Gray Matters

When it comes to matters of Black and White, there is much gray in between. I am reminded of this every day on social media, television, at work. I was reminded of it when my brother texted me close to midnight recently and said he needed to talk. My brother has never texted me that late before.  I can talk now, I told him. Is everything okay? My mother’s family hurt me, he said, but let’s talk tomorrow. 

My brother is technically my half-brother. Put another way, he’s my brother from another mother, my father’s second (now ex) wife. He is the father of a beautiful, vivacious six year old daughter who has a Black mother. He is the White father of a Black daughter and for the first time since her birth he is beginning to understand what this means for him and for her.

The email chain his mother’s family, all of whom grew up down south, was passing around started with a long diatribe from an 80 year old aunt against NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem. Others chimed in and the chain became one big bashing session against spoiled, rich players who disrespect the American flag.

These are the people who, when I was 11 and went to Atlanta for Christmas with my father and stepmother, introduced me to Gone with the Wind and were proud to take me to Kennesaw Mountain and a Confederate Museum. They were proud because the Confederacy was part of their Southern heritage and it tickled them to educate me, a New England Yankee, about it.

I admit as an impressionable young girl, the romantic picture they portrayed fooled me for a while. From the time I was 11 until about 13, I read Gone with the Wind over and over until I lost count of how many times. Although I knew that owning slaves was wrong, being White allowed me to ignore that part of the story in favor of Scarlett O’Hara’s saga of survival and misguided love.

My brother was no different. Before my niece’s birth, before she came to him crying that she was afraid the police were going to take away her mommy, before he saw how excited she got when a group of peaceful protestors marched through their quiet, small town chanting Black Lives Matter, and she started to chant, too, and said Daddy, you say it, too, he would have ignored the email, by his own admission. He no longer has that option. Instead, he is grappling with how to educate himself, and his extended family, so that he can be the best, most supportive father to his little girl.

He spent days composing an email response that attempted to educate his family about the history and legacy of American slavery, systemic racism, segregation, etc. from a Black perspective (to the extent he was able) and why it might compel some players to take a knee. He sent each new draft to me for review. I wouldn’t share that video, I’d say, your Aunt (a devout Christian), will be offended by the profanity and not see past it. And, You don’t have to convince them of anything. Just say that you love our flag, too, but as the father of a Black daughter, you also see things from a different perspective. There was the not so helpful, Why don’t you point out to them that it’s ironic they’re so proud of the confederacy, traitors that seceded from the United States and declared war on and killed Americans, yet they have a problem with some guy kneeling to silently protest the treatment of Blacks? 

His efforts and my feedback were for naught. His mother insisted on reading his email response and begged him not to send it. She felt it would cause too much pain in the family. His attempt to speak his truth and stand up for his daughter was effectively shut down.

The American Flag on my house.

I admit that when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, sending the country in an uproar, I barely paid attention. I do not like football, never watch it, not even the Superbowl, and blew it off as sports-related drama. Someone, I cannot remember who, asked me once how I felt about it and I shrugged. It didn’t matter to me either way. Stand, take a knee, whatever. Just because I stand for the National Anthem, and place a hand over my heart, doesn’t mean everyone has to. My grandfather served in WWII, my father and a brother also served, so this is important to me. I am not personally offended by people who choose differently. I don’t know their story.

My brother’s text and subsequent emails forced me out of indifference. I asked myself, what would drive me to the point that I would protest the flag of my country?

The very fact that I shrugged and thought, whatever, is a privilege most Black Americans don’t have. I realized I have a responsibility to understand. I Googled, Why do NFL players take a knee? I learned that taking a knee has a long history in America’s Civil Rights history. That players used to be in the locker room during the Anthem, until the United States Department of Defense started giving the NFL lots of money to promote patriotism.

Each of us views life and its many facets through the lens of our own experience. It is human nature to do so. Some of us, however, are so fixed in our mindsets that we cannot or will not see another’s perspective. Being in black or white, right or wrong, is simpler, cleaner, affirming. Gray matters get messy and murky. They force us to examine things that are complicated and uncomfortable. Yet gray is the space where learning and growth, and new ways of seeing and being, take place, if we are willing to go there.

 

 

 

 

The Horror!

“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!’” ~Kurtz’s last line in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

How was your week? Mine had some horrifying moments. Like when I realized I completely ruined my blog. When I found out my neighbors have a slaughterhouse in their basement. Neither of these moments was more horrifying, though, than turning myself into human jerky.

I’ll start with the blog. Last week, I decided to clean up my media library and delete some of the photos. Sounds positive, right? Cleaning up, letting go, all that good stuff. Until that horrifying moment when I remembered that when you delete photos from the library, they are deleted from your blog posts, too.

Horror turned to despair as I sifted through post after post and saw gray spots where once there were photos. To make matters worse, so many of my posts are directly related to the photos that without them, the words don’t make much sense. I was able to add some photos back – a long, grueling process that required scrolling through thousands of photos on my iPhone, emailing them to myself, downloading them to my Chromebook, uploading them to the library, and inserting them back into my posts. I’m sure there must be an easier way of doing this, but I have yet to figure it out. Some of the posts are so old that I may never be able to retrieve the photos because they’re on my near-dead, virus-infected laptop. The very idea of dealing with that, and this whole blog mess, horrifies me so much that I’m going to ignore it for a while. Which brings me to the next horrifying moment.

Wednesday night I learned that my neighbors have a slaughterhouse in their basement. The revelation came during a Zoom Zoning Board of Appeals Hearing my husband and I attended on Wednesday night. We were there to oppose the neighbor’s request for a variance to keep chickens on their double occupancy property, which is not allowed in our small city. This chicken ordeal has been going on for two years. The coop is two feet from our property line, along which runs our driveway, and next to our driveway is our patio. The neighbors do not properly clean the coop and at times the smell is unbearable. Often we have not been able to enjoy our patio and have had to move outdoor gatherings inside because of the horrible smell. Then there is the matter of the chicken waste they keep throwing in a pile against our fence, which is now collapsing in places. Since the chickens arrived, for the first time in over 20 years of living in this home, we see rodents, dead and alive, in our yard. The town sent a cease and desist order to them for the chickens two years ago, but they didn’t comply and our communications went ignored by the zoning enforcement officer, until finally I went over his head and emailed the Director of ALL Zoning.

These are the same neighbors I called animal control on several years ago when I discovered, to my horror, at least 25 rabbits in small cages sweltering under a tarp in their yard during a heat wave. I had gone behind our garage, which is detached and set way back from our house, and there they appeared, like something out of a Stephen King novel. They were forced to get rid of all the rabbits except a handful, per zoning laws.

Once when the chickens got loose and ended up in our yard. I really was rooting them on.

Given their track record, I shouldn’t have been shocked when, during the hearing,  our neighbor admitted, in response to a question, that she uses the chickens for eggs and meat. But I was. A board member asked the question that had to be on everyone’s mind, “Where do you, um, prepare them for meat?”

“The basement.”

The silence that filled the Zoom meeting was without doubt one of collective horror. All five board members denied the variance and the neighbors have 10 days to get rid of the chickens. I imagine they’ll be stacked in a freezer soon.

Moving on, to my abject horror I turned myself into human jerky through my own carelessness. I don’t know what I was thinking when I spent four hours at the beach last Saturday without putting on sunblock. Usually I do, and sit under an umbrella most of the day. But it was pretty windy, so it didn’t feel too hot, and the umbrella likely would have blow away. I have olive skin and don’t burn easily, so I thought I would be okay. Not. I have been in agony all week from this sunburn. I had to wear a strapless bra for two days because my shoulders could not withstand straps. I have been slathering aloe vera that I keep cold in the fridge all over me, and still areas of my skin are starting to peel. Peel! I haven’t peeled from sunburn since, well, I don’t think ever. I am so mad at myself. At my age, the last thing I should be doing is allowing my fragile, aging skin to shrivel up like dried out, dehydrated meat. I learned my lesson the hard way, but my poor, old skin may never recover.

Oh, the horror of it all!

So, how was your week?

Pet Peeves

You know how bad things tend to happen in threes? I have a theory about this: Better to get them over with at once instead of having them spread out ruining your life at regular intervals. That’s how I’m going to vent about my pet peeves here. I’ve picked my top three and I’m unleashing them at once.

Pet Peeve # 1: Passive Aggressive People
Just stop! Say what you mean, mean what you say, and stop with the convoluted behaviors. I have a co-worker who, every time he’s about to criticize someone, prefaces it with, I hate to be negative but… No, you don’t hate to be negative. You revel in putting others down. But instead of being direct about it, you try to soften it with a preface and a fake I’m-really-a-nice-guy grin. I see through you. Then there’s my husband who, no matter how many times since I’ve been working from home and asked him, politely, to please communicate with me before he takes my car to work takes it anyway, without a word, leaving me stranded since I won’t drive his boat of a truck and he knows it. Just. Stop.

Pet Peeve # 2: People Who Think They’re Always Right
You are not always right. Let me say that again. You are not always right! No one is always right all of the time, every day of their life. No one! People like this bug me because they are not teachable. They don’t want to learn.  They just want to be right. Being right is the most important thing to them. More important than learning and growing and trying to see others’ perspectives. More important than having friends even, since no one likes a know-it-all who thinks they’re never wrong. Go away!

Pet Peeve # 3: Everyday Martyrs
We all know them. Maybe on occasion we’ve been one. But true everyday martyrs have mastered their roles. They could win an oscar with their long-suffering performances. Mothers and mothers-in-law are often the worst, or maybe it’s the best, martyrs. Cleaning up all the Thanksgiving dishes while everyone else lays around in a turkey stupor, banging and clanking pots and plates for attention, yet nobody hears or cares. Pretending it’s okay that their husband forgot their birthday, but spending the day sighing loudly in a woe-is-me way. Making sure everyone knows how hard they work, how much they do, and how unappreciated they are. Get over it! Ask for help with the dishes. Go buy yourself a birthday gift. Stop doing for everyone if it’s making you miserable. There is nothing to gain by being a martyr except negative attention that people, after a while, will completely ignore. 

There, I got that off my chest. Three pet peeves at once, so I’m not venting too much at regular intervals. I’m dying to know: What is your biggest pet peeve?

Isn’t She Lovely?

This photo makes me smile, mostly because I want to be that old woman. I have always believed that the ultimate freedom is being yourself. It is a freedom many of us will never fully know. Yet with this freedom comes power. In this old, eccentric lady, I see power that no one can take away. It’s the kind of power that comes with loving and accepting yourself as you are, and expressing who you are, without apologies, excuses, or justification.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

I think it would, which got me humming this old Stevie Wonder tune. Hope you enjoy!

Living Our Values

When a former student of mine, now a young woman in her late twenties who is bi-racial (black and white), shared this question on Facebook last week, I had a choice: respond or keep scrolling.

It was a provocative question. I might have passed over it, if not for her adding: This is not a rhetorical question, I really want to hear.

I didn’t want to respond. Matters of race can be contentious. Especially for white people who want to pretend they don’t exist, or who just don’t know what to say and figure saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing.

My finger hovered over the post. I knew she was hurting from yet another senseless murder of a black American man. Many of my colleagues of color were hurting, too, as was clear in their posts. Responding with a sad or angry emoji seemed wholly  inadequate.

Though I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, I placed my finger in the comment box and began to type: We live in a diverse neighborhood and I value this. My little street has every race and multiple ethnicities within the races represented. We also have an interracial couple, a lesbian couple, and the black family across the street adopted two white kids….I truly value diversity and feel it is a strength of our country.

I said more, but I want to focus on this part because I think many people talk a good talk, but don’t walk the talk. Normally, I would consider this none of my business, but lately I’ve noticed a lot of people saying one thing with their words, and another with their actions (or memes) which, as the cliche states, speak louder than words.

I know people that claim to value diversity, but live in neighborhoods where everyone looks and sounds like them. They send their kids to schools where everyone looks and sounds like them. All of their friends look and sound like them.

I know people who would never consider themselves xenophobic, yet post memes that say things like Don’t buy from China. One person I know who did this forgot that the American daughter of her good friend is married to a Chinese man, lives in China with him, and that their toddler,  the friend’s granddaughter, is half-Chinese. She forgot that she is Facebook friends with the daughter and the husband until he, not unkindly, wished her good luck trying to buy anything, for example her car, that doesn’t contain some parts made in China.

One might argue it is the Chinese government the woman has a beef with, not the Chinese people. Tell that to the husband, his wife, his child, and the friend.

Things get ugly fast when we don’t live by the values we claim to possess.

I know people who value Christianity, yet their values seem not to extend  to loving their neighbors as themselves, not if the neighbors don’t look like them or practice their religion or come from another country.

I know people who claim to value children and family, just not when they come to America seeking asylum. Then it’s okay for them to be separated and placed in cages indefinitely.

Things get ugly fast when you point these inconsistencies out to people.

In all fairness, some people may value the rule of law more than their Christian values. But who is making the laws and what are their values? What is government anyway at its core, but a set of values that guide a nation?

I responded to my former student’s post instead of scrolling by it because I want to live my values. I responded to the question because I want to be part of the solution, even if it means being uncomfortable or vulnerable. I knew no matter what I said, she wouldn’t be unkind, but there was a risk. I could lose her respect forever.

She loved my comment and thanked me for standing in the gap. I hadn’t lost her respect, or even her love, but I was appropriately humbled, and saddened to realize that standing in the gap was probably the most I would be able to offer.

I believe that one of the reasons matters of race, religion, sexism, xenophobia, and politics get so contentious is because they force us to reckon with our values. When the values we believe we have and the values we actually live don’t align, we become defensive.

We owe it to ourselves, our neighbors, our colleagues, our students, and especially to our children to conduct a thorough inventory and examination of our values. Are we really living what we say we believe or is it possible that our actual lives are truer reflections of our deepest beliefs?