Imperfect Serenity

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Wednesday, May 31, 2006


I’ve been trying to swim lately, since the gym elliptical has been irritating my heel spur. Unfortunately, the crowded pool has been irritating my spirit. First, there’s my reluctance to share. I’d much rather head down the lane without having to watch out for oncoming traffic. But part of my reluctance comes from the fact that I can’t count on the person I’m sharing with to really give me half the lane. The last guy I swam with seemed to make no effort to stay on his side, and since he was bigger than me, my swim was not very meditative. The next time I started swimming alone and found myself keeping my head down so as not to make eye contact with the next woman to arrive after the other lanes were full. I realized that this was exactly what had happened to me the previous time when none of the three swimmers had acknowledged or made room for me. So I nodded and moved over, a little disappointed. Today I used a bike, which I had all to myself.

Why is sharing so hard? From the lanes at the swimming pool to the big table at my favorite coffee shop, lately I’ve been observing adults reluctant to share. I don’t know if this should make me feel better or worse about the prospects for my children, who at least are more honest about their greed than most adults.

The most shocking example of greed I’ve heard lately was in a story about the guys at Enron, who finally got their comeuppance. Apparently part of what swayed the jury was the fact that Ken Lay had cashed in his own stock, while assuring his employees that the company was doing fine. The case was evidently full of examples of Lay and Skilling putting their own interests above those of people who needed the money more than they did. As one juror put it, they are “greedy people.”

If Ken Lay personifies greed, a story in Women’s Slave Narratives exemplifies generosity. One writer recalls a night she and her hungry siblings watched their mother scrape together a meal for them. The Civil War had just ended, and their mother had rescued them from the plantation that she had fled before the war. The newly reunited family didn’t have enough food to fill their own bellies, but when a white widow showed up at the door with her own hungry brood, the black mother graciously offered the other women’s children an equal share, to the disappointment but everlasting impression of her own hungry daughter.

I read this story yesterday and then later in the day caught a bit of Oprah’s show on the risks of a global pandemic (If not bird flu, it will be something else, the expert said.). We were told that we should have enough food in our houses to survive four weeks, which immediately got me wondering how I would react if we had food and our neighbors didn’t. I’d like to think I’d share, but what if my children were hungry? What if sharing meant risking exposure to the disease? Where does my responsibility to my family end and my responsibility to my neighbors begin? It’s a bit too easy to look down on Ken Lay.

It’s interesting to me that the former slave found it easier to share (with a Confederate widow, no less) than the Enron executive. I don’t want to glorify poverty, but it does seem that the less we have the more we realize our dependence on other people, a dependence we all share, whether we are poor or not. That, in fact, was the point of Oprah’s show. It’s the interdependence of our world economy that now makes us vulnerable to events that could disrupt our food supply. We need each other, whether we realize it or not.

Yesterday a mother from my kids’ school was talking about the hopes some people have for building a bigger gym that could also be used as a performance space. That way we wouldn’t have to borrow a local church when our kids have a concert, and our kids wouldn’t have to move out of the way during gym when the milk man delivers the school milk. My friend noted, and I agree, that maybe it’s OK that our kids have to move for the milk man. Maybe it’s OK that they don’t live in a perfect world, because how else are they going to learn to be resourceful? I sometimes use the same logic when my kids start arguing in the back seat of the car, telling myself that they are learning to share and deal with conflict. Maybe it’s true. I was an only child, and I don’t like to share my pool lane.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Meeting for Soup

I rarely help out with the children during Quaker meeting for worship, but they needed a substitute last Sunday, so I volunteered. In the days leading up to my big teaching gig, I received two phone calls from our very efficient coordinator and e-mails from four members of the Religious Education Committee, including an attachment with my lesson plan all spelled out. So it was pretty funny when another teacher and I finally sat down with the kids, and the lesson plan was derailed within a few minutes.

The stated objective of the lesson was “to explore how the choices we make about our food affect our relationships with the earth, each other and with God.” We were given a series of questions to discuss, with pieces of paper to record our answers that had large cookies printed on one side. We were then supposed to make vegetable soup, after reading the book Stone Soup (the moral of which is that people should share).

Before I even asked the first question about food, the seven-year-old daughter of the woman who had designed the lesson raised her hand and suggested that we give our soup to the homeless families that will be staying in our meeting house soon. Many children nodded in agreement, but then someone else reminded us that there was a business meeting happening that day, and maybe the people staying for that would like our soup. The woman who fixes the food for the business meeting was walking by, so she was called in for a consultation. We were told that the business meeting had plenty of food and that we could certainly freeze our soup for the homeless families. But then someone else suggested that we should get to taste the soup before we give it to the homeless families, while several other hands went into the air from children eager to suggest alternative ways to divide the soup. It was just like an adult Quaker meeting for business: wonderfully inclusive and frustratingly time consuming.

I pointed out that if the discussion went on too long, we wouldn’t have any time to make the soup, so one girl suggested they all put their heads down and raise their hands to show which option they favored. She explained that putting their heads down would keep people from just copying their friends, like the girl at her school who always copied her. I affirmed that would be a quick solution, but asked if anyone could explain why Quakers don’t generally vote to solve such problems. A nine-year-old whose family is relatively new to Quakerism gave a wonderful explanation of how Quakers try to listen to that of God in every person and find a solution that everyone can be happy with, rather than voting, which might leave the losers unhappy.

Eventually we made vegetable soup. Several children, in their excitement over being given knives, chopped the carrots before they were peeled. Others complained that they needed more space on the cutting boards. The Kindergartener with the potato struggled with the peeler, so the potato went in last, leaving us a few minutes before the soup was actually edible. We sat down in a circle again to see if we could fit in any of the official lesson.

We never did get to use the papers with the cookies printed on them, but the children themselves brought up the cruelty of large slaughterhouses, the destruction of the rainforest in order to produce hamburgers, and the evil (and deliciousness) of fast food. Somehow the lesson, like the soup in the book and our own vegetable soup, turned out alright. Even more miraculously, the children mostly cleaned their bowls of the samples they were given, broccoli and all. The rest was saved for the homeless, and I left feeling pretty good about the next generation of Quakers.

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Mother's Shadow

Yesterday Luke did cartwheels on my mother’s grave. The weirdest thing about it was that the grass hadn’t fully grown back yet, so we could see the rectangle traced like a shadow. We let Luke do cartwheels, but scolded him when he started climbing on the headstones, so he ran off to climb a nearby tree while Megan, Tom, and I said a prayer for my mom.

Afterwards, at the Chinese restaurant where they took me for Mother’s Day, I asked the children if they thought of my mom much. Megan said, “Sometimes. It’s weird to wonder where she is. Is she just hanging out with God and all the other dead people? Or maybe she’s right behind me, or right in front of my face?” She got a quizzical look.

Luke added, “Maybe she’s under your butt!” And of course they laughed.

Tom noted that grandma had always liked to get out and see new things, so maybe she was visiting other planets. Then he said to Luke, “Or maybe she’s in your heart.” He made his wild Jim Carey eyes, as if this were a much weirder idea that being on another planet or under someone’s butt.

I don’t feel my mother’s presence the way some bereaved do. She was never sentimental, and I can almost imagine her telling the angels, “Oh, they don’t need to hear from me anymore. Just leave them in peace!” But of course we’re reminded of her often. This morning when I saw the rain, I put on her old purple rain coat and found some of her tissues in the pocket. A weird thing, the folded tissues of a dead person. I don’t think they were ever used, just carried around as a precaution. She hadn’t gone out much in the last year, so the tissues could easily be a year and a half old. Maybe two.

I hadn’t thought of Mother’s Day as a special time to grieve, but people kept asking me if it was a hard day for me, so that got me feeling a little bad that it wasn’t. I know I’m still coming to terms with my mother, and I’m sure that process will continue for a long time. For the time being, I just see glimpses of her impact on my life, like shadows traced in the grass.

A good friend from college sent me this link to an article about her own mother, who died around ten years ago, I think. I’m not ready to write something like this myself, but I enjoyed it and pass it on.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Identity Talk

We were driving up Germantown Avenue when Luke asked if Halloween was a long way away because he was hoping his hair would be long enough to have a thin pony tail in back like the jedis in training because next Halloween Luke wants to be a spy/jedi (a combination Luke says no one has ever been for Halloween before). Luke’s hair is already pretty shaggy, so I said if he lets me cut most of it for summer, he can keep a thin pony tail in back.

It’s not that often that Megan sweetly offers to help her younger brother, so there was something touching about it when she said, “Luke, if you’re ever going out and don’t want people to see your pony tail you could borrow my bobby pins and pin it up.” However genuine her intentions, Megan’s offer included the implication that there was something embarrassing about a boy with a pony tail, a point that Luke picked up on and decided to challenge. Soon they were embroiled in a backseat argument over whether boys should have long hair.

Luke (who is now seven) held his ground. He named men who had long hair. He argued that no one should have the right to tell him he couldn’t have long hair. He pointed out that there were some things that mostly boys liked, but that didn’t mean that girls couldn’t like them too, just as there were things that mostly girls liked, but that didn’t mean boys couldn’t like them too. This was probably the most articulate argument Luke had ever made, so when Megan was unconvinced, I decided to weigh in.

“You know, Megan,” I said. “A long time ago girls weren’t allowed to wear pants. I bet you wouldn’t have liked it if you were told you couldn’t wear pants.”

“That is exactly what this is like,” said Luke, obviously feeling vindicated.

I’m enjoying this new phase of childhood when they can really say what they think, even if I don’t always agree with them. When Megan saw that I was reading the book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? she said confidently, “Well, that’s not true in my school.” Even on the days when children didn’t have to follow the teacher-assigned seating, Megan pointed out, everyone sat together. “Except for the boys and girls,” she added with a giggle. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this book says the real racial segregation typically starts in adolescence.

I am finding Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book to be very thought provoking and well written (as opposed to some of the academic literature I’ve been reading lately). Some of my favorite parts so far are when she answers her son’s questions. For example, once when he was four and had asked a question about race in the supermarket, Tatum, who is African American, gave a response that led to the great kingdoms of Africa. Her son interrupted, “If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?” Tatum hadn’t planned to explain slavery in the supermarket, but her response was truthful, simple, and expressed the dignity of all those who resisted slavery along with the unfairness. I wish my supermarket answers were as well put as hers.

Tonight at dinner Megan mentioned that two of her classmates did a presentation on slavery, which led my children to speculate on how nice they would have been to their slaves had they ever had any. When I explained that their was no such thing as owning someone nicely, they switched to the word “servant” and assured me that if they ever had servants they would pay them really well and let them have lots of time off. (Luke added that he would like to have a butler, but when he gave the job description it sounded suspiciously like what I already do for free.) What struck me, and what I pointed out to them, was that they were both assuming that they would be the owners/employers, not the slaves/servants. When I asked them to imagine being a slave and then to imagine hearing someone say, “I’ll be really nice to you and let you have some time off,” they immediately saw the other side of it.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” is mostly about identity development. Thinking about our family’s recent conversations it’s clear that at seven and nine, my children already have internalized many messages about their roles in the world, both in terms of gender and race. I take some encouragement from Tatum:
Our children’s questions may make us uncomfortable, and we may not have a ready response. But even a missed opportunity can be revisited at another time. It is never too late to say, “I’ve been thinking about that question you asked me the other day…” We have the responsibility, and the resources available, to educate ourselves if necessary so that we will not repeat the cycle of oppression with our children.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Literacy and Complicity

I’m reading an amazing book at the moment called Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. After 155 pages of terrible stories that none of us learned in school, I finally got to the chapter called “Hated Heros,” which included two stories that jumped out at me.

First was the tale of Prudence Crandall who started a Connecticut school for girls (white girls, it went without saying) in 1831. When a free black woman asked to attend, Prudence consulted her Bible and landed on a passage that talked about comforting the oppressed. She admitted the young woman and, after most of the white students withdrew in protest, decided to specialize in educating “young ladies and little misses of color.” After multiple threats of violence and a court case that foreshadowed the Dred Scott decision, the school was destroyed by an angry mob, and the teacher was driven to move to Kansas.

The second was the tale of Elijah Lovejoy, a St. Louis minister who also ran a newspaper. For most of his life, Lovejoy was a gradualist, believing that slavery should end “someday.” But the minister was transformed when he saw the burnt body of a free black man who had been killed by a mob. His editorials became more urgent and abolitionist, his criticisms of those who kept silent about slavery more pointed. After offended whites destroyed his printing press, Lovejoy moved to Illinois and got another one. Before it had printed a single paper, however, an angry mob killed the minister and hacked the printing press to pieces.

There are probably many lessons in these stories, but what struck me was the power of literacy. That a school for black females and a printing press could inspire such fear and anger is a testimony to the power of the written word. The defenders of slavery knew it was important to control who could read and who could write. They were willing to kill for that control.

Nearly two centuries later, I think about what has changed, and what hasn’t in the US. Legal segregation of schools ended over fifty years ago, and there is now free public education for all. But that education is often sub-standard, and it’s still black students who are most likely to be shut out of literacy. Just now on the noon news, I heard that two students were shot on their way to school this morning in one of Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods. That doesn’t sound like an optimal learning environment.

Likewise, we have a “free press,” at least compared to China and Zimbabwe. But in reality the major media outlets are owned by a few powerful corporations who still have an interest in what gets said. The Internet is a refreshing alternative, at least for those with access to computers. If anyone were to destroy my laptop to prevent me from blogging, I could always log on at the local library. Still, I have a smaller audience than Elijah Lovejoy had in the 1830s.

I don’t think I’ve conveyed to my children the privilege and power of literacy, but after reading Complicity I think I will. Luke’s reading is improving, but it’s still a struggle—not nearly as much fun as climbing on the car. Megan now likes to read, but for her it’s entertainment, nothing more. I want them to realize what they are getting along with their education: access to information, opportunity, and a public voice, which includes the ability and the responsibility to speak up for what is right.

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