where do we get the news and from whose point of view is it written? If your son or daughter is in the courtroom—how will the verdict be decided? Challenging our privileges, preconceptions and world-view can only create a more fair and just future for us all. Understanding how our legal, social, political and personal systems are racialized allows us to make choices to initiate and advocate for change.

 

Fisher, Emily S. & Komosa-Hawkins, Karen. (Eds). (2013). Creating Safe and Supportive Learning Environments: A Guide for Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning Youth and Families. New York: Routledge.

 

The editors have assembled a truly accessible collection of essays that are mercifully concise and deeply compelling.  We are well informed about the queer historic landscape and adolescent development issues for LGBTIQ youth. The L and the G kids have a more developed support system than the T and I youth, who are still on the fringe of most people’s understanding. The Q, it turns out, are extremely vulnerable because they haven’t landed in a group where support and acceptance reside. What to do with the transgender Kindergartener?  Teachers get ready!  Consider lining them up for recess by the color of their socks rather than the traditional gender binary.

Pushing the gender envelope causes great distress. Hippies in the Sixties were harassed for their long hair but they were not necessarily transgressing gender lines. The fluidity of gender for youth today defies all prior prescriptions for “boy” or “girl.” It is a very exciting era and it can also be murderous. There is so much creativity and joy in the possibilities. Part Two offers Applications in Schools and Communities. Parents and teachers need support for understanding their LGBTQI kids in order to provide safe learning and growing environments. This is thrilling work for us all.

Fuller, Alexandra. (2011). Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. New York: Penguin Press.

Alexandra Fuller takes us back to the landscapes of her earlier memoirs, “Those Awful Books,” exclaims her mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.”  This book is actually about her. How does a daughter understand her mother? The memoir delves boldly into this usual abyss. Many of us spend our adult years wondering, just who was that woman behind the mask of motherhood?  Alexandra Fuller describes the amazing losses (beloved horses, infants, farms, dreams) and the dazzling life force (off to a children’s party driving the Land Rover with an Uzi in her lap) of Nicola Fuller. The personal losses, grief, and wars in Africa drove Nicola into despair so deep no pills nor psychiatry could reach her. Her husband’s unfailing devotion, the pounding happy tails of her hounds, and the new farm brought her back. “She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again” is how Alexandra puts it. Under the Tree of Forgetfulness Nicola regained her courage.  The Fullers are white people in Africa, not the party people or abusively greedy, but the workers, devoted to the land they work: their spirits irrepressible.

 

 

Griffin, John Howard. (1960). Black Like Me. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

I have again reread John Howard Griffin as he darkened his white skin and walked into New Orleans and Mississippi of 1959. Black Like Me chronicles the journalist’s physical and emotional transformation as he encounters the double standards of humanity. As a white man he could enter any restaurant, find a bathroom or a cup of coffee. As a man of color he had to find the places that would serve him, where he would be safe to sleep or get a glass of water. Griffin’s book records the insults, the assumptions, the disregard and disingenuous nature of white people towards people of color.  The sexualization of people of color, the demeaning assumptions of moral and ethical behavior in contrast to the extreme eroticism and immorality by white people toward people of color leaves the reader spinning. Griffin records the insults, injustice and inhumanity to the point where he finds the internalization of racism enters him so he even fears writing a letter to his white wife as a ‘black’ man.

True, the white guy gets to take the color off and go home after a few months but Griffin’s emotional and psychological being has been transformed. After publication he and his family were so harassed they left Texas and years later while on the lecture circuit, he was beaten and left for dead by the Klu Klux Klan. He lectured until his death from complications of diabetes at age 60. “If we could only put ourselves in the shoes of others to see how we would react, then we might become aware of the injustices of discrimination and the tragic inhumanity of every kind of prejudice.”

All these decades later, Griffin’s descriptions of the South, his interactions between peoples, his realization that with darkened skin he was not viewed by white people as a human parent or an intelligent man still resonate. He was automatically inhuman, unintelligent, and unfeeling.  He went to Mississippi in 1959 right after Mack Parker was lynched by a mob in Mississippi despite FBI evidence of his innocence. Trayvon Martin was killed in a neighborhood in Florida in 2012 with Stand Your Ground impunity. We must dare to ask, how far have we come, and who are we, white people?

 

 

 

 

Said, Najla . (2013). Looking for Palestine: growing up confused in an arab-american family. New York: Riverhead Books.

Edward Said’s writing launched careers for many academics in Post-Colonialism and Orientalism. His memoir, Out of Place: A Memoir (1999), offers insight into the grounds on which his theories grew. His daughter was raised in this heady environment. The paradox is that he raised a daughter beset with her own mystery and sense of misplacement. In this memoir Najla Said takes the reader through the landscape of her mother’s Lebanon, her father’s Palestine, New York private schools, the Episcopal Church and anorexia of her own geography. Ms. Said describes churning with the inner turmoil of her eating disorder while walking through the mud in a refugee camp in her expensive shoes and wardrobe. She couldn’t bridge all her worlds until she found theater to eventually allow her full expression. Her father’s stage was the world, Palestinian Statehood and justice. Her world, Off Broadway is where identity can be explored and the Arab and American becomes one.

 

 

Smith, Lillian. (1949/1994). Killers of the Dream. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

This book sabotaged Lillian Smith’s writing career. She had a smashing success with her 1944 novel Strange Fruit but no critic would comment on Killers of the Dream five years later. It was too autobiographical, too critical of racism and segregation.  She was a decade ahead of John Howard Griffin and they both beseech white readers to wake up to racism and how it diminishes white people. Smith describes the wonder with which children approach differences and the difficulties of race at her summer camp.  She defines three ghost relationships of the white man and the African American woman (Negro and Colored are her terms, the usage of the times); the white father and the biracial children, the white children and their beloved African American nurse. Then there is a fourth, the white children with their biological mother and their African American caregiver. White women became sacred, aloof on pedestals while the black women were endless caregivers. Her analysis was written in 1949, to be taken further by people of color and feminists in the following decades. She was delving into the intricacies of black and white relationships in bold stokes. Griffin would encounter haunting questions about his sexuality and penis size as he hitchhiked through Mississippi.  In all these relationships between whites and African Americans there was silence, perpetuating assumptions, brutality, inequality, and broken hearts and minds. Eric Deggans cites Dr. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. in Race Baiter: How Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation (2012), “The whole purpose of segregation was so black and white folks wouldn’t talk to each other and find out they had more in common, okay?”

Smith had a lifelong-closeted relationship with Paula Snelling. She died of breast cancer at age 68.

 

 

 

Teich, Nicholas M. (2012). Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Teich says it all in the title. He is so clear and, ironically, straight-forward. What is gender? What is sexual orientation? What is transgender?  There is an international and historic lineage to transgenderism and Teich (and Baird, Fisher & Komosa-Hawkins) offer stories and insight. I think Transgender is exciting for heteronormative and homosexual readers because it offers many deeper questions and requires more insight into gendered experiences. There is tremendous opportunity for the disruption of the very segregated gender options in our expression, toys, clothing, story-lines in film and books.

Even BatGirl has a transgender roommate now. We could Marvel….(but BatGirl is DC Comic after all).

 

 

 

 

 

 

In The Body of the World: A Memoir by Eve Ensler (2013).

“I suddenly understood joy. It’s big, bigger than any one of us. It’s uncontrollable and it’s fierce. It’s more generous than anger and has the ability to make revolution because its tentacles and fire are infinite and it feels good.”

March 6, 2013 letter by Eve Ensler from the Congo

 

Circuitously, this memoir is about joy. But how can devastation of the women and land of the Congo and cancer equate with joy? It would be Ensler, the mother of The Vagina Monologues, who clarifies this. According to the-first-of-its-kind report on the pandemic of violence against women around the world, the World Health Organization states that one in three women on the planet will be raped or beaten in her lifetime (“WHO Finds Violence Against Women Is ‘Shockingly’ Common” by Michaeleen Doucleff and Rhitu Chatterjee, on NPR or CNN’s Madison Park, June 20, 2013). This is a pandemic with no foreseeable vaccine, funding for medical research, or political protest. But it has Eve Ensler. She has been at the forefront for decades — educating, raising funds for facilities, jeeps, and supplies and listening to women around the world in trim suburbia, war shattered towns, or rainforest villages tell their stories. She has persisted through the prevailing global silence and dismissal of the extreme damage being done to women.

Ensler meets the women of this pandemic face to face, listens, supports them as they write and then perform their stories. This memoir is her own telling, revelations after years of working around the globe with others’ stories, of her cancer diagnosis, childhood with an abusive and incestuous father, her badass teen years drinking and having a lot of sex, her sobriety, travels to worn torn nations and her perennial sense of not being good enough or smart enough. The not-good-enough legacy of her upbringing prevailed despite her fame, and voice she gave to millions of women. Even though she had heard stories for decades of battering, incest, rape, war, men’s rage, revenge and greed, Ensler was not prepared for the extra extreme devastation of women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Or her own cancer.

Indeed, the stories are entwined. Every tear shed, every tale Ensler heard through her travels seems to have entered her body until the horrors tangled up inside her. The tumor wrapped around her organs much like a vine climbs a tree as it reaches for the light. Ensler found motivation for healing from the Congo, especially the intense determination of the women there to overcome the harm and sadistic atrocities done to their bodies. They became Ensler’s sun, something to reach for through the months of her illness, recovery, illness, and healing.

Ensler’s writing style evokes full-blown images of the women whose bodies are torn by the true weapons of mass destruction—men gone more than mad, beyond insane, with greed and war. She carefully describes the extraordinary brutality the women experience—she never over or under states the terror. The Congolese women’s fistulas leak bodily fluids, and Ensler likens these to the holes in the ozone.  Yet the women dance as soon as their bodies are able. She knows her own body is fighting to survive, and she takes heart from all the women of the Congo and the world.

Still, Ensler won’t spare us. Femicide, Ensler explains, is a weapon used extensively in the Congo. It is the systematic destruction of women’s bodies, hearts and souls. The destroyers too have lost their hearts and souls in the acts of raping and murdering grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces and daughters. She writes of the torn vaginas, rectums, fistulas, slash scars, and broken spirits of raped women. The girls and women of the Congo are tortured, raped and destroyed for corporate and military purposes just as the landscape is gouged and decimated for minerals. After her surgery Eve developed a severe infection at the same time news of the BP oil spill broke. The synchronicity would seem trite if it were not so sobering; Ensler makes clear throughout the book that the links between our bodies and the environment are irrevocably intertwined. The leap from the destruction of natural habitat to the devastation of bodies by violence, war and disease isn’t so great in Ensler’s worldview.

Changing the world—and this is what Ensler’s life is about—requires tremendous organization and education. Ensler worked for several years to coordinate leadership in the Congo with leaders in world organizations to make the City of Joy a reality in Bukavu. It is a campus where the women can be physically and emotionally repaired, revived, and trained to survive and thrive and become leaders. She also teaches the reader a lot about the Congo and the people of this nation.

The pandemic of violence against women is a pandemic against us all. The devastation of natural landscapes is equal to the devastation of the incredible resources of the women of many cultures. It is an enormous lesson, a huge leap of faith to be joyful. It is a huge effort in a land that is so besieged by violence to find a way to stop the violence. Ensler and the women of the Congo welcome us to join them in dance. Ensler’s irrepressible spirit and her inner transformation make this little memoir—so packed with scenes of pain and love—irresistible.

My admiration for Eve Ensler is profound. I quip that some people want to run away with the circus, I’d like to run away with Ensler. The fantasy and whim of the idea vanishes once the grueling schedule and relentless work of the circus comes to mind. The magic from the audience’s point of view is exactly that—magic. Sweat, tears, dust, and sheer force and love of the work is what it is all about. Ensler makes the work of changing the world look magical. But we know the price is high — but it is even higher if we don’t keep going. One woman at a time…..let them rise and let them know joy. We each must continue to do what we do to change the world.

Thanks Eve Ensler. I gotta go. I have to get ready to teach a class. One student at a time. Most joyfully!

Lean In?

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg (2013)

 

The Slow Living Summit is an annual June event in Brattleboro, Vermont.  Its purpose is to encourage preservation of local farms and sustain rural landscapes. The parade through town includes little pink fairies, political activists, and Strolling with the Heifers. Youngsters walk along with their small calves donning flower leis; babies and big people join them in cow suits. This event offers a tremendous contrast and necessary addendum to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

 

Sandberg is the fast-paced, smart, insistent and very successful COO at Facebook. She explores issues for women in leadership in the 21st century.   She cites YouTube videos, book titles and activists I admire, including the video of Riley bewildered by the color codes in the toy store. This clip is priceless. It says a lot about gendered marketing and proves how early the gender boxes begin. (http://jezebel.com/5871009/video-of-little-girl-getting-pissed-off-at-gender+specific-toy-colors-will-make-your-heart-swell). Marketers take heed. Young Riley is only four and she sees what is going on

 

Sandberg offers personal anecdotes as well as research and statistics about women in the workforce – but her passion really is with the high stakes, tippy-top leadership. She is aware of the whole spectrum of women working and consistently reminds the reader that most women dwell in environments that don’t offer flex time for parents, parking near the door for pregnant employees, or leave for elder care. A lot of women tone down their career goals or decide to stop working because their salary hardly covers day care for kids or elders, let alone any other expenses. Sandberg is sure that women could get these rights (I wonder if men would call them benefits?) if they had the power and designed equitable working conditions. She actually got the pregnant parking place by simply, while very pregnant, asking. Sandberg is quite concerned that women don’t even attempt to take on the top jobs. They capitulate before they begin. Returning home or working part time in order to provide care to family may be fulfilling and benefit society, but it sure puts a crimp in the women workers available to businesses, their earning power, and career advancement. A reminder: only 7% of American households are of the Father Knows Best design of the man going off to work to support the stay-at-home wife and kids. Sandberg wants us to struggle with all the complex and constantly shifting issues during our extended life span.

 

I appreciate this, as I’m all for struggling with the complexity of our lives and desires and innovatively figure out the dilemmas. But never once does Sandberg even almost mention that this creative realignment of the corporate world will require some major toppling of the patriarchal systems that have profited for thousands of years from the free and extensive labor of mothers, wives, aunts and grandmothers.  The excitement and adventure of Sandberg’s career is the surface story. The undercurrent of this narrative is capitalism at its most dynamic: to succeed one must work day and night so figure out daycare, have a husband who shares in the child and house care 50/50 as well as supports your career 1000%. (She says that of course same sex couples have this equitable household management thing figured out already. -Oh how we wish this were so!) Sandberg offers details from her own life about how tricky it is to pump breast milk while on a conference call; and how subversive it feels to take a trip to the bathroom to send an email during a play date.

 

I am exhausted by her schedule and furious at a society that deems this “success” when such a small percentage of the population make salaries of so many digits, let alone a planet that can survive such consumption and exploitation. Balancing family and career has always been a juggling act, but Sandberg is saying that now it has to be both parents juggling—not just the woman. According to Sheelah Kolhatkar in the June 3-9, 2013 Bloomberg Businessweek magazine, this is exactly what men have struggled with all along while being expected to financially support everything. Men want time to be Dads too, Kolhatkar insists, but they just have been too darn busy. Debates reign regarding the Peter Pan syndrome and lad culture with men acting like boys, while certainly the mothers suing fathers for back child support might wonder about Kolhatkar’s claims.  I’m glad to hear that men want in on fatherhood and the time it takes to really participate. I’ve been advocating men’s liberation for as long as I’ve been a feminist.

 

I also find myself wondering, why lean in when the work environments are so relentless? Not just the hours but the work climate and culture. For instance, according to Peggy Drexler in her March 2013 article “The Tyranny of the Queen Bee” in the Wall Street Journal, 80% of bullying by female bosses is directed at other women. Is this internalized sexism the consequence of so few women being in top leadership? Drexler adds that men use fear to advance and women will too until the day women are routinely in the top leadership as men. Sandberg acknowledges the Queen Bee syndrome and calls on women to recognize this warp in the wonder of women leaders.

 

But I think this is too limited a perspective and too demoralizing a definition of leadership. A real plentitude and integration of women, people of color, gay, lesbian, trans, people with disabilities, ethnicity, religious backgrounds, and body sizes will change the dynamics of leadership, change everything. Everyone will have to engage with new paradigms about work, civility, and have an ability to work across all perceived differences. To make such changes we need to topple patriarchy’s favorite misnomer that only the strongest survive. Cooperation beats competitive in the healthiest communities around our globe, above or below sea level.

 

I also find it quite interesting that all visible differences are invisible in the realms of the social medias in which Sandberg has been a leader (Google and Facebook). Ironically? But in the boardrooms, the meetings in face-to- face times—visual markers all still matter a great deal. Being a woman matters.

 

Sandberg writes from the perpetually precarious perch out there on the gender limb. She is reviving many of the Second Wave feminist requests of the seventies but as a Third Wave feminist, she has so much going for her. She has access to a much larger tree of life, with many branches. Sandberg could be more convincing if she realized how inclusive and complex gender really is and how traditional and confining her framework remains. As an example, Sandberg writes that “First, women must come across as being nice, concerned about others, and “appropriately” female”(p.46). The quotation marks around appropriately are nerve wracking. Does this mean that tall women, petite women, traditionally built women (to use Alexander McCall Smith’s definition of his main character in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series), lesbians with short hair, and women with a preference for clothes generally marketed to men need not apply? My mind, despite myself, goes directly to two options for women in business: Betty Crocker or Aunt Jemima—both purely fictional and updated over the years to reflect more “modern” or “appropriate” standards.

 

She admits that she was terribly disappointed when the Speaker of the House, the revered Tip O’Neill, patted her on the head rather than complimenting her hard work as a youthful page in Washington, D.C. She argues that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and men like her husband, Dave Goldberg, are proving that men in business are now striving as much for women as themselves. This is really exciting and hopeful, as the potential for balance, equality, and cooperation truly exist —for women and men—with the sensibility of such leaders.

 

So the really scary thing is that queen bee syndrome that Drexler’s Wall Street Journal article points out. It’s also highlighted in the 2004 film, Mean Girls  (check out the website of 40 Mean Girl quotes). It’s scary that high school behavior is so evident and unattractive in adult women in high places. That’s internalized sexism, and it exists with vengeance, especially when draped in power.

 

Sandberg cites studies that show women who are strong, clear, articulate, good at business, achieve and lead, are put down as “acting like a man” while just conducting good business.  Women can’t win: to act like a man is be a b*&^h. No in-between options (remember 2008 Mrs. Clinton vs. Mrs. Palin). People don’t like this; many folks don’t know what to do with a strong, insightful, creative woman, especially if she doesn’t look like a Barbie doll or act like a sex toy (neither to be taken seriously either).  So let’s go back to our young radical Riley in the YouTube video, who asks with great exasperation, “Why does all the girls have to buy pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different colored stuff?”

 

Young Riley clearly rubbed off on Sandberg, who dared to give the Ted Talk “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Despite countless speeches on business and marketing, this one provoked concerned tweets and phone calls. Sandberg is reaching out to women. Go ahead: dare to disrupt the status quo, dare to sit right up at the corporate table, really split house and child care with your partner, dare to incite change in your organization so everyone, including the bottom line, benefits. Dare say, profits.

 

Sandberg truly wants women to have an equal opportunity to take the leadership positions and have a family life. Everything will work out—busy but happy, kids, career trajectory, school soccer games and dinner at home some nights. But again, she doesn’t take her analysis far enough into the complexity of our times. We know that whites hold the big jobs in disproportionate numbers (also listen: “Job Searching While Black: What’s Behind The Unemployment Gap?” NPR, May 25, 2013). Sandberg cites the statistics: of the Fortune 500 CEOs only 21 are women, women hold 17 percent of the board seats and comprise18 percent of our elected officials. She points out that women of color are more than 10 percent below those numbers Still, people think the workplace is a meritocracy, even though men are unaware of the benefits they receive just by being men, and women believe men are entitled to be there, and the hiring process is racialized and gendered.

 

In this context, is leaning in even possible? Is Sandberg writing about capitalism at the most extreme with a splash of estrogen?  Or is this something we ought to question, like Ariel Levy’s wondering about Girls Gone Wild in Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)–is all that sex, drugs, and booze really liberation? Is Superwoman success creating new workplaces and transforming leadership? Can we balance everything so magnificently if we just sit at the table, keep our hands raised for questions, and persevere?

 

Miss Representation (2011), a documentary written, directed, and produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a perfect companion to Lean In. Many of the same celebrities and icons of the contemporary women’s movement are captured on film. The film show how especially intense advertisements are that diminish women, illustrate their bodies as beer bottles and airbrush their limbs into twigs. Such footage offers insight into how we are besieged with mixed messages about our bodies as we evolve from girl into woman. And as importantly, how boys are taught to see women as they become men.

 

We’ve come to expect Sandberg’s level of commitment and endless performance from entertainers, government officials, public school teachers, staff, administration, and corporate executives, as well as ourselves. It seems inhumane to be so 24/7. Are there ways to get the work done and still smell the coffee and the roses? Use our skills? Love our living? Do I want my daughter to lean in, take the risks, and go for the top? And my son?

 

If Sandberg and the next generation of leaders actually blend cyber speed and strolling with the heifers–it may just work out.

 

 

 

 

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