Brushes with Blackness: Best Friends and Bullies

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ClearClearClear

Second in series in how Black lives and Black culture colored my Whiteness.

As a child I was completely color blind. I know today people would say that was unlikely. Or even problematic. White people declaring they are color blind is seen as a kind of whitewash, or cop-out, a way to refuse to deal with the problem of systemic racism. People of color born into racist societies do not have the luxury of being color blind.

But it is my recollection of my personal experience as a young child. Certainly I saw differences in skin color, but it meant no more to me than differences in body size, hair color, gender, age. I assigned no value to these things other than appreciating that there was difference. It was a natural part of life.

My first “brush with Blackness,” as I call it, happened in third grade. We were living in Omaha, Nebraska in the late 50’s, in an old haunted house that I write about in another series of blog posts.

On the school playground I befriended an older girl named Barbara in the 4th grade who happened to be Black. She was kind and fun and we shared a love of books. As she lived nearby, sometimes she walked home with me, and occasionally came to my house to play. Eventually she became my best friend. She was beautiful, tall and slim and had the loveliest smile. One day she invited me to her house to spend the night.

I only found out later what a ruckus that created between my mother and stepdad, who did not like the idea at all. But my mother insisted that I should be allowed to go. She met with Barbara’s mom, a nurse at the local hospital only a few blocks away. She was also a beautiful woman, fuller figured than her daughter, but with the same upswept hair and regal bearing, the same sweet smile and soft, warm voice.

It was my first sleepover and I was so excited. Barbara lived in a large home with several stories and a basement. Lots of her relatives lived there with her, including an uncle younger than she was, a fact that amazed and delighted me. How was such a thing possible? He was a fresh-faced boy with cute grin who liked to tease us. At dinner time we all sat around a huge dining room table eating the most delicious food I had ever tasted—barbequed pork ribs that melted off the bones. Everyone was friendly and laughed a lot, and made me feel a part of the family. My first sleep-over was a huge success.

But later that month I learned in a very personal way what racism was all about. In those days it was popular to wear dresses with full petticoats that made them flare out. While I loved them, they were also a nuisance. When I walked down the aisle of my classroom the dress would swish papers off desks if I wasn’t careful. So I got into the habit of holding the sides of my dress in when passing between desks or in crowded hallways. It seemed the polite thing to do so I wouldn’t be bothering anyone.

One day I was walking home from school on a narrow sidewalk. The girls in front of me were walking slower than I wanted to go, so I passed them by, politely pulling in my skirt as I did so. When I was in front of them, one of the girls began yelling at me and calling me names. Then she kicked me and made me fall. All I remember is being so hurt and angry and scared. I took off running as they laughed at me. When I got to the corner (my home was only a few houses away down the adjacent block) I turned around and yelled back at her the worst name I could think of, the one my mother had told me to never call anyone. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I felt she deserved it. I called her the N-word.

The next day I was called into the Principal’s office. My mother was there along with the girl who had kicked me and her 6th grade teacher. I thought we were there because she was in big trouble for being so mean to me. But instead I found out that I was in big trouble for calling her that horrible name. It seems she had thought I was holding my skirt in because I did not want it to touch her black body. And the fact that I had called her the N-word proved it. My mother explained that I did not know what that word meant, that I had nothing against Blacks. My best friend was Black.

Barbara and her mother came in to testify in my defense, and I was so grateful to see them there. Barbara told me later that the girl who kicked me was a bully who was always getting into trouble. She came from a bad home and her teacher was trying to help her.

I can’t remember what happened after that. Whether the girl and I had to apologize to each other or what the consequence was. Barbara and I remained friends. But I never got another sleepover at her house.

My colorblindness was shattered that day in the Principal’s office. Skin color became a thing that tainted all of us, me most of all. My whiteness set me apart from my Black friends. It made me suspect. It tainted me with the guilt of my forefathers and of my own prejudiced step-dad and other family members. It did not change my feelings for my Black friend or her kind family. But it changed my feelings for that Black girl who kicked me. I learned how my whiteness had marked me as a member of a race whose prejudice had scarred her, and how I had unwittingly contributed to that. I had a crash course in race relations, and from what I could see it was the White race, who had enslaved and oppressed others who were the tainted race, not the people who we had oppressed and continued to discriminate against.

Not long after that my stepdad was transferred to Vandenburg Airforce Base on the central coast of California. There were no Black children in the school I attended there, and very few in the small town I grew up in.

I feel for the girl who had kicked me, the hurt and outrage she must have felt as I passed her holding in my skirt, calling her that name. I feel for my friend and her mother, that they had been put into the position of defending me against another Black child, even a trouble-maker. I wonder what damage I did to race relations in that family who had welcomed me into their home with such loving-kindness, only to hear about what I had called another child, and feel betrayed.

The experience only deepened my empathy toward others and my commitment to fight for equality and justice for all people, whatever our race or ethnicity, gender or faith, economic status or sexual preference. But it also made me realize how easily we can misjudge each other, how a sense of injustice (hers and mine) can make us say or do hurtful things, things we wouldn’t if we knew better. How difficult it is to win trust and sustain it.

The worldwide protests against racial injustice, the insistence that Black Lives Matter, the kneeling of police officers with protesters, the public outrage against the senseless, violent deaths of Black men and women, make me hopeful that change is possible, that change is coming. None of us are free until all of us are free. That’s a lot of freedom yet to win. We’ve no time to lose.

Brushes with Blackness, 1

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Jerry Holt / AP

All of us who are white in America were born into a country steeped in racism. Even for those of us who were taught that racism is wrong, that we are all equal, all God’s beloved children, regardless of the color of our skin, racism was something dark and deeply troubling we had to contend with, something that colored our whiteness.

It shaped our sense of self, our sense of justice, fair play, and compassion for others. It fostered a sense of collective guilt and shame for white ancestors who enslaved others or looked askance at those who did. For those today who persist in holding racist views. Even for beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who ought to know better, and yet through the occasional disparaging remark and negative attitude revealed a meanness of spirit toward a whole race of people simply because of the color of their skin.

I learned at an early age that good-hearted people, people I loved and admired and thought I could trust, held racists views. That they could be, God-forbid, racists themselves. Who held views that filled me with shame and sadness.

I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who was not prejudiced, who spoke out against those who were, and who taught me through her words and actions to understand how wrong racism is.

I have been fortunate in that all of my brushes with “blackness,” black people and black culture, have been positive, enriching experiences, and have colored my view of blackness with a deep admiration and respect. My one negative experience was no exception.

Today, when the whole world is rising up to reject racism, to protest against its continued brutality, is a time for all of us to reflect upon our own “Brushes with Blackness,” as I call it here, the experiences that have colored our view of what black lives and black culture mean to us, to examine if we in any way contribute to those negative connotations implicit in racists views.

Do we merely look askance at the racist views and systems embedded in our society? Or do we do what we can in our small corner of the world to not only oppose those views, but to celebrate the beauty and braveness and wisdom found in black communities and black culture?

That’s what I’m hoping to do on these pages in a short series examining my “Brushes with Blackness.” This is the first. Three more follow.

Brushes with Blackness: Best Friends and Bullies

Brushes with Blackness – Feminist or Womanist?

“What I Regret Most, Failures of Kindness” – Graduation Speech Goes Viral

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Image result for pictures of george saunders public domain

With graduation season upon us, I thought I’d re-share the most inspiring graduation speech I ever read. One by the acclaimed writer George Saunders that went viral several years ago. Below is a slightly altered version of my original post as well as the poem by Hayden Carruth that inspired his speech.

It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane and seemingly trite things as “regrets” and “kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what Saunders spoke about at Syracuse University in 2013.

You can read the whole speech HERE.

Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Then he lists sensible ways to learn how to be kind:

Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

But not to worry, he says, because kindness, hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.

Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life. Or winding down, for that matter.

Here is Carruth’s poem.

Testament

by Hayden Carruth

So often it has been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away — I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love. I have been
to the banker, the broker, those strange
people, to talk about unit trusts,
annuities, CDs, IRAs, trying
to leave you whatever I can after
I die. I’ve made my will, written
you a long letter of instructions.
I think about this continually.
What will you do? How
will you live? You can’t go back
to cocktail waitressing in the casino.
And your poetry? It will bring you
at best a pittance in our civilization,
a widow’s mite, as mine has
for forty-five years. Which is why
I leave you so little. Brokers?
Unit trusts? I’m no financier doing
the world’s great business. And the sands
in the upper glass grow few. Can I leave
you the vale of ten thousand trilliums
where we buried our good cat Pokey
across the lane to the quarry?
Maybe the tulips I planted under
the lilac tree? Or our red-bellied
woodpeckers who have given us so
much pleasure, and the rabbits
and the deer? And kisses? And
love-makings? All our embracings?
I know millions of these will be still
unspent when the last grain of sand
falls with its whisper, its inconsequence,
on the mountain of my love below

Music to Comfort & Inspire

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Jazz Still Life

Jazz Still Life by Keith Mallett

Friends on Facebook shared these two music videos with me recently. I loved them so much I had to share with you here. Watching them brings such comfort and joy, especially during these challenging times. I can’t get enough of them. I hope they inspire you as much as they have me. Enjoy!

Mothering the World on Mother’s day

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Margarita Sikorskaia 1968 | St. Petersburg, Russia | TuttArt@ | Pittura * Scultura * Poesia * Musica |

Margarita Sikorskaia

In the Time of Corona we all need a little mothering on Mother’s Day.

A huge influence on my understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, is found in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV):

There was something complete and nebulous

Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,

Silent, invisible

Unchanging, standing as One,

Unceasing, ever-revolving,

Able to be the Mother of the World.

This Mother of the World, of course, is Tao in this passage. And what I see as God, the divine Creator, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s what evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for all its “children,” all individual being.

A tall order for a mere human.

Yet something about that passage spoke to me as a woman and mother. It drew within me the desire to embrace my children in that spirit. And I found the mothering of my own two children improved immensely when I was able to step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.

This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic, as the latter. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.

This is not to say that I often meet this ideal. Far from it.

But I know I mother my own children best and make fewer mistakes when I’m able to embrace them in that larger, more expansive way. And it feels more natural, less constricted, to mother that way.

I find this kind of mothering works best when all-inclusive. When I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window.  When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”

Mothering, I learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world. When you adopt that stance, all things become your children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.

Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”

First printed in a slightly altered version on these pages in 2015. More “mothering” images below.

Sorolla - Masterful colorist "Just Out of the Sea" 1915

Joaquin Sorolla

"Beach Treasures" by Jeffrey T. Larson (1999)

Jeffrey T. Larson

Francisco “Paco” Zúñiga y su viaje a la semilla | Revista Su Casa

Francisco “Paco” Zuniga

Poetry in the Time of Corona

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John Singer Sargent's Watercolor Paintings John Singer Sargent, Corfu. Light and... - #corfu #paintings #sargent #singer #watercolor - #JohnSingerSargent

John Singer Sargent

Leaf shadows thrown by the morning sun against a creamy wall.

Soft, sensuous folds of a warm blanket tossed across my knees.

My grandmother’s hands wrapped around a mug as I sip sweet coffee.

So much I fail to see in the time of corona.

Or seeing, fail to note,

Or noting, fail to feel

What once I felt.

Poetry all around me.

— April 30, 2020

Joy and Grief and Everything in Between

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blue, abstract figurative, contemporary figurative, oil painting,

by Shelby McQuilkin

I don’t know if it has anything to do with Covid-19, all these mixed emotions that swell and rage and dissipate, often within a single day. But I think this lock-down acts like a incubator to warm and feed and grow them with no release valve.

It’s okay not to be okay, I’ve heard. That’s a relief.

First the joy: Singing and dancing with my granddaughter, listening to her laughter, feeling her fly-by hugs, snuggling while we read to each other. A trip to the beach to see the elephant seals, catching tadpoles in a creek.

Then the grief: Son missing. Haven’t heard from him in a month. So unlike him. Called the jail, the hospitals, the homeless shelters, (not the morgue). Called his friends. Only one responded. She went to look for him where he’d last hung out by the riverside. But he’s not there, she said. Mostly it’s been cleared out, the tent city where the homeless reside.

I think: Even if he called, how could I help him? What could I say beyond I love you, get help, get well, stay safe, be strong, don’t give up, fight to get your life back. And then a week would go by with no word from him, and another, and another, and then I’m back to where I am now. When does it end? And in a way that doesn’t tear me apart?

Then there’s the in-between, all that lies between joy and grief:  Can’t write, can’t paint, no time to myself. Homeschooling stretching out 4, 5, 6 hours a day. Constant worry about the virus, the isolation, the welfare of the nation, our democracy under Trump, my daughter and son-in-law trying to survive their lock-down, working from home. The court hearing for guardianship postponed again. My husband disengaged, rattling around the house trying to stay out of the way, trying to keep busy. Both of us eating too much. Tired all the time.

A major wedding anniversary comes and goes, un-celebrated. Unless home-delivered pizza and chocolate cake count.

A few good books and movies to distract us. Downton Abby movie last night, Ozark series last week.  The Last Kingdom starting soon. The Immortalists by Cloe Benjamin, The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles. Escaping to other worlds.

Silly jokes and hilarious videos passed friend to friend by email.

Roses blooming, pool warming, frogs in full concert during the evening hours. Green hills, blue skies, wild flowers everywhere.

I’m blogging again. That’s something. First time in weeks.

So much to be grateful for midst the worry and grief. We have it better than most. How are you faring in this surreal landscape of Covid-19?

 

Home Schooling Again, & Who’s the Boss?

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"Schreibunterricht", 1865. Albert Anker (1831-1910), Swiss Genre Painter.

I home-schooled my two children for six years when we were sailing around the world on La Gitana. And now, so many years later, I’m home-schooling my 7-year old granddaughter since schools closed because of Coronavirus.

My daughter was a breeze to home-school. My son, not so much. We tussled from time to time. His daughter is taking after him that way. The other day when she was defying everything I was asking her to do, and then making demands of her own, I was at my wit’s end. So we had the “Who’s the boss?” conversation.

Do you remember that conversation from back in the day? I clearly remember it with my own mom many times, and later with my son. I never cared much for it no matter which side of the fence I was sitting, and yet here I was again, repeating patterns of old. Thinking this will not end well. And wondering, do parents even have that conversation anymore? Is it politically correct? Should we be in negotiations rather than drawing lines in the sand?

Clearly I was having misgivings, but I plunged forward nevertheless. The truth is, my granddaughter probably takes after me as much after me as she does her dad. We are both extremely stubborn.

The conversation turned out about as well as I could hope. The most she would grant me is that “adults” are the bosses of their “children,” but her eyes slid away from me when she conceded it, and her mouth looked doubtful. Clearly she was not going to say that I was the boss of her. She was letting me know this mild concession was solely for the sake of preserving screentime, or anything else I might want want to withhold until I got what I wanted. Not because she really believed it.

Which was fine by me by then. A compromise, of sorts. A truce. I’d take it.

We were both ready to move on. And she did settle down and do her schoolwork.

But later that day she took me aside. She had been thinking about how things had gone sideways earlier that day and she had some suggestions about how we (meaning me) could handle this better next time.

Instead of having the whole “who’s the boss” discussion, I could give myself a time-out, go into my room and think about what was upsetting me so much. I could sit cross-legged on the floor and breath deeply (she demonstrated how). I could play relaxing music of ocean waves on my phone. Or better yet, she could give me a spa day and paint my toenails. Big hopeful grin.

“Now can we go look at photos of newborn kittens on your phone, Grandma?”

I marvel at this child every day.

“Love is a Language Few Practice, But All Speak”

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Image result for jonathan bachman baton rouge photo

Unreast in Baton Rouge

           after the photo by Jonathan Bachman
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.

Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?

Even the men in black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else

Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?

We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.

Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.

More about the photo and incident that inspired this poem.

La Gitana, My Larger Self

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La Gitana in Moorea

When I first started this blog eight years ago, I had planned on using it as a vehicle for writing about our 6-year voyage around the world aboard our sailboat, La Gitana. Below is part V of that Sea Saga. I’m reposting it here because in some ways all the places and homes we chose to live are a larger part of who we are. They shape us as much as we shape them. La Gitana shaped the lives of my children who were only 11 and 8 when we sailed out of Ventura harbor. I still like to imagine myself rocked to sleep in the bowels of La Gitana, or flying on her wings when I smell salt in the air and feel the wind rushing through my hair. I know my children must too. It was a sweet time in our lives that lives with us still.

La Gitana, Our Larger Self – Sea Saga, Part V

We named her “La Gitana,” Spanish for the gypsy, partly in tribute to our family’s Spanish heritage, partly because sea gypsies are what we would be once we moved aboard her and sailed away, partly for my long fascination with everything pertaining to Gypsies.

I loved the music, the dancing, the clothing, the jewelry, the colorful furnishings of the caravans. I loved what they stood for, the capriciousness of their existence living on the edge of society, their adventuresome spirit, their playfulness and spontaneity, their wildness—all the things we grew up thinking of as gypsy-like. La Gitana symbolized all of that for us. We feminized the masculine gitano and added the lyrical signifier “la” for alliteration, and to show her singular importance. The, not a.

La Gitana Moorea2Of course she had to be feminine—all ships traditionally are. They are vessels that serve us, that carry us in her belly, under her wings. Her sails are softly rounded breasts bravely and proudly pulling us onward. And she was alive! So lively with a personality and purpose all her own—a creature, not a thing.

She seemed almost as alive to us as the other creatures that she cavorted with, the dolphins that played at her side, the whales that swam beneath and circled her, the flying fish that landed on her decks. Her spirit was all her own. But her breath, her pulse, her beating heart, her life blood, was us, the people who inhabited and cared for her, plotted her course, walked her decks, stroked her beams, and dreamed her dreams.

La Gitana Moorea3It was a symbiotic relationship. We trusted her and sank everything we had into her. And she depended upon us to steer her away from the harbor and allow her to run with the wind, to lead her to a safe haven and hunker her down when the hurricane blew.
formosa_46_drawingOriginally she was called “Swagman,” which is what peddlers and tinkers are called Down Under. We bought her from an Aussie living in San Diego who had commissioned her to be built in Taiwan—a Formosa 46, a 46-foot Peterson designed cutter rigged sloop with a center-cockpit. Cousin to the better known and more costly Peterson 44.

We had invested so much more than money in her—our hopes and dreams, our safety and security, our hearth and home, our larger selves. She is what separated us from the sea on those long ocean voyages and moved us through the air by harnessing the wind. Deep in her belly she rocked and sung us to sleep. When the storms rose she sheltered us from the rain. When huge rogue waves came crashing down she lifted us up. When the wind died away and left us floundering in the middle of nowhere, she was the still center in a circle of blue.

La Gitana5I cannot tell you the pleasure and affection I felt when we were ashore and looked out at her waiting patiently for our return. What it felt like to bring our dinghy aside her and hoist our provisions aboard. The thrill of weighing anchor and heading out to sea, raising her sails, watching them fill.

Hunkered beneath her dodger during night watches, I listened to the rush of waves and sails in the black, black night, and watched her mast stirring stars. Sleeping below deck as she rocked with the waves, her rigging humming overhead, the soft gurgle of the ocean whispering through the hull, was sweetness like no other.Isle du Pins cropped6I loved sunning my chilled skin on her warm teak decks after a long morning hunting and diving for scallops. Falling asleep in the cockpit on balmy days in port, watching the stars gently rock overhead as she rolled with the soft swells.

How I miss her! But we carry her in our hearts and in our memories, in the words on these pages, and the novels I am writing. I like to think another family has taken over where we left off, hugging her close, and steering her on new adventures.

La Gitana—my larger self.

MORE POSTS ON OUR SEA SAGA

Sea Saga, Part I – Catching the Dream

Sea Saga, Part II – Honeymoon Sail Bailing Water

Sea Saga, Part III – First Stop in Paradise, the Virgin Islands

Sea Saga, Part IV – Ex-pats and Pirates in the Bay Islands of Honduras