at least 2 truths

Today is Wednesday, January 7, 2015, and I’m in my car in Dallas, Pennsylvania while my three sisters, two brothers, and parents are at the hospital in Beverly, Massachusetts.

I wrote that a week ago, on the night my Aunt Margie died. I felt upset that Aunt Margie was dying, and I felt upset that I wasn’t there, with her and with the rest of my family.

I wrote more, both that night in the car while waiting for my daughter’s field hockey practice to end, and afterwards, while coming to grips with the fact that Margie is gone. But I wasn’t ready to post anything I wrote about my Aunt Margie because a) I thought it kept becoming about me instead of about Margie and b) I felt like I was side-stepping the fact that I have not been there for Margie for most of my adult life—that I was presenting her life in my terms, with my memories, and was thus omitting the last 25 years of her life.

And those may be the only two truths I have to offer, and they’re not pretty: That I’m ultimately wrapped in my own perspective and that I wasn’t there for Margie.

But I hope there’s more.
***

the Cunningham family house where Margie lived
the Cunningham family house where Margie lived

As a kid, I didn’t know that the acidic smell when we entered the house was actually the smell of cats. I didn’t know the stereotype of crazy ladies living with cats. I didn’t know what an “apparatus” might be a euphemism for. I didn’t even know the word “euphemism.”

What I did know was what life was like when we visited Aunt Margie’s house. It was full of sweets and games and loud laughter. We didn’t have a lot of rules and we didn’t need a lot of rules. Janet and Diane and I would stay for a weekend or a week, and maybe we fought and squabbled the way we always did, but I don’t have any memories of that. Instead, I remember that Janet loved to dust at Aunt Margie’s house, and I loved to sweep. I don’t know what chore Diane enjoyed, but I’m sure she did something to earn money to shop.

And shop we did. We’d walk to Bearskin Neck, often stopping at the swings for a few minutes on the way. We’d pass a sign held up by a post that looked like a linked chain; it caught my attention every single time.

The cool sign post that looks like iron links.
The cool sign post that looks like iron links.

And we’d always stop and watch the taffy being stretched or wrapped or boxed in what seemed like magical procedures in the window of Tuck’s. I’m horrible with directions and remembering where things are, but the pattern of landmarks on the way to Bearskin Neck somehow entertained me, nearly as much as the shops themselves.

The taffy machine at Tuck's looks a lot like this. (Tuck's candy is amazing, by the way!)
The taffy machine at Tuck’s looks a lot like this. (Tuck’s candy is amazing, by the way!)

As a kid, I didn’t know my mom’s hometown was a tourist town. I didn’t know that it’s amazing to live where you can walk to a tourist center of shops where hardly any cars drive. I didn’t know that it’s a big deal to live a five-minute walk from the beach. I didn’t know I was lucky to have an Aunt Margie who lived near Motif No. 1, the most painted building in the U.S. I take that back; I did know I was lucky to have Aunt Margie.

Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.
Motif #1 in Rockport, the most-painted building in the U.S.

We stopped in shops with names that are on the tip of my tongue…one that had jewelry (was it Krames?), where I’m sure I bought at least one ring with my birthstone. Either that shop or another offered fluorescent coral and sea shells, the kind that were polished and beautiful and that didn’t seem even remotely connected to the purplish sandy clam shells or smelly snails I would collect from the beach.

I looked at miniature doll house figures and furniture in a store whose name I can’t recall (though “Mrs. Something” is dancing in my head; Mrs. Twigg’s? is that possible?), and I probably bought something small and cheap there at one time or another. We always visited The Happy Whale. I regularly spent my chore money on invisible ink books, which are awesome.

invisible ink books are awesome
invisible ink books are awesome

Our Bearskin Neck excursions always included a quick look at the lobsters at the Roy Moore Lobster Company. They both fascinated and disgusted me; I could never imagine eating one back then.

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the Roy Moore Lobster Company

But don’t worry; we did not starve. We always stopped at the Country Store where we would each pick out penny candy to take home in a little brown bag. Did it actually cost a penny? I have no idea anymore. But even if it was 3 cents apiece, it was worth it. I chose root beer barrels, circus peanuts (one of the oddest foods ever but somehow delicious), those colored dots on paper (why? I can’t answer that), tiny wax bottles with sweet liquid inside (so cool! you could bite the top right off in order to access the liquid), fireballs (because I was daring! lol), and mint jellies shaped like leaves and coated with sugar.

The Country Store had a player piano. That has nothing to do with the candy. It’s just that my memory is firing as I write, pulling me back to the moments that were not moments at all but instead were patterns, played out again and again during visit after visit.

the Country Store in Bearskin Neck
the Country Store in Bearskin Neck

I never asked why Margie didn’t work. I never wondered if she enjoyed visiting the same shops time after time, with each stop centered on the interests of her young nieces. She had friends who visited her house, and she smoked cigarettes, and she laughed with us. She seemed happy.

When we were in the house, we played Yahtzee and Mille Bornes and other games. Margie prepared tea for herself every afternoon, and the four of us would have tea parties. Janet and I drank hot tea with sugar and milk, and Diane would drink milk and pretend it was tea. All of us had alter egos at the tea parties. Janet was Lulu Luscious. I was Katerina Kaulpepper. And Diane was Deanna DanderFleet. We called Margie “Mrs. Glick” sometimes because we thought she had a crush on her psychiatrist, Dr. Glick. Or sometimes we would call her “Meg,” a nickname for Margaret that seemed so much softer than “Margie” (though we all had Boston accents, so you must imagine it correctly, as “Mahh-jee,” which is sorta soft in its own way).

Janet and I would sometimes pretend to smoke cigarettes to be like Margie. I still remember the faint taste on my lips even though I’ve never actually smoked a regular cigarette. They were Newports. The packages were teal. I wasn’t bothered by the smell of the cigarettes anymore than I was bothered by the smell of cat urine.

Sometimes in the summer, gold sticky strips were hung from the kitchen light to catch flies. They were disgusting. But they didn’t bother me either.

Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!
Yes, these are gold sticky strips to catch flies. Disgusting!

One time during a tea party, for some reason, Janet ran up the stairs carrying her cup of tea, and she farted on every. single. step. as she ran. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! She made it all the way to the top, laughing the whole time, without spilling a single drop. During every tea party, we recalled that bizarre incident. We left out the reason why she ran up the stairs with her cup of tea and we left out what happened after, but we held onto the important parts. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! all the way to the top, without spilling a single drop.

Do you want to know the dark part? The part that explains “the apparatus”? That explains why Margie didn’t work? That tells you about her medicine and her overdoses and her days spent in her bathrobe and her very long toenails that I found impressive as a kid but that were probably a sign that she wasn’t paying enough attention to her personal grooming?

I don’t know very much, actually. I know that Margie had a permanent catheter. I actually didn’t even remember that word, “catheter,” or apply it to Margie until this morning. She would disappear to the bathroom for a time saying she needed to take care of her “apparatus,” and I didn’t think twice about it.

Every visit included not just a visit to Bearskin Neck but also a day spent at O’Garden Beach. Janet, Diane, and I would wear clothes over our bathing suits and carry a beach towel. We’d walk part of the way on a dirt road Margie dubbed “The Bunny Trail,” making it seem like an adventure. Sometimes my cousins David and Pipes would come, too; they were often our playmates when we were in Rockport.

No matter the weather, Margie wore slacks with an elastic band at the waist, not shorts. She would take off her shoes at the beach, and she’d sit on a beach towel or on a rock and smoke cigarettes while watching us play and laughing with us. We swam and ran back and forth with the breakers; we made sand castles (that looked more like mountains of dirt, though sometimes pails or Dixie cups helped the piles fit our imaginations a bit better), we dug holes to China, we climbed on a landscape of boulders that stretched over a huge part of the beach.

I know that Margie struggled with depression. When I was in high school and learned some basic facts about psychological struggles, Margie asked for copies of the diagrams I shared with her. That was what rang true for her.

She was smart, and she seemed as able to me as the other adults in my life. When I was in college and heard about her tricking the pharmacist into giving her extra pills, I was angry and wrote her a letter I never sent. I knew how much she had to give. I thought she should volunteer at a daycare, work with children, help out at an animal shelter because she loved cats. I was mad that she didn’t see the value in her life because it was so clear to me.

Sometimes on our visits, Margie would take out big scrapbooks and we’d look through them together. She’d show us the cards and pictures our older siblings had made when she was in the hospital. It was funny for us to think of Carole and Stephen and Michael being the ages of me and Janet and Diane, making cards on folded construction paper. Each picture seemed like a souvenir from a time long past. I didn’t think too much about why Margie had been in the hospital.

Margie had a washer but no dryer. We would help her hang clothes on the line outside or on the indoor folding rack of wooden dowels. She made meatloaf for us with bacon on top. She would take us to the grocery store with Uncle George (her brother), where we could pick out junk food to eat while visiting her.

I never wondered why she didn’t drive. Why didn’t she drive? I still don’t know. Is it bizarre that I accepted so much? Was it a good thing? or not so much? It’s weird to be so much older, with a new perspective, and still to be so damn clueless.

As we grew older, becoming teens and then adults, I saw her less often. But on holidays she was still herself. “Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful—I can’t stand it! You should be a model!” She said it all the time, to each of us. And she always meant it.

She also meant every loud laugh that came out of her mouth.

Sometimes she was difficult to talk to, especially when she was in a nursing home and I would visit. She’d tell me her life was terrible and ask me how I would feel if I were her, trapped, with nothing to live for. I couldn’t respond in any way that made the situation better; I know, because I tried. She would express anger and bitterness no matter what I said.

My husband would come in the room, and she’d laugh and joke with him.

I say that as if I visited Margie regularly, but I didn’t. She spent countless days and hours with me throughout my childhood, days spent doing things that would be enjoyable for me, days spent creating a pattern of memories that are so important to who I am that I have told my kids about them, have relived them with my kids, dragging them from shop to shop in Bearskin Neck, encouraging them to climb on rocks at O’Garden Beach. I’m pretty sure Janet and Diane have done the same with their kids.

Yet I didn’t visit Margie very much in the last 25 years. She added so many good memories to my childhood that I can’t capture them all. And I did nothing in return beyond an annual Christmas card and an occasional 45-minute visit.

Sorry, Margie. You deserved better—from me, and from life.

***
That’s where I stopped writing several days ago. Even though I didn’t want to write about me, I’m afraid that’s where I keep ending up: My good memories. My appreciation of the time and energy Margie gave to make my childhood better. My guilt that I wasn’t there for her—not just on the night she died, but for the last 25 years.

I think about how I’d respond to a friend feeling what I’m feeling (which is a trick I regularly use: How would I talk to myself if I were a friend? and which an actual friend studying to be a counselor told me is a good strategy, even if it does make me sound crazy).

I’d say:

I bet your Aunt Margie loved spending time with you and your brothers and sisters. I bet you all brought her a lot of joy without even trying to. Isn’t that how you tend to feel when you spend time with kids who delight in small pleasures like invisible ink books and penny candy?

 

I bet there were people who were there for Margie in the years when you weren’t, just like you’ve been there for people over the years who are not necessarily in your own family. Maybe that’s how human relations are supposed to work; maybe we all need to be kind to the people who are right in front of us because it’s impossible to always be there for every person we care about.

 

I bet your Aunt Margie understood that you were wrapped up in your own family, not because you’re selfish but because it takes time and energy to build a family and to build a career.

 

Didn’t your siblings and your parents tell you that you should be in Pennsylvania the night that Margie died because you couldn’t do anything? You have a role to play, but it is often not the starring role. Often, your role is to send a holiday card that will make people smile, to be there for your daughter while she is at field hockey practice, to pick up the phone when your sister calls to say Margie is gone. These are not starring roles, but sometimes, those are the roles you’re meant to play.

And, just like that, I’m thinking about Margie and what it means for a life to matter.

Margie mattered. She mattered to so many of us. She may not have felt like she had a starring role in many people’s lives because she didn’t lead a conventional life: She never married and never had children and never had a career; she spent many years of her life being cared for by others. The truth is, Margie and I were only minimally in one another’s life for a really long time, and it’s not appropriate to suggest otherwise. The truth is, I feel bad that I did not make more of an effort to see her when I travelled to New England over these last years.

But, let’s be clear: Margie starred in a lot of our stories—in a lot of my stories. She struggled and was not well in many ways, for most of her life. But that did not stop her from bringing joy to others in ways that have left permanent imprints on many lives, including mine. She did not have to star in every stage of my life in order to make the years count when she did.

So there are more truths I have come to, truths I of course already knew. Truths Margie has taught me.

So I end, not simply by telling Margie sorry but also, more importantly, by remembering times that were not simply good or bad but instead were full of everyday joys in the midst of all kinds of everyday difficulties.

I end by saying to Margie, thank you.

Facebooking with students

Back in November 2014, the “Shit Academics Say” FB page posted

To be or not to be that academic who accepts student friend requests on Facebook.

lot of academics wrote “not to be,” often in much stronger language. A lot wrote yes with contingencies: former students, alums, select students are okay; current students, not so much. I fall in the camp of accepting friend requests from students, but not initiating them.

facebook_like_logo_1

I began spending time on Facebook in the early days, spring of 2006, and I did so with student encouragement. It all began during a class break in a Business & Technical Writing course, which met in a computer lab. The students told me about their own experiences with Facebook, and they introduced me to the Facebook wall and private messaging and “poking” (which was not considered a dirty or flirty thing in our class!). Over the next year or two, students formed groups that I joined which have since disappeared. I believe one of them might’ve been “English majors are funnier, smarter, and better-looking than other majors.” In those early days, if I hadn’t accepted student friend requests, I wouldn’t have had any FB friends at all; hardly anyone besides students used the site.

Obviously, things changed. But even though Facebook is now a place to connect with family / friends / colleagues / and more, I still accept friend requests from students. While I think it’s typical for different professors to have different boundaries with their students and I am not interested in a one-size-fits-all policy, here are some reasons why I’ve been happy with my policy to accept Facebook friend requests from students. In case you’re wondering!

1. It helps me remember that anything posted on social media is potentially visible to anyone in the world, no matter what my privacy settings are.

Occasionally in my 8(!) years on FB, I’ve posted slightly inappropriate things. Especially in the year that my New Year’s resolution was to aim for mediocrity and prioritize happy hour. But mostly I try to present myself on FB with an awareness of all the potential audiences, and that means that I try to avoid being a jerk, at the very least.

2. Students see that I’m more than my role as a professor, and I see students more fully.

Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)
Professors are people, too! (photo by Megan McDonnell, a student & photographer)

3. Students send me fun and interesting things that connect to our class content.

Sometimes it’s a blog post about a feminist issue. Sometimes it’s a book review or a film review. Sometimes it’s a cultural analysis. Sometimes it’s a grammar post.

Thank you, Students! That makes my day!

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 11.48.32 AM

4. Students see the kinds of things that I post that connect to our class content.

Sometimes when I teach American Short Fiction, I post a quote from the work that I just love.

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!

Or I may be teaching a writing class and I’m excited about the way revision is explained in a text we’re reading or the way procrastination is presented as a normal part of the writing process. So I quote!

And the students in my classes see that I’m not reading just to read; I’m reading in order to take stuff out and make it a part of who I am and what I do. The students may be more likely to read for themselves if they see me reading that way.

Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion....
Yeah, this is what class time looks like on occasion….

5. Students see that I love my work.

The truth is, I do not always love my work. But I vent privately, not publicly. Clearly, those professors who vent about students online should not be FB friends with students.

When I do share about my work, I share about my love for my colleagues or students. I’m lucky enough to have lots of awesome moments in the classroom and beyond. We also do a lot of goofy jokester kinds of things in my workplace, and it’s good to share that kind of thing online.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 11.00.49 AM
An early photo of the English Department Mascot
Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 10.58.14 AM
Posing after we performed the Charlie Brown “Book Report” song during a campus Faculty Follies event.

I also write about my own joys and difficulties with research and writing. I share this sort of thing in classes as well, but it makes a difference for students to see that I’m sharing it with a wider public on FB.

research joy
research joy

6. Sometimes students message me quick questions about an assignment.

I know that some professors might not like this, but in my experience, these have never been inappropriate or lazy questions. It’s more the kind of thing that a student might ask when passing by me on campus that clarifies in a way that helps the student out and takes little time or effort on my part.

7. I’ve been able to stay in better touch with alumni.

I see alumni getting new jobs, accomplishing things, blogging, etc. Yay, alumni! I can even invite these alums back to campus for Career Day with current students. Or I can ask them about internship possibilities for current students. I know LinkedIn serves this purpose as well. But I do not really enjoy that site for some reason; I don’t browse there the way I browse my FB newsfeed.

Recently, I hooked up a student who who is thinking about teaching English in Japan with 2 students who are doing that exact thing right now. I messaged all 3 so they could communicate with each other. I actually need to ask the 2 students in Japan if I can take their answers to create a blog post for the English Department blog. That’s how great their info was.

8. I get to see lots of baby pictures and wedding pics. I always “like” these because I enjoy a newsfeed that’s full of babies and celebrations. Alums are just more likely to be at this stage of life than the other folks I’m connected with on FB.

9. I blog and have a YouTube channel, so students check out the way I’m using social media. I get to be a role model without forcing students to read/view my work.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 11.26.56 AM

And I have some students doing cool stuff with new media who end up being role models for me!

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10. I can invite students to events once they’re my FB friends, whether it’s a local poetry reading, an on-campus event, an English Club social.

Everyone likes to be reminded of the campus Flapjack Fest!

 

I’m sure there are more good things! But I’ll just stop and sum it all up. Facebook is one way of creating communities and connections. I’m glad to have students who are interested to be part of my community, seeing that I have siblings, reading about my crazy days, knowing that I love the ocean, and recognizing that who I am in the classroom is part of a bigger picture. And I’m also glad to be part of their communities, seeing students’ unbelievable struggles and celebrating their impressive accomplishments.

I know there are probably a lot of pitfalls that could happen when my students are also my Facebook friends. But on a regular basis, I experience the positive effects instead of the pitfalls.

Look! Laurie was once a child!
Look! Laurie was once a child!

“What do I do with these protests?”–the Addendum

This post will not make sense unless you read my earlier post (here). When I published that post, I felt like I had journeyed really far into someone else’s mind. But I also knew that the post didn’t represent my actual journey: From the very start, I was putting on a persona, and by the end of the post I was almost writing as myself, but not quite.

I’ve felt odd ever since I clicked on “Publish.” I’m concerned that people will not recognize the difference between the persona and my actual (evolving) views. So this Addendum is a clarification of

  • why I was motivated to write that post
  • what I learned
  • what I hope it might do for readers
  • my actual views, and reasons why they don’t fully match with the views of the persona

Why I wrote a blog post pretending I’m against #BlackLivesMatter protests

At some point in the last month, I read an article telling readers that it was okay to defriend or hide Facebook friends who espoused political views that made us cringe and feel yucky. It’s smart to surround ourselves with people who don’t make us anxious and crazy, not least because research shows engaging with people who think differently won’t actually change anyone’s mind.

“Yay!” I thought. “I don’t need to feel obligated to read things that make me uncomfortable or that challenge me to speak up. Life will be so much more pleasant!”

But next thing you know, I was reading blog postings that challenged white allies to be the ones to reach out to white anti-protesters. Spectra writes

the outrage you feel can in no way match my own and therefore you have way more emotional capacity than I do to talk some sense into the “other side.”

and

I need you to step up in a major way, and leverage the connections you DO have to address ignorance with conversation and interrogate white privilege with compassion.

“Damn!” I thought. “Damn.”

So when a Facebook friend from my high school days, “J,” wrote about Mike Brown and Eric Garner not being heroes and their deaths not being connected to race, I felt like I should write something, interjecting another perspective in the litany of comments that affirmed J’s perspective. J’s post was not extremist in that he acknowledged that excessive police force may have been used, and J showed open-mindedness by “liking” my comment that mildly pointed out how overwhelming racism is. No one else acknowledged that I had an alternate perspective, and that was that.

A few days later, another high school friend (“G”) posted something similar to J’s ideas, except she focused on the intentions of police officers (who do not go on shift with the intent to kill) and the intentions of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (who, she said, left their homes with the intent to commit crimes).

I couldn’t comment. Sorry, Spectra; I just couldn’t.

Part of the reason was because a Facebook comment is too short, and it’s not the place to tease out complexities.

And part of the reason was because I felt like I had no common ground to stand on. I kept thinking in oppositional ways to these Facebook friends—not just J and G, but many more, with many people being far more extreme and disrespectful in their statements. I didn’t know where to begin expressing the way I felt. I didn’t know how to talk with people whose world view seemed so different from mine.

That’s when I decided to write from the perspective of people I respected yet disagreed with—people like J and G. And that was the difficult part: putting my own perspective aside in order to move forward.

What I learned

But I learned something I didn’t know before, and that was the compassion I needed to afford the police officers who are caught in this racist culture, with a history of racial profiling and “stop and frisk” rules and lots more mechanisms for addressing poor urban crime than for addressing corporate crime.

I’m going to say a bit more about police officers below, but that is a start.

I hope my earlier post might help people understand others’ viewpoints

Honestly, I wrote it hoping to show people who don’t appreciate the #BlackLivesMatter protests the issues that are behind the protests. When I read the posts by J and G, I kept wondering, “What are they reading? Who are they talking to? How do they not know that life for African-Americans is different than life for white Americans? Do they have any African-American friends?”

That’s why the whole middle part of my post was sharing some sources that open a window onto black experiences in the U.S. I should be far more educated than I am, but I seem to have at least some awareness that is missing from a whole lot of white people.

Most of the people who responded to my post were liberal friends who support the protests. I hope that a) they don’t misread me as anti-protest and b) I helped them see anti-protest folks in a more open way. I think some kind of understanding is necessary to make things better.

My actual views

I don’t think Mike Brown and Eric Garner need to be perfect human beings—or even people who committed no crime—in order for their deaths to

  • be wrong
  • be part of a larger and ongoing pattern of racism
  • be part of a larger and ongoing pattern of excessive force from police officers

In my original post, I wrote about belonging to a circle of white friends in college who committed small crimes but never worried about arrest. I think small crimes should be addressed, but arrests should never put lives in danger.

Furthermore, the entire prison system is a mess in the U.S., and it is definitely racist, and it will take a good bit of legislation and change to make things better. Adam Gopnik writes:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.

In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

I believe the issue is more about racism than about excessive force from police officers, perhaps because I’m married to a retired state trooper and I know a lot about his former work. Of course, police are not the same everywhere, and I may be wrong.

I do believe in appreciating and celebrating police officers, the same way I believe in appreciating and celebrating teachers and firefighters and other people who have chosen careers because they want to make the world a better place. But that doesn’t mean mistakes and wrongdoing should not be addressed. In the cases of both Brown and Garner, the lack of indictments by the grand juries is unfathomable to me. There were too many questions and unknowns for these officers to avoid indictment. I don’t care what crimes Brown and Garner committed; unarmed people should not be killed by police officers, and when it happens, it deserves serious investigation. To do anything less dishonors not only the victims but also police officers themselves and the criminal justice system as a whole.

Why do I seem to privilege Brown and Garner and #BlackLivesMatter? Why don’t I first and foremost defend police officers and recognize their good intentions despite the mistakes that may have been made?

Because at the end of the day, I see the statistics and the patterns, and I know the odds are stacked against African-Americans. The odds are not stacked against police officers in the same way. Yes, police officers may be hurt or killed while on the job, and that is a serious risk. But that risk is part of the choice of being in law enforcement; it is part of the reason why I appreciate and celebrate police officers.

When black lives are at stake, it is not just about death but also about poverty and lack of education and employment dead ends. When black lives are at stake, it is usually not related to a career or a vocation or a noble calling. It is usually not a choice at all but rather a lack of choices.

People are protesting because serious change is needed. I have not protested, but I, too, know that serious change is needed. And I know we need to listen to all the messages that say as much. If loving the police is stopping us from listening, then we will continue to be in trouble. The divide will continue to grow.

Kate Sheppard / The Huffington Post
Kate Sheppard / The Huffington Post: Justice for All protest, D.C. 13 Dec 2014
jarchine / Instagram
jarchine / Instagram: Justice for All protest, D.C. 13 Dec 2014

What do I do with these protests?

If I don’t particularly like Mike Brown or Eric Garner, and I do like law enforcement, but I don’t consider myself racist, what do I do when people are saying, “I can’t breathe”? (an exercise in thinking through a perspective that is not my own but that is a perspective of people I respect)

Step One: I get angry

I rail against the ignorance of people who are engaged in protest.

  • I cite the white unarmed people who have been shot
  • I complain that Mike Brown’s death was given more attention by the president than the deaths of military veterans
  • I point out that slavery ended in the nineteenth century, so I’m tired of hearing about “white privilege,” especially when I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve earned

I don’t go around complaining about every unfair thing that has ever happened to me because that doesn’t get me anywhere. Instead, I work hard, and I do my best, and I don’t commit crimes, and I can lead a decent life.

Why don’t these protesters use their energy to make something of themselves instead of using it to complain that “things aren’t fair”? Race is only holding you back if you’re letting it hold you back.

Effects: My anger seems to connect me to others who think as I do, but it seems to create a wall when I speak with others; in a couple cases, people were speaking in measured ways, and when I started to go off, they turned away. I see some people ranting in this vein on Facebook and I “like” their posts, but some of the comments seem to dodge the point. I feel like my anger is not getting me anywhere; it’s just a dark lump sitting inside my stomach. I need to speak clearly and take action to get past this lump to a more productive place.

Step Two: I explain my position in a rational way

The facts are clear.

Mike Brown and Eric Garner committed crimes. The police officers were doing their jobs: fighting crime. Mike Brown and Eric Garner didn’t listen to the police officers and they resisted arrest. The police officers didn’t intend for anyone to die, but sometimes things escalate when people choose to commit crimes and then resist arrest.

The same thing could’ve happened to a person of any race or ethnicity. Stop saying it’s a race thing because those police officers are not looking for black men to kill; that is just not accurate or fair to those officers or police officers anywhere.

Grand juries considered each case, and neither officer was indicted. Justice was served. Why are we still discussing this?

Effects: Over 100 people liked my Facebook post in which I explained my position in a rational way. I feel validated. I’m not alone in believing that we should not persecute those police officers. Several people defriended me and called me racist, and that makes me angry. Cutting off the conversation is not the answer. Are they afraid to hear me? I am not satisfied. My current position is better than my anger, but there is still a wall. Do we really think that differently?

Step Three: I wonder why others don’t see the situation as I do

I wonder: Why are some of my (former Facebook) friends irrational?

The protests continue. It’s cold outside, but people are lying on the street. Some of my Facebook friends who did not defriend me are supporting the protests. They don’t seem to question the ethics of their position, even though I believe I could not have done a better job expressing why these protests are misguided.

I wonder: What is driving these protests? Mike Brown and Eric Garner cannot possibly be heroes to the protesters, can they?

Effects: The feeling in my belly is no longer a rock; it is now an itching. I feel divided from others in a way that is disheartening, and I need to find a way to connect. I am not one to keep quiet or retreat in the face of conflict (except temporarily, when I need to cool down). I am not overly impassioned right now, but I am uncomfortable. I probably cannot solve this conflict, but I can try to understand it, try to find common ground.

Step Four: I investigate to discover other points of view

I begin clicking on articles my protest-type Facebook friends are posting.

I hear individual stories that concern me. I can easily imagine being in the shoes of each person. I don’t know what it’s like to have such experiences, never mind to have such experiences regularly.

  •  a professor from Vassar explains how his faculty ID keeps him from being accused of serious crimes
  • a black homeowner in Connecticut is questioned when he’s shoveling his driveway
  • a mom says her 3-year old son was suspended from preschool, even though white children behaved in similar ways

And then I read of a white man who points out his history of illegal activity…and his opportunity to move forward with his life despite his shortcomings. I look hard at my own story. I think of the underage drinking, the drugs, the shoplifting that seemed like no big deal in my circle of friends in my undergrad years. I think of drinking by the St. Louis arch at midnight just a few years ago and laughing with my friends when the police arrived and we hid the bottle of wine next to a park bench. I think about being white and never considering arrest (or worse) as a possibility.

I learn patterns and statistics that seem overwhelming:

  • black people are far more likely to be imprisoned than white people, even for illegal drugs–even though white people use and sell illegal drugs at least as often as black people
  • this disparity starts in schools— preschool to elementary to secondary schools, and also in college admissions
  • wait, no: the disparity starts in homes; more African-American families live in poverty and that often means having more health problems and being exposed to more toxins
  • Oh, and the disparity also occurs in the workplace for black people, as reported here and here
  • some cities have policies and histories that encourage racial profiling (and often these practices do not discourage crime)

I read definitions of individual prejudice as distinct from institutional racism:

  • “race-based discrimination” or “prejudice” can happen to anyone because it involves being treated unfairly on an individual basis
  • “institutional racism” (also known as “systemic racism” or “structural racisim”) is based on groups of people instead of individuals; looking at the patterns and statistics above, it’s clear that, as a group, African-Americans have less power than white Americans…and it is these group patterns that seem to be at the heart of the recent protests.

Effects: I am shocked. I am sick to my stomach, really. I do not agree 100% with everything I have read, but I understand so much more than I did before. I see that these protests are about an ongoing frustration with the status quo. I see that my experiences are foreign to the experiences of others. I see that I am now positioned—that I have positioned myself—with one foot in one world and one foot in another. I see that I may be able to speak in ways that don’t build destructive walls. I see that such speaking is also always about listening.

Step Five: I explain my position in a rational way

Every time I mention the good intentions of police officers, I also explain that our country is facing systemic problems of racism, and if these issues aren’t addressed, police officers will continue to be caught in the cross-hairs.

I use the analogy of Vietnam War protesters to articulate my position. The soldiers were blamed for the problematic war, but they shouldn’t have been. They were caught in the middle of forces larger than they were.

I challenge my protest friends to clarify the actual issues that are being protested. Using cameras for constant surveillance of police officers will not get at the root of the socio-economic problems. The problems are problems of money, education, access. The problems are in a justice system that is ultimately unjust.

I tell people about a time systemic racism was clear to me and my students. I randomly gave students in a class one of four possible lists to generate in a 5-minute period:

  1. a list of people in history
  2. a list of women in history
  3. a list of African-Americans in history
  4. a list of African-American women in history

The result was exactly what you would expect. The first list was long and full of white men. The other three lists were shorter; the fourth list was the shortest of all. The students were sad, but they were not surprised.

One of my white students was horrified because she could name only 2 African-American women. I told her that her experience was an example of systemic racism. It takes a lot of work to overcome.

I want us to do this work together.

Effects: A lot of people think I support police officers too much and ask, “What about personal responsibility? What about accountability?”. A lot of people think I support African-Americans too much and ask, “What about personal responsibility? What about accountability?”. Sometimes my stomach knots in frustration. Sometimes people tell me they’re glad I’ve said something slightly different from what others have said. Sometimes people say it’s complex and tough to wrap our minds around. Sometimes I’m not aware of my belly at all because it’s not sending me danger messages. Sometimes I hear from a former student who teaches me, and I feel lucky that I can keep on learning.

Step Six: I hope

I work for empathy. I know that not listening is not an option. I listen and I speak, as best I can, in word and in deed. I appreciate those around me who are also working, who are also listening, who are also moving forward in empathy and justice.

Effects: Yet to be determined.

Speaking up on Facebook: When the political is personal…

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Last week, one of my former students posted on Facebook that she was disappointed: Inne of the Abingtons was one of the venues she liked for her wedding reception, but the owners refuse to host same-sex receptions.

Two FB friends shared the news on their pages to discourage people from using the venue. Then another person’s Inne of the Abingtons post received attention and was reported by several local publications, and those pieces were shared by lots of my local FB friends. I’ve heard people talking about the issue in real life on a couple of occasions in the last week as well.

I liked all the posts I saw that called out the Inne of the Abingtons for its terrible discriminatory policy. But I haven’t shared any of the posts. And I didn’t write about the local problem until now. The reason?

Because I know the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons.

I don’t know them well—I cannot even think of their first names. But I know their son’s first name, and I know their little girl is adorable, and I know that I would have said hello and been happy to see them if I ran into them.

The Inne of the Abingtons actually sponsored my son’s baseball team a few years ago. That means my son wore that name on his shirt for an entire season, endorsing and publicizing their business.

[Sidenote: What would I do if that were the case at the time I found out they refused to host the reception of a person I care about, and that refusal was because they judged her love as being unworthy? How could I continue to let my son wear that shirt? I guess I wouldn’t be able to, but it would be hard. It would cause a ruckus, and my kids would be embarrassed by me, and people would talk about me. But I think I would take a stand.

Or I like to think I would take a stand. It’s so hard to know, isn’t it?]

Okay, back to the situation at hand. I didn’t post a FB status calling out the Inne of the Abingtons.

In addition to me sorta knowing the family who owns Inne of the Abingtons, I imagine many of my Facebook friends know the family very well. So I feel hesitant about posting a status that would ask people not to take their business to the Inne of the Abingtons. To do so would feel mean. It would feel like I was targeting these people who have always seemed like nice, friendly, everyday good people.

But that’s not all, is it? I mean, it’s not just that I would feel mean. It’s really that I might seem mean to other people. Friends of the owners could easily be angry with me for targeting these nice, friendly, everyday good people who just think differently than I do.

I didn’t know that’s where I was going to end up when I started writing this post. I have more to say and to think through. But now that I know that my hesitancy to post a status is at least partly because I want people to like me, I feel ashamed.

It is not okay to look the other way or stay silent simply because conflict is uncomfortable.

***

After spending some time thinking and writing, I know that there’s more to it, so here’s some more context to frame my lack-of-an-anti-Inne-of-the-Abingtons status.

For a long time, I had an unofficial no-politics policy on Facebook. I wanted to connect with people and keep things positive, enjoy jokes, share stories, find out more about others’ lives, yada yada yada.

I actually have a lot of strong views, however, and as FB became a more politicized place, I found myself “liking” a lot of political posts. That’s a pretty low-key action: It shows support to others, but it’s not likely to bug any of my FB friends who may disagree with my politics. My happy place is just happier if all I do is “like.”

But “liking” didn’t feel like a strong enough gesture when I was inspired or impressed by something I saw or read. I wanted to share the eye-opening political stuff. I wanted others to see it, too! And as FB has grown, I’ve found more and more good stuff to share.

And when I’ve really cared about an issue and have felt very well-informed, I’m more likely to post about it myself, in addition to sharing what others have to say.

Sometimes it’s been easy. Most of my FB friends seem supportive of gay rights, so it’s easy to be supportive together. (Yeah, I know that seems ironic in the light of my worries that some of my FB friends would be unhappy with me if I were to call out the Inne of the Abingtons for their discrimination.)

At other times, it’s been difficult. I have both liberal and conservative (and, it turns out, libertarian) friends on FB, and my politics are decidedly liberal. One FB friend (who was a real-life friend from high school) told me she was defriending me because our “values and ideologies” are vastly different. I imagine others have silently defriended me or unfollowed my posts.

“Sharing” just doesn’t seem like “sharing” if I end up alienating people who think differently.

Then again, I’ve also had people go out of their way to tell me that they appreciated my blog posts and various articles I’ve shared. One friend told me she felt less alone because of my political posts. I know I’ve felt similarly because of what others have posted.

So. Where does this leave me?

Even if I alienate some people, I’ve decided that part of building community online is building community offline. And building community doesn’t mean pretending everything is always hunky-dory. Instead, it means addressing conflict. It means standing up when I see injustice. It means risking people not liking my posts—not liking me—and defriending me or unfollowing me because they don’t agree with my views.

It turns out that taking a stand was somewhat difficult in the past, but it’s even tougher if the people involved are close to home.

***

I’ve had major issues with Hobby Lobby and the insistence of the Green family on limiting access to contraceptive healthcare while claiming the right to religious liberty (you can see two early posts here and here). I will not shop there, and I have plotted some possible protest actions to discourage others from shopping there. (I haven’t carried these out, but they involved sidewalk chalk and the dissemination of facts, and it felt mighty good even planning the protest.)

Today, I chatted with my daughter about how I might feel if I knew the Green family personally. If I knew employees of Hobby Lobby who would end up unemployed if Hobby Lobby lost a lot of business. If I was somehow connected to the three-dimensional people involved in the case instead of collapsing the people into the single unjust stance that is almost all I know of the Green family or Hobby Lobby.

My response to the discriminatory policy of the Inne of the Abingtons helps me notice the limits of protest and boycotting. It is one thing to change a law or to force business owners to behave ethically by boycotting.

But what do I really wish for? What do most of us wish for?

Nothing short of changing the hearts and minds of others. We don’t want people to be forced to care about others and be respectful and supportive. We want people to do it of their own volition.

***

Yeah, I know. That’s not gonna happen.

But I still wish for it.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would realize that same-sex marriages are reasons to celebrate love and commitment and community. Just like different-sex marriages are.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons cared about individual people who identify as LGBTQ. Is there any way they could know the actual people and still refuse to host them? Could they see the hurt on the faces of people in love, and close the door anyway?

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would prioritize the lessons of the Bible that connect with the Golden Rules of other world religions.

I wish the owners of the Inne of the Abingtons would see that turning people away from the inn is not the right thing to do (even if they know the Bible well enough to know that the story of Jesus’s birth is not quite the manger story that’s often accepted…).

I wish it were easy to know what to do in the face of discrimination.

And I wish it were easy to do it. But it’s not.

 

 

 

 

 

Quick book reviews

I think it’s weird that this blog is titled “Laurie Mac Reads” and I hardly ever discuss books. And I LOVE to read! Especially in the sun.

Anyhow, here are some opinions of books. I try not to give anything away!

If you have book suggestions, let me know in the comments….

***

Flight Behavior
The Lacuna

both by Barbara Kingsolver

I just finished reading Flight Behavior. The start was slow, but it picked up a bit as the book went on. The characters were fairly realistic; as a matter of fact, I found myself calling them “people” instead of characters and had to go back and edit that sentence. Ha! In places, the book was preachy. I liked what it was preaching, so I didn’t mind terribly, but I do prefer when a story can let readers figure out most of the lessons on their own. I know there’s always the risk that readers won’t get the lessons, but still….

Also in that vein of criticism, in places the book had to work to educate readers. That kind of thing is just hard to pull off.

In the end, I liked the ideas and the characters and the plot itself was all right.

I read The Lacuna at least a year ago, and it was a weird kind of summer where I found myself reading several books about the Red Scare without ever planning to. There were also a lot of books about ravens in a row that same summer, but I don’t remember if there were any ravens in The Lacuna.

At any rate, The Lacuna got off to a slow start just as Flight Behavior did, but once I allowed myself to get swept into its current, it was amazing. Local humble stories mixed with great historic figures in ways that brought both fictional and historic characters to life. It’s a long book, with a lot to it, and I didn’t anticipate the ending. Definitely a good one, but you will need some patience at the start in order to reap the rewards.

***

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Hollow City

both by Ransom Riggs

I highly recommend both of these young adult books. They’re cool in that the stories are connected to vintage photos that appear in the books, and the info about the photos themselves is pretty awesome. The stories are fantasy to a great degree, but there’s lots of realistic and historical fiction elements as well. The WWII themes make me think of Chronicles of Narnia, except these ones don’t seem to be Christian allegories in any way that I can tell.

The one recommendation I have is to wait until the series is complete before delving into these books. I had a time lag between these two books, which made the second one just a bit more difficult for me because my memory was not completely sharp, and I discovered at the end of Hollow City that more are to come.

But, whether you wait for the whole series or not, these are totally worth it. The end of Hollow City took me completely by surprise. Well done.

***

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness  by Susannah Cahalan

I’m pairing these books because they’re both about lives being interrupted by brain issues. The former is a fictional account of a conditions caused by traumatic head injury, and the latter is a nonfiction first-person account of a severe mental condition that resulted from an unknown pathogen affecting the brain.

My short review: I got more out of Left Neglected, though in lots of ways the story is over-allegorical. That is, it may be too pat and easy at times instead of allowing messiness and unresolved details and fully pulling us into the scenes.

However, it may be because of those very qualities that I remember a lot of Left Neglected and find it inspiring. The book definitely helps me to slow down and look at my life in new ways. And it’s not super-preachy like Mitch Albom’s Five People You Meet in Heaven. A few women in my book group said they preferred A Stroke of Insight because it seemed more realistic (which makes sense, since it’s non-fiction :) ). I haven’t read that book yet, but I read Left Neglected twice. An easy read that made me think.

Brain on Fire was a good read, and it’s impressive that the writer put together her own story by doing a lot of research since during her mental illness she was not aware of what was happening. But the narrative didn’t grab me as much as the fictional piece did, maybe partly because the writer had to portray her family and boyfriend in wholly positive ways. I don’t love conflict in real life, but in books, well, it kinda pulls me in and moves me along. Portraying real people has got to be one of the biggest challenges in writing autobiography or memoir or whatever.

***

Paper Towns by John Green

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I paired these books because the major theme is similar across both of them: It is tough to figure out identities, our own as well as others, partially because we are so busy constructing who we are within social systems.

There’s more to it than that, but I basically enjoyed both of these books. Paper Towns is a young adult book, and it’s a quick and easy read. I liked that there was a degree of mystery to it, and I didn’t know how it was going to end.

Both books have characters who think a lot. They do stuff, too, but they do stuff while philosophizing. I’m good with that, but it might bug some people. I feel like I gave Flight Behavior a hard time for being preachy while I’m letting every other book off the hook, but sometimes the philosophizing works better than other times. Not sure why I’m mostly okay with it in these two books, but I am.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a French novel (though I read an English translation). It’s not a difficult read, but it’s not as easy as Paper Towns. It switches between a couple points of view, one of which is that of a young person named Paloma. I think Paloma would be friends with the narrator of Paper Towns if they got a chance to hang out together. I also think Lisa Simpson and Bobby from King of the Hill would be friends if they could hang out together, but that’s rather off-topic.

Elegance has a great bathroom scene. Seriously.

And I liked it because it was an unusual book, more so than any other I’ve reviewed today, except perhaps the Peregrine books because of the role the photos play.

I wasn’t crazy about the ending of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It seemed kinda melodramatic to me. Sometimes I think it’s difficult to end things with closure when real life just kinda goes on….