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reading From Equity Talk to Equity Walk

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I read way more than I can remember, and sometimes I want to slow down and write down some important, illuminating, or reflective kinds of things from what I read. So here goes.

Somewhere or another I saw someone recommend From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education by Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux (Josses-Bass, 2020) so I ordered it through interlibrary loan at my university library.

I read the first three chapters and the book is already overdue, but it’s okay, I can pause here. I already have plenty to write about.

Laurie before opening the book

Without going into a lot of detail, I would say I’m better than the average white American academic when it comes to anti-racist practices and attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion. My feminist research and teaching has helped me think through issues of intersectionality, I consistently engage in opportunities to learn more, and my overall orientation leans into social and environmental justice (while acknowledging that these are intertwined). I also get involved in campus work that explicitly aims to analyze and shift systems that contribute to inequity.

And, in the next breath, I will tell you how much I suck, how overwhelming I find it to articulate ideas myself even when I appreciate how others clarify and prioritize and offer useful frameworks, and how I still regularly get nervous about using appropriate language and displaying ignorance and gaps in knowledge.

I’m going to just go ahead and let you know what I’ve come to as an academic leader so far. I believe that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are terms that connect with the social justice advocacy that has been important to me for my whole career. I believe contributing to DEI as a leader means recognizing individual and institutional possibilities for change and growth, with the understanding that the more power a person has within an institution, the more that person’s individual behavior is actually part of systemic effects.

That means that, as an individual, I need to be humble, open to learning what I don’t yet know, and open to correcting my behavior. We are all growing; we don’t get to the point of knowing it all. So being a leader means cultivating an environment in which we can gently but honestly call one another out when my (or another person’s) behavior is problematic.

At the same time, focusing only on individual shifts and not on institutional systemic shifts is not enough.

I also think it’s necessary to pay attention to data and figure out the signs of inequity and the numbers that we hope to shift. In higher ed, that often means counting numbers of students, faculty, and staff representing a variety of demographics. Curricular and co-curricular activities and systems can also be measured for DEI relevance, and some survey instruments (like campus climate surveys) may matter. Ways to move the needle on some of these items requires a lot of research, thought, conversation, and piloting of ideas to see what works. But pretending everything is all right or having goals without measurements doesn’t really work.

That’s more or less how I think about campus DEI in a very small nutshell. I have more details, but really what I want to notice is what I learn when reading From Equity Talk to Equity Walk.

Initial shifts and additions in my thinking

  1. I am so used to teaching students about systemic racism and sexism (and so on) that I was actually surprised that the book started with the sentence, “This equity journey begins with you” (1). In some ways, this idea jives with my belief in the importance of both individual and institutional change. McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux explain that “people drive change, lead change, and sustain change,” so institutional change only happens if people understand racial inequity and are committed to anti-racist practices (1).
  2. McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux explain that a lot of educators are interested in making things more equitable (that’s the talk part), but what’s important is “not only…examining equity in student outcomes, but also…expand[ing] practitioner knowledge for racial equity and justice in higher education” (2). That is, we can’t just look at the here and now, though that’s important. We also have to make room for “a critical examination of the historical, social, cultural, and political perspectives that make the concept of equality a misnomer for many in our society, especially minoritized students” (3).

    That is, to address issues, we have to be critical about the frameworks we’ve inherited and that we often take for granted. To challenge current frameworks, we have to do our homework. Surface understanding doesn’t cut it. We gotta learn more.
  3. Even though “DEI” is often used as a quick phrase, it’s smart to have shared definitions of each. This book is associated with the AAC&U, as are these definitions.

    “Diversity” is prioritizing the value of “individual and group differences” and the richness of ideas and experiences borne of differences that can benefit all of us (6).

    “Inclusion” involves intentional efforts to engage with diversity “to increase awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions” (6-7).

    “Equity” focuses on fostering opportunities to close “achievement gaps in student success and completion” (7). And this part is key to this book:

    “Being equity-minded requires examining why inequities exist and understanding how the racialization of institutional practices sustains those inequities” (7, my italics).

    I’m going to come back to these definitions as I read the book.
  4. One of the first examples of approaching higher ed from an equity standpoint focuses on data gathered. While many universities collect data on retention and completion rates that can be disaggregated by race and ethnicity, it would be smart to collect and disaggregate information about numbers of student participating in high impact learning practices that improve student learning and persistence (8). It would also be smart to consider socio-economic status and whether the students are the first in their families to attend college (9), though later in the book, McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux point out that too often, attending to socio-economic status becomes a way of deflecting a focus on race (because the latter is less comfortable to discuss).

    McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux go on to describe an equity project undertaken by 13 schools, and I immediately feel jealous that I didn’t get to participate, because it seems awesome.

    But that’s why I’m reading this book. To prime myself. What are the kinds of mindsets and approaches that can be integrated into higher ed leadership…not just as a special project but as ongoing work? That’s what I want to think through as I continue to read.

A few things I want to carry with me as I finish Chapter Three and return the book to the library

Okay, well, a lot.

  1. Spending more time learning about the Equity Scorecard from the Center for Urban Education (here).
  2. Some of the obstacles to being “equity-minded” are things I think I’m okay with most of the time, but sometimes I “skirt around race” by using terms like “underrepresented faculty” instead of saying, “Black, Latiné, and Indigenous faculty” (or something similar, depending on the context, of course).

    I think I skirt around direct language because I’m nervous about getting called out by using an outdated term or by omitting groups that ought to be included. Maybe I’m making assumptions that aren’t quite on target, so more generalized language feels more comfortable.

    But, the point is, if we are going to address racism, we have to know who and what we’re talking about.
  3. I’ve known for a long time that DEI efforts shouldn’t be based on deficit models, with white and Asian students being “fine” when they arrive at college and schools needing to address “lacks” or “under-preparedness” in Black and Latiné students. Instead, it’s important to recognize the diverse kinds of gifts students carry with them when they arrive in our classrooms.

    But I struggled with how to address situations with higher percentages of Black or Latiné students earning D-F or W-grades in high challenge courses.

    McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux suggest moving from a focus on “achievement gaps” to a focus on “equity gaps” (74). This works for me. It’s putting the focus on the problem. That way, the analysis and solutions address “people, practices, and policies” (68).
  4. When I discussed numbers and data sets that are a starting point for thinking about equity in higher ed in my “Laurie before opening the book” section above, I didn’t mention the ways DFW rates often differ by race. That was a HUGE oversight on my part. I wonder if I omitted that data set because it’s so uncomfortable for me to talk about patterns of differences reflected in grades….

    I want to be braver. Shifting from the language of “achievement gap” to “equity gap” helps tremendously. Sometimes language is everything.
  5. Yikes. There are other moments of growth and challenge this book pitches to me, and to some degree I think the only way for me to be better about it all is to keep immersing myself in the conversations. And to be willing to say things poorly as I learn and gradually figure out how to articulate things well.

    Really. It’s a super clear book, and the ways McNair, Bensimon, and Malcom-Piqueux discuss equity mindsets helps me see ways I need to continue moving forward, often in terms of moving from theory to practice.

Final thoughts for now

I love that I qualify “final thoughts” with the phrase “for now.” Yeah, these are not final thoughts at all, just the closing words for this post, right here, right now.

As I wrote the above, I kept using the phrase “the authors” instead of using the authors’ actual last names. Why? Because it takes time and effort and even a bit of second guessing myself to go through with writing all three last names. It may also be less convenient for readers.

That seems like a metaphor. Right?

So, it’s slightly difficult. So, it takes a bit more time and care, So, it’s uncomfortable. So, I might get it wrong.

So what?

The three writers—Tia Brown McNair, Estela Mara Bensimon, and Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux—they deserve my respect and care and time. They’ve earned it. I’m going to go back and add their names into my post. And, way beyond this tiny gesture, I’m going to try to keep learning and self-correcting as I learn.

It’s not everything. It’s definitely not final. But it’s a start.

the dog not taken

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Many many years ago I was at work when I received an email from my then-husband Scot. It had a picture of a bulldog-boxer mix. She was so ugly she was cute. Her name was Lilly, and she was a rescue dog.

Several minutes later, Scot sent me a picture of a dachshund named Fancy. Oh my goodness, I still love that name. Fancy.

Scot and I had two awesome kids and had been talking about getting a dog eventually, and it seemed that eventually had arrived. Scot and I went back and forth. Should we adopt Lilly? or Fancy? with pros and cons generated as if we could make a rational decision about these dogs.

Finally, I said, “We just have to choose. And once we choose, we can’t question our decision or wonder if the other dog would’ve been better. We just have to choose one and commit to that one and love that dog no matter the pros and cons we encounter.”

I suggested Lilly because Scot had sent her photo to me first. That was it. We made the decision. I never forgot Fancy, but I also never questioned whether we had chosen correctly and I never regretted bringing Lilly into our family. She was our dog. End of story.

***

What car to buy. Where to spend the holiday. Whether to order the quesadilla or the flatbread. What job to take. Who to date. Where to live.

Sometimes I get super stressed about choices and remind myself of Lilly and Fancy. Sometimes there’s no such thing as a bad choice. That doesn’t mean a choice will have no complications or that everything will be perfect. Lilly was certainly a challenge at times.

But it means that we can drive ourselves crazy thinking that we need to make the “right” decision when such a thing often doesn’t exist. Sometimes the “right” decision is simply the decision we make. The path unfolds. We continue on our journey.

Of course, we can spend time looking back and wondering exactly what our lives would’ve been like with Fancy instead of Lilly. I could start doing this today and still not have exhausted possibilities if I continued down that path for the rest of my life.

But why bother? We took the Lilly path. We faced some struggles with Lilly, sure, and she eventually died, and thinking about that can still make me cry. But choosing Lilly was not a mistake. Just like it wouldn’t have been a mistake if we had chosen Fancy.

It was just a choice. No right, no wrong. No reason to evaluate it after the fact, no reason for regrets, no reason even to feel proud that we took in Lilly instead of Fancy. It was just a choice.

***

Not all choices are Lilly and Fancy choices though. This point is such an important point that I will hopefully return to it and write about it another day. For now I’m just going to say that it’s a good idea to pay attention to our choices, big and small, and see if they align with who we are and what we want our lives to be. If they don’t, we gotta shift.

I’m not sure why, exactly, I’ve been thinking about Lilly and Fancy. I think part of it is trying to figure out how to accept my past choices, even when they’ve had problematic consequences. At least some of those choices, well, they were aligned with who I was and what I thought I wanted my life to be at the time. I just wasn’t in a place where I could know myself as fully as I do now, and I couldn’t know the impact of my choices ahead of time. That’s unavoidable, the partial knowing we have at any given moment. Even now, looking back, I could be completely wrong in my assumptions that other choices could have led to better outcomes.

***

On Mother’s Day weekend this past May, I heard Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” both Saturday night at a brewery and Sunday morning at an exercise class, and it sizzled through me as my body moved in both settings. I embraced it. My anthem. I cannot tell you how many times since May I have found myself singing inside my head, “And I never lost one minute of sleeping worrying about the way things might’ve been.”

Okay, I admit. It’s an aspirational anthem. I still sometimes lose sleep worrying about the way things might’ve been.

***

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is often cited to suggest that we are better off if we live our lives in unusual ways rather than following the crowd.

However, the two paths the speaker encounters were worn “really about the same.” That is, the paths are like Lilly and Fancy, with either one equally promising, with both paths equally traveled.

At the close of the poem, when the speaker imagines the future, he admits that he’s going to look back and tell himself a story about the path he chose: He’s going to say that he took the path “less traveled by,” and he is going to claim that the choice “made all the difference.”

Even though he’s already told us that’s not actually the case.

I think I’m going to do the same thing: I took the dog less prettified, and Lilly really did make all the difference.

The funny thing is, you believe me, don’t you? And I believe it, too. So that, at least, is the better side of regret—the belief that our past choices were somehow or other the right choices, and that, one way or another, our journeys make sense.

It ain’t New Year’s but I’m making resolutions

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I don’t know if you ever feel kinda frustrated with yourself because you want to do certain things but you just keep not doing them.

No? It’s just me?

lol

That’s how I’m feeling today. What I want to do is have more structured days so it’s not such a challenge to prioritize exercise, writing, and meditation. I just made playlists on YouTube to help with the exercise and meditation part. I can start the day with short meditations and some tiny exercise, like 20 jumping jacks, and I can do a 15-30 minute exercise session or yoga meditation in the evening. I often walk at lunch, and I can do that more regularly, too.

Should I be using the word will instead of can?

I’m already decent about writing daily because I drive to work early and write in my car in the parking lot before the work day begins, but I want to do longer chunks of writing at times, and I’m a bit stuck there. I’m thinking if I do 5 minute chunks in the evening, that will be enough–I’ll either do those tiny chunks often enough that I get somewhere or I’ll do the 5 minutes and want to keep going at least some of the time. And anyone can fit in 5 minutes of writing, even me.

So that’s the plan.

And here’s an addendum to help me shift my attention. I’ve been keeping my phone by my bed because I wake at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and do the daily Wordle, Hurdle, and Waffle word puzzles online and then (try to) fall back asleep. I love those puzzles, but I’m thinking that’s not an ideal habit. And if I move my phone away from my bed, I’ll be less likely to look at email and social media while still in bed in the morning. Hopefully I’ll eventually sleep through the night again. The exercise and meditation may help with that.

Okay. That’s my draft. I’m going to start it this evening. I’ll see how it goes and edit or revise as needed. Or maybe I’ll flub it up completely. But the only way I’ll know how it goes is if I try!

sunrise at Massanutten in Virginia, symbolic of new beginnings or something

mine mine mine!

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Note: I wrote this post a good long while ago—at least 6 months ago—and the good news is that the difficult feelings I was processing at that time, well, they’ve passed. And I sorta liked reading about it all this time later, so I’m putting it out there in case anyone else relates to how needy parts of us can be.

***

I imagine psychologists and other experts can say all this better and more precisely, but I’m going to say it as I’m learning it, imperfectly and incompletely. It will likely be one of several posts I write upon the passing of my mom because her passing is on me and in me, filtering and informing everything else right now.

***

I told my therapist, Michele, about these two sides of me that I had articulated to one of my siblings. One side of me doesn’t care about stuff, the stuff that is left when my parents go. And the other side of me thinks, “So-and-so better not take more than their share. That’s not fair!” I laughed at myself a bit when confessing this to Michele. It was like I couldn’t help that second voice, the one that was competing for things, even though I was embarrassed by it.

Michele asked me to notice the voices I was using.

“Did you hear how childish that second voice sounded, Laurie?”

Whoa. Once she pointed it out, I sure did. It was the voice of a kid fighting over a toy. “It’s my turn! You’ve had it long enough!” or “Mine! Mine mine mine!”

It was my voice as a kid fighting with a sibling, maybe over the best seat on the couch or the choice of a tv show. It was my voice as the fifth kid out of six. It was my voice as the middle of the second set of three children. It was my voice fighting for a place where I could be comfortable and get what I wanted. It was the voice of a kid in a family of eight whose dinner table was intended to seat six at most. It was the voice of a child who didn’t want to just make due, who didn’t want to sit with one of my kid legs on either side of a table leg. It was the voice of a child who tried not to expect anything because she didn’t want to be disappointed. It was the voice of a child who tried to be good, who tried to be better behaved than her big sister, who wouldn’t fuss when shampoo got in her eyes, who sought out attention where and how she could, because there was never enough attention to go around. It was the voice of a child in a household in which every time someone made a batch of brownies, each of us would eat one immediately and would choose a second one to hide away in a kitchen cupboard, enclosed in a plastic sandwich baggie.

I’m 52 years old. Some moments I’m a content old lady enjoying a quiet patch of sunlight. Some moments I’m a twenty-something energizer bunny on a dance floor. And some moments I’m a needy little kid trying to make sure I get my share of brownies.

***

I had two books on my Libby app when I headed to my parents’ house on July 21. One was Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, a digital edition I could read on my phone if I ended up sitting by my mom as she slept. I had already listened to the audio version of the book several months before, and it had moved me and delighted me. I thought it would be a good one to read again, and I could even read it aloud to my mom if given the chance (which, as it turns out, I wasn’t).

The second book was an audio book to listen to as I made the drive from Pennsylvania to Maine: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. I had read A Man Called Ove and Anxious People by Fredrik Backman and had decided I’m a fan.

As I have been struggling to mourn and grieve, these books–renewed on my Libby app because I didn’t have time to get far in either one during the week of my mom’s passing and funeral arrangements–these books have provided access to emotions that I haven’t otherwise been able to process.

Raymie Nightingale is a girl whose father has left and whose mother is depressed. Raymie is full of quiet pain and sadness and desperation as she strives to make a difference, win a contest, and be featured in the newspaper to gain her father’s attention and bring him back home. The book is a children’s book. It is beautiful. It is heartbreaking and hopeful.

Elsa in My Grandmother Asked Me is 7, almost 8. She must face death and loss, imperfections and complications, tragedies and trauma affecting her own family and her nearby neighbors. The book is about a child but it is not a children’s book. It is beautiful. It is heartbreaking and hopeful.

Over these last days, as I have witnessed Raymie and Elsa struggling with their emotions, figuring out their places in the world, wondering about whether they are loved and how much they are loved and by whom they are loved–I have cried. I have cried and cried and cried. I cried for my mom. I cried for myself as a little girl. I cried for my brothers and sisters. I cried for myself as an adult who is still trying to figure things out.

“It seems you intuitively chose books about children,” Michele noted during our session. “When your mom dies, it’s the child who mourns most.”

***

Sure, I’m embarrassed by my childish neediness and greediness. But I’m also relieved to see the emotions, to acknowledge they’re there. To answer the emotions. To assure and reassure. To give comfort.

I talk to my sister Janet, and together we puzzle out the relationship between a competitive focus on stuff and the childlike desire for attention. It is, we decide, a way of feeling loved. If someone gets more stuff, it’s a substitute for getting more attention, for getting more love. Well, it’s not really, of course. But our childish parts interpret it that way even though our rational adult selves know better.

We have a habit in my family of constantly labeling ourselves as “the favorite.” The favorite sibling, the favorite child, the favorite aunt, the favorite uncle, and so on. I might give a gift to a niece and say it’s from their favorite aunt. I could be wrong, but I think all six kids in my family have this habit. It’s a fun thing, not serious, just a joke. Right? Right???

Right. We don’t really want anyone to be the favorite, do we? We just all want to matter. We want to all get what we need. Our poor parents. Six kids is so many. I got a lot of attention, not just from my mom and dad but also from my oldest siblings who regularly babysat and spent time with me.

So why am I an adult who still tries to earn love and attention by pleasing others? Why am I an adult who could easily get mad if one of my siblings gets a disproportionate amount of stuff, even if it’s stuff I don’t want myself?

I think, I think, it’s because I haven’t always been good about hearing the childish side of myself, and if I don’t listen, I can’t answer it. And if I don’t listen and answer it, the childish side makes itself heard in ways that are not so good, not so gracious—and not so aligned with the person I want to be.

***

Mine. That voice is mine. The one that’s similar to Raymie’s voice, the one that’s similar to Elsa’s voice. The one that is needy. The one that feels lost and alone and afraid.

And that other voice is also mine. The adult voice that validates: “It’s okay to want more attention. It’s okay that you don’t like sitting at the dinner table right where the leg is. It’s okay that you don’t want to share your mom’s lap. That’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s human. You’re human.”

And the adult voice that offers perspective is also mine: “Your mom loved you, and she loved all your brothers and sisters. She loved you all desperately and completely. And she also loved you humanly, incompletely and imperfectly. She loved you even when she napped all afternoon. You know why she may have needed to nap? Because every morning she got up early to do laundry before putting in eight hours of work at the hospital. Do you know what she did after she napped? She made dinner. And often she also cleaned up dinner, or she nagged you and your siblings to do it. Do you know that doing laundry and going to work to earn money and making dinner were all ways that she loved you? Do you know getting you to do chores was a way that she loved you? Do you know that you can’t begrudge your mom her need for naps? Especially during the winter when there just wasn’t enough sunshine to feed her soul.”

I talked to Janet about how much we resented the time my mom spent with adults who needed her for one reason or another. Why was she caring for them? Why was she caring for them instead of giving that attention to us?

I wonder aloud to Janet: “Maybe the adults Mom cared for offered her something that she needed, something that she wasn’t going to get from her own kids. Who knows?”

The adult voice soothes and comforts: “You were so lucky. You were lucky to have your mom for so long. You were lucky to have such a good role model. You were lucky to have one of the most important people in your life be someone who was inherently kind and understanding and grounded in what really mattered.”

And the adult voice is honest: “Was she perfect? No. But is any of us perfect? No. We love each other anyhow. We love each other imperfectly.”

***

That’s all I have today, except three memories of being a little girl with my mom.

  1. I go downstairs because I can’t sleep. I’m small, maybe five or six, wearing footie pajamas. My mom is reading the newspaper and having toast and coffee in the living room with the lamp on. She invites me to lie down on the couch, my head on her lap. I am relieved that she didn’t scold me and send me back to bed. I feel honored to see her and be invited into this moment when she’s not busy doing mom things, when she’s doing what my adult self might think of as Esther things.
  2. It’s the same time period, and my parents have taken me and Janet and Diane to Martha’s Vineyard for a day trip. We take a bus tour of some sort and see where the mechanical shark for Jaws was filmed. On the ferry back to the mainland, I fall asleep on my mom’s lap. It’s the only time I remember falling asleep on my mom’s lap. I got her whole lap. All to myself.
  3. Again, it must be about the same time, or maybe I’m even smaller, maybe four? My mom is in the living room with me, Janet, and Diane. We are coloring. I don’t remember my picture, but I remember my mom’s. She colored cherries by outlining them in a deep red before filling them in. Her coloring was beautiful. I knew I could not make my coloring look so beautiful. I was in awe. It’s the only time I remember her playing with us.

***

I lied. I have a bit more.

I’m still crying. I’m crying because I wish little Laurie didn’t isolate memories of being on her mom’s lap because it was so unusual. And I’m crying because I wish I had been a little kid with fewer needs. And I’m crying because I’m also a mom and I know that we moms all always fail; I know it’s impossible for all of us to show the vastness and depths of the love we feel. I’m crying because we are human, and our time is fleeting. I’m crying because I want to acknowledge the pain. I want to hear. I want to grow.

And I also at the very same time want to be a little kid falling asleep on my mom’s lap at the end of a long lovely and exhausting day trip to Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of August.

Laurie gets a prime spot at the table for her 4th birthday, March 7, 1973
Janet, Diane, and Mom, March 7, 1974

Why I liked Everything Everywhere All at Once

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Spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read this. It won’t make sense to you anyhow.

The last movie that blew me away in this way was Adaptation. With both movies, I didn’t know what to expect, partly because they played with genre and storytelling in ways that were over-the-top with layers of complexity and, simultaneously, as simple and ordinary as can be.

Paying taxes. Work. Family relationships. Family conflicts. Same old. Same old. Same old.

Except life is dramatic and wild and each moment holds infinite possibilities.

The hero of Everything Everywhere All at Once is a woman, a Chinese American woman. She is a wife, a mother, a daughter, a business owner. She is harried, exhausted, worn out and worn down.

And it is time for her to wake up. To own her power. To become the hero. Her husband is her muse. Her daughter is her legacy—she has to love and empower her the way she needed to be loved and empowered herself.

She answers the call. She steps up. And she does so on her own terms and in her own time but never alone. I read some interviews with the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) who wrote and directed the film. Kwan talked about a Japanese storytelling structure called Kishōtenketsu (起承転結) that moves forward based on “self-realization, understanding, and change” instead of being driven by conflict. And the kung fu scenes are discussed as combat rather than conflict. In the movie itself, the husband says he is a fighter, too. This is the man who puts googly eyes on bags of laundry and brings cookies to the tax auditor.

I relate to that guy, the guy committed to joy. “Joy” is, of course, also the name of the daughter, and part of the mom’s quest is to be in communion with Joy again instead of Joy turning away from her mother in despair.

I also relate to the mom/wife/career woman/daughter, who at times is overwhelmed by the minutiae of everyday life, represented in a table full of receipts and invoices on tiny scraps that she tries to organize while also cooking and being called to attend to customers. This woman has lost the perspective of her third eye, the chakra that provides clarity, concentration, imagination, intuition, and spiritual connection.

What eventually replaces the table full of papers to process is an everything bagel, full of spice, revealed to her by Joy. The everything bagel is overwhelming in its own way, but eventually able to provide the perspective on the table of scraps: not important enough to deal with until after time with family. And the everything bagel also provides perspective on people, even the ones who seem like our enemies: we are all undergoing the same struggle to not only survive but to feel joy, yet often succumbing to regret about the places where we end up and the people we end up with. The movie was a bit like It’s a Wonderful Life in exploring what-might-have-been and treasuring where we are right now and making choices to be kind to one another.

Also, I liked the movie because it made me laugh and also the scene with the paper cuts was absolutely brilliant in how viscerally viewers experience it, surpassing the moments when what’s-his-face walks on broken glass in Die Hard. I’m waiting for someone to do a scene of people repeatedly stubbing their toes. I can feel it now.

Last note in my many-days-after-seeing-the-movie random reflection on why I like it so much. I think there’s something happening with squares/rectangles (those little scraps of papers, the labyrinthine office cubicles in the auditor office building!) versus circles. It’s making me want to see it again to see what else I can catch and appreciate. But just check out this shot of Joy (without any joy) in the laundromat. All those square machines! and all the circular windows into the intimacies of people’s lives.

eulogy for my mom, annotated

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This is the eve of my mom’s birthday, March 31, her first birthday since she died. We are also at the end of Women’s History Month. A couple nights ago, I heard Feminista Jones speak, and she said something about Women’s History Month and the legacy she carries from her mom and how she was raised. It stirred me. So here is an imperfect but heartfelt tribute to my mom, who she was, why she mattered. This is her eulogy.

And after her eulogy are notes about the process of writing it, my mixed feelings, what was omitted, and what I felt decent about.

The Eulogy

[the parts in brackets are current commentary but were not said at the time]

Good morning. [The congregation greeted me back and I loved them for being there with me. I was nervous and incredibly sad. Several times while speaking I met the eyes of my high school friend Maria, and her presence helped me tremendously.]

I’ve been thinking about how my mom was a small, slender person, but her life was big, too big to fit inside this church and way too big to fit inside a eulogy. But, at the same time, life—like my sister Janet—is short [here I paused for laughter and the congregation delivered. Sorry, Janet! Love you!]. Even for my mom who lived to 85, life was short. She, like all of us, had limited resources—time, attention, energy. So, one way of understanding how my mom mattered—and how she still matters—is to think about where she put her energy. I’m going to touch on just a few of those things this morning…

…And I’m going to start with my mom’s love of gardening. My mom never talked about working in the garden; she always said she was going to play in the dirt. Of course, the garden may have been an escape at times for a woman dealing with a house full of kids. But for the most part, my mom seemed to take joy in the grimy sweaty everyday unglamorous kind of labor that would eventually lead to a spread of black-eyed Susans and other perennials, loads of blueberries, and more tomatoes than you could even share. My mom contributed beauty and sustenance to this planet that is our home.

In much the same unglamorous everyday way, she cared for her more immediate homes. She was raised in Rockport, the oldest of five siblings, and she spent her life watching out for her younger sisters and brothers. Her sister Marie is here with us today.

In the household she created with my dad, my mom cooked and she cleaned, she worked outside the home, she raised six very attractive kids [again I paused for laughter, again the congregation delivered], she hosted 14 grandkids who are beautiful inside and out [this is just the truth], and if the trajectory continues, the great grandkids are likely to be supermodel philanthropists, amiright, sister Carole? Carole’s a grandmother; she knows. [I teased my other siblings and my dad a bit during the eulogy, but I didn’t want to tease Carole, so I didn’t. Not sure why. Maybe because she acted like a 2nd mom to me when I was little…] 

My mom dealt with lean times when we drank milk made from powder and water. [I wondered if it would bother my dad that I said this in a public space. But I’m not ashamed that we faced lean times. I think it’s the reality for so many of us, and if there’s shame in it, well, there shouldn’t be.] She hosted big family Christmas gatherings, making cookies ahead of time, and she dealt with it when the holidays came and she discovered Stephen and Michael had eaten most of the cookies she had frozen. [Here I looked out at Stephen and Michael and made a scolding motion with one index finger going over the other, a motion that was a part of my childhood: Tsk tsk tsk]

On Federal Street in Reading, we didn’t lock our front door until everyone was home at night. It was the people, not the stuff, that mattered. Of course, when Diane was a teenager, that meant some nights the door never got locked. [Here I looked out at Diane and again made the scolding motion: Tsk tsk tsk ]

One summer my parents watched my two little kids for a few days and a week later my mom called me. “I keep finding stickers,” she said. “They’re on the furniture, on the woodwork…I don’t know where I’ll find a sticker next!” As an apology formed on my lips, she said, “It makes me smile every time.” That’s who my mom was. [I love this story. I love the moments when I can see my mom has passed this sense of joy onto me.]

If you were a guest at our house, chances are my mom told you the only rule was to make yourself at home. If you were one of my mom’s friends or part of our large extended family, she probably didn’t consider you a guest in her house at all. That was her super power: no matter who you were or where you were, my mom made you feel at home. She was quick to understand and slow to criticize, a safe haven, even if you were at your lowest point. 

At times, my mom and dad hosted family members for extended stays, giving support when support was needed. Opening your home in such a way is a big deal, but they did it without fanfare. They had Irish hospitality in spades. 

You probably notice that I keep mentioning my dad in conjunction with my mom. Over the years, we’ve become fond of saying “Everybody loves Nana!” But with Papa we are more likely to tease than to praise. I’m going to buck that trend for a moment, but only a moment, so don’t get used to it, Dad! [Here I paused for laughter, but I don’t think this got too much. Not sure, really.] These last years, and especially these last difficult months, my dad has shown a level of commitment and care that, well, you would have to see it up close to comprehend it at all. [I don’t know what my phrasing was in that part. I have a hard time getting it out without tearing up. I may have had to pause.] My mom talked about love being not just a feeling but also a choice and an action. That seems about right for both of my parents.

And of course my mom’s active caring extended way beyond the home, especially here at St. Agnes and through her work at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital and then Lahey Clinic, where she touched countless lives in countless ways.

My mom also took time with people in everyday interactions. If you were a server wearing a nametag, she might say, “Jason, it’s tough getting old. Just last week I was told I have CRS. You do know what that is, don’t you? Can’t Remember Shit.” [I know this whole part may have irritated my dad, but my mom was sometimes irreverent, and it always took most of us by surprise because she was generally so mild. I loved that irreverent and shocking part of her, and I loved how delighted she seemed whenever she shocked people.]

Am I allowed to say “shit” in church? [I looked up at the ceiling for the next lines.] Sorry, God! It was my mom’s fault! [And then I looked back at the congregation. I expected more laughter than I got. Sometimes I find myself really funny.] Yeah, don’t worry. She can take the hit. We all know where my mom is going at this point. 

Speaking of “Can’t Remember Shit,” [again, I paused; I found this transition really funny, but I’m not sure if the crowd was completely with me] I’m going to close with a story that my mom told over and over, both because it meant something to her and because she never remembered having said it before. [I thought that line was funny, too; again, I’m not sure that I had much company….]

Her grandson Ethan was visiting, and before he left, he gave her a big hug and said, “I love you, Nana.” And then somehow they had a long McMillan goodbye so when they are finally standing at the front door, Ethan again gave her a big hug and said, “I love you, Nana.” And then he got into his car and started it up, but before he drove away, my mom headed outside for some reason. So Ethan hopped out of his car and gave her yet another hug and said, “I love you, Nana.” 

That’s it. That’s what mattered to my mom—loving and being loved. That’s where she put her energy, love not just as a feeling but as a choice and an action, expressed in everyday ways. I believe that is why her life mattered.

That is why her life matters still. 

I paused, and I think I choked up again at the end. Or maybe it’s just that I’m choking up now, and I think I choked up every time I practiced it.

I know it doesn’t do her justice. But it says something that feels true and right, and it gives a hint of who my mom was and how she so generously spent her time and energy. I hope if she were to hear these words that she would recognize herself, that she would feel seen, that she would know she mattered. That she would know she matters still.

Process Notes

Back when my Aunt Margie died at the start of 2015, I blogged about her, and soon after that, my mom asked if I would give her eulogy (my mom’s, not my Aunt Margie’s) whenever she ended up dying. I told my mom both “yes” and “let’s not think about your eulogy yet.” And I imagined that what would actually happen would be several of us eulogizing my mom since I have 5 siblings.

But this summer, before my mom died, it turned out that just one person would give the eulogy, and I told my dad about my conversation with her. That may have been pushy. Maybe others wanted or needed to give the eulogy. I don’t know. But I had told my mom I would, so I asked if I could. My dad was fine with it. I think he would’ve been fine with other choices as well.

I felt incredibly blessed to play this role, and I also felt like it was a gift to me that I needed to honor by taking my time with it. I didn’t aim for any ideal. I knew that was impossible. I knew pressuring myself too much would lead to writer’s block and paralysis. I aimed for good enough. I accepted that whatever I said would never do full justice to my mom and her life, no matter how long or how well I spoke.

I began writing before my mom died. It was strange. I was writing about my mom in the past tense even though she was still present.

My funeral director friend Steve gave advice. He said it was better not to write it out but to speak from the heart. I knew I needed to draft or I would end up going on too long, so I modified his advice. I was supposed to keep it to about 5 minutes. I decided I would write it out and practice it so I could time myself, but I wouldn’t read the eulogy so I wouldn’t sound too mechanical.

Steve also said humor is good, and it’s especially good to make people laugh and then cry. I did what I could.

I brainstormed important characteristics of my mom and listed memories and events that I thought represented who she was. I began drafting two different times, and the second time was the draft I continued to work on, revise, and edit. I thought of who would be in the church listening. I thought of how important each person was to my mom. I believed part of my role was to help the people in the church recognize the person I was talking about. I tried to see my mom beyond my perspective.

At times, this reach into other perspectives was a struggle. I know my mom wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t want to get into the complexities of a full human being who sometimes comes up short; the eulogy isn’t the right time or place. Instead, I needed to focus on the positive legacy of my mom’s life, and I wondered if that would be hard for anyone to hear. Before the funeral, I ended up having signs that I didn’t need to worry about that, so I didn’t.

One of the perspectives that somehow mattered a lot to me was that of my cousins who just loved their Aunt Esther (pronounced “Es-tah” in the Boston area). I knew she was there for them, and they turned to her, and being able to trust her and feel fully accepted by her meant everything to them. Later, during the service, I saw at least one of my cousins nodding as I spoke. I told her afterward how much that meant to me–that sign that I had gotten it right.

When my early drafts were too long, I cut out tons of parts. I’m dissatisfied that I didn’t say more about her friendships, especially her lifelong friends, and her early years, and more about family and what each person meant to her, and her many years of working in hospitals. One cut that I struggled with was the part about my mom being a social justice warrior. You know what was amazing? The priest who did the funeral service, Father Jim Hickey, knew my mom well. In his sermon, he spoke about my mom standing up for right, standing up against wrong. It was awesome. He talked about a part of my mom that meant everything to me but that I had edited out of my own words.

So. What is written above is what I said, more or less. It’s meant to be spoken, without all my bracketed commentary, of course.

One more note, this one about structure. I didn’t overdo the organization. It’s a bit flow-y, and there’s a beginning, middle, and end with certain themes threaded throughout. But it’s not too organized. This structure feels like my mom–a bit informal, a bit relaxed. She took care of her gardens, but they never looked overly manicured. Our home had a lived-in feel. And my mom was always groomed and together, with her hair brushed and her lipstick on, but she was never over the top. I don’t know that I used a structure that mimicked my mom’s style on purpose or if it just happened and felt right. But I felt really satisfied with the tidy looseness of it all. It felt appropriate–one more way of honoring who my mom was and how she approached things.

If you knew my mom, I hope you caught a glimpse of her in the eulogy. Even if you didn’t know her, I hope you could see a glimmer of this woman who gave a lot and who is now (sorta) gone.

Mom, happy birthday. Thank you for the gifts you left behind.

addendum to the gray day

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Earlier today I blogged about signs of spring on a gray day in late March. Then, in the afternoon, I drove to Blue Marsh Lake. It was sunny when I left my house. It rained on my drive. And then. I parked. I got out of the car. And the sun was out.

So my addendum to my earlier post today is this view, this moment, this peace.

look closer, look again: another extended metaphor

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I documented some spring flowers in the brush next to my driveway this morning. I had spotted a couple crocuses when putting the garbage can by the road the other day, but this morning I slowed down. I looked closer.

After marveling at the brave beauty and noticing new spots of growth appearing in the midst of dry brush and dead leaves, I stepped back and reoriented myself to the bigger picture.

I could have stopped there. I could have spent my entire day noticing the gray and damp and blah. (To be honest, the day has a stripe of lovely blue in this photo. The reality has turned much grayer!) Or I could have stopped at the first crocuses and believed that was all that was happening.

Many days, those are the choices I make.

Today, I slowed down. I looked closer. I looked again. The gray and the damp and the blah are still there, still part of the day, still a reality. And also, at the same time, amidst the dry brush whenever I’m willing to really look, there is more. Always more.

foggy drive: an extended metaphor

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For a short period in my life, I faced one big change after another after another. When I considered further changes in fall 2020, my therapist said to me, “Laurie, stop.”

While being too resistant to change is unhealthy, it can also be unhealthy to believe external changes are going to make things better internally. To be fair, many of my big changes were 100% necessary as I responded to situations beyond my control and worked to prioritize my relationships with my kids while also taking care of myself. And some of my recent big changes (my mom dying; my kids both being in college; me living alone) have just been life continuing the way it does.

Still, I listened to my therapist. I resisted big changes.

That’s the point when I began the Laurie Project blog series in fall 2020, when I was on a hiatus from dating and I had started a new job several months prior and I was spending time and energy getting myself in order. I created stability through healthy daily routines. Those routines continue.

I’m happy.

Still, I feel nervous when I think about my future. I don’t know the geographic region where I’m going to be living in five years. I don’t know the job I’ll be in (I love my current job, but it’s a stepping stone kind of position rather than something people do long term). I don’t know if I’ll be in a relationship with someone in five years.

That is a lot of instability to be facing.

I regularly feel anxious about these unknowns, and I’m trying to be honest about those feelings since one of my patterns has been to ignore hard feelings. And ignoring hard feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just makes them way harder to deal with. Also: these feelings are valid. It’s hard to have so much that is in flux. It makes it hard to settle in, put down roots, make some long-term plans.

That brings us to my Friday commute. The morning of fog.

***

Friday was crazy foggy, and my commute is mostly on back roads that curve through farmlands. About halfway to work, I started feeling incredibly lucky that I could follow the taillights of the car in front of me. Many mornings I don’t see another vehicle for long stretches, but on this particular morning, I had the benefit of guiding lights. And I knew it made my drive easier.

Still, I reflected, I really couldn’t see very far. I just followed one car and then another as we rounded one curve, and the next tiny stretch of road would reveal itself, and the next tiny stretch, and so on. We drove like that, unable to see what was up ahead even when the road straightened, just trusting that as we moved forward, the way would reveal itself. And it did.

I know the way to work, and I had no doubt of where I was heading even though the visibility was so poor.

My whole body relaxed as I felt grateful for the car lights ahead and reminded myself that I’m lucky to be on familiar roads and a route I know well. I noted how beautiful my surroundings were. There’s a way fog adds mystery…and maybe something like possibility?… to a landscape that is otherwise familiar. I may have been singing along to music? I was at peace.

And my mind and heart went to my anxiety about my work situation—loving where I am yet also wanting to be in a place where I have a sense of long-term stability. The drive, of course, felt like a metaphor. Yes, I’m anxious to know what’s next. And, in the meantime, I need to trust that I’m on the right path because, while I cannot see what lies ahead, I do know where I’m headed—to the next stages in my career where I can empower people through higher education, whether directly or indirectly. I can be honest: That destination is more nebulous than driving to my workplace. Still, the feeling of trusting that things will reveal themselves in good time? That seems like something I can hold onto.

I also have a lot of guiding lights as I figure out my professional path—friends, mentors, colleagues, family. As each part of the roadway reveals itself, I’m never alone.

As I shared my foggy morning reflection with a good friend, we realized it applies to so much more than my professional path. It also has to do with relationships, and sometimes all we can do is let things reveal themselves in time. I might want to know what all parts of my life will look like in five years, but I can’t. The decisions I make now have to be based on what I know now, the time and energy I have now, and my current priorities.

And we also reflected together that even when we think we know where we’ll be living, what we’ll be doing for work, and what our relationships will look like in five years, we really don’t. We are always moving forward in a fog to some extent. Just some mornings are foggier than others, and some destinations are less clear than others.

Once I posted these pics, I started thinking about this second one, taken on campus after I had arrived at work and was walking to my building. So let’s keep extending the extended metaphor.

Even when I know what my next professional stage will look like and the geographic region where I can settle, that doesn’t mean that I have fully arrived. No, even after parking my car Friday morning, I took a walk across the foggy campus, making my way forward, choosing which path to take, knowing where I was ultimately heading, and trusting I would find my way…

…while fully enjoying the shroud of mystery, the short journey to my office, and the brief time I spent stopping to document it.

a couple good habits

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ONE

I wrote a whole long post about trying out loving-kindness meditation and finding it shifted me in ways that feel good and healthy and alive. And I just reread the post and decided it was too long and full of words so I unpublished it.

Skip the reading. Try the meditation.

My favorite version of loving-kindness meditation so far is this one because it’s so simple that I can do the meditation without the video. But if that’s not quite your jam, or you want to read background or whatever, just google it: loving-kindness meditation.

TWO

I posted on Facebook about my daughter giving me recommendations for dance and exercise videos on YouTube. I’m a HUGE fan of EmKFit. And also Yoga with Adriene.

That’s it. I’m sharing stuff that’s good for me, body and soul. I’m hoping it’s good for you, too.