Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Searching for the Second Story: A Peacemaker's Task

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,

Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. 

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. 

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good. 

I taught this poem on a very cool crisp perfectly Fallish New England day in Connecticut.  It was an honors writing class, and we had a poetry unit.  My students, six total, were tired and frustrated.  Exams of their chosen majors were coming up, and not one of them was English.  This was a class to pass.  They were so polite, these lovely kids.  They knew whose authority held in the room, and all of them, every one, did their work and contributed faithfully.  The poem, made most famous by John Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral, was in the anthology I’d chosen.  What I remember most clearly, though, after going through meter counting and the stress on a syllable for emphasis, was the blank stares I received when I asked why such public mourning?  It led to a necessary discussion of World Wars, and dates that were, to my astonishment, unknown.  No one knew, in the 6 blinking faces staring at me, the beginning or end of the Great War and only vaguely knew the start and end dates of World War II.

We had to begin then at the most basic of basics to understand the context of the poem, the legacy of mourning, the significance of planes flying overhead, for a population exhausted and spent by War.  There was, in fact, another story in the poem that needed to be heard to make it understood.

So the story is important—every one of the stories.  It provides a depth of understanding to a poem, and really for me, that’s what poetry does.  A few lines, that convey a range of emotion.  Here, for Auden, it is sorrow and fear.  He invites us into his personal grief, his fear that his love will be forgotten for good; someone so significant yet you go on eating and drinking and living as though they never passed on the same street.  In a country worn out by war, Auden is speaking that remembrance is important. 

Did fear of what would be forgotten drive him to write and re-write his poem?  We may never know.  But fear is an extremely potent force in our lives.  I have fears.  So many.  Several that keep me up at night and others that exist in dreams that double down as nightmares.   My prejudices are profound in their scope and I've only really questioned them since becoming a mother, so sure I've been in my arrogance.  In teaching my children, in my silences as well as my words, I have become teachable.  In the need to constrict the fear I have had to look further and harder at anything else that can inform a story. 

Knowledge is the crushing challenger of fear.   I feel my boys' fear acutely, and, instead of ignoring it, I ask them to talk about it.  To name it.  In doing so, my hope is that it falls apart like a house of cards.  I have taught them that there is no stabilization, no anchor Lego, nothing that can give fear permanence.

Ahmed Mohamed, 14
Our fear of the unknown is difficult, but our fear of the known is debilitating.  It can seduce us and divide us.

Right now in Irving, Texas there is an opportunity, an opportunity for understanding and community.  To see why we react the way we do.  To understand perception and how altered it can be.  To review policy and enact change.  To show compassion.  And most importantly, to actively model this for our children who will have the choice to carry our fear with them, or discard it as rapidly as beads of water that disappear under the warmth of our sun.   I thought of this while reading an article about Ahmed Mohamed.  A young boy who 
loves to invent, to process and see how things work.  He built a clock and then was arrested at school with the possibility that it was a bomb.  The actual headline (that accompanied the photograph above) most people read was: “Teen Brings Clock to School, Gets Arrested.”

The reaction on social media was fast and furious.  Defense of Ahmed came in hashtags and tweets from
the White House to Mark Zuckerberg.  A statement came from the Mayor of Irving, Beth Van Duyne.  That led to more incensed hyperbole online and otherwise.  Accusations flew that she was a racist, and deeply suspicious of the Muslim community in
Irving.  As these ideas became widespread, and in our current mode of online excavation, we are all members of “the smoking gun,” what would have 
taken weeks happened in minutes.  Town minutes were revealed, parties emailed.  Anonymous quotations passed.  

An amended statement was offered, one that added a paragraph about Ahmed: “As a parent, I agree that if this happened to my child I would be very upset. It is my sincere desire that Irving ISD students are encouraged to use their creativity, develop innovations and explore their interests in a manner that fosters higher learning. Hopefully, we can all learn from this week’s events and the student, who has obvious gifts, will not feel at all discouraged from pursuing his talent in electronics and engineering.”

Sounds wonderful…except she never mentioned his name.  I wondered why this was.  When I read the several accounts of this story, I thought that there's a lot more at stake than meets the eye--this is about a seemingly divided community. 

I am asking that we look at the opaque subtext here that informs many narratives like this one.  (Providing, of course, that the secondary reporting received in the media has been accurate.)  I am asking that we look for the second story.

  • Why did this teacher tell Ahmed not to show the clock to anyone else?

  • Why would the clock's beep panic his English teacher to the extent that s/he wouldn't accept his explanation?
  • Was there a procedure that needed to be followed for something like this?

  • What is in the school or student handbook for these scenarios?
    Found trending on FB re: Ahmed

  • What, if any, responsibility does the county have in this case?

  • Why has the school board or superintendent not responded or is their oversight eclipsed by the Mayor?

  • Had the school been under threat before this?

  • Did his English teacher have a personal relationship to a victim of terrorism that made her/his reaction disproportionate?

Until these questions can be answered, and if I am privy to them, I will not encourage or join in to the general mocking and baiting of both the school and the town of Irving, TX.

Because many of these posts, links and tweets suggest that everyone in this town (and state!) and especially this school is stupid and racist. They speak to the child and offer support while condemning and judging the actions of those around him as completely unfounded, illogical and the sordid result of profiling. Those same comments highlight and deepen an ideological divide that is becoming more and more entrenched in that community.  One that will widen more and gape further now that the world's attention is brought to it.

How will this community continue on after the national spotlight is gone?

What happens when you are called stupid is that you become angry and defensive.  You will not be contrite, and you will not be willing to listen. The only people who will suffer further are those in this community who were already uneasy feeling prejudice from the
 further reports that I have read of the turmoil in Irving, events that took place in the Spring of this year.  Ahmed will go to the White House, but he still has to come home.  He still has to live and go to school in Irving. None of this will be water cooler conversation for this community, it will be absorbed into its very fabric--whether to strengthen or stain it remains to be seen.

How can we help?

Because the people I'm most concerned about are the 22 or so other students in that classroom, classmates and friends of this child who watched their English teacher and administration call for the arrest of their classmate.  How do they walk away from this unscathed?  They will carry this into their lives both private and public, their families and their jobs.  History is repeated by individual action.  If prejudice is a learned behavior, then I reason, it can also be untaught. 
Now is the moment for healing of a community not more name calling.  Now is the time to show tremendous courage asking, collectively, "why am I afraid?"
  • Why did we react this way?  

  • What policy do we have in place?  

  • What should we do to change it?  

  • What can we do differently? 

  • How do we explain our actions and their outcome to our children?

  • How can we involve them in a solution?

How about a leadership that would welcome that kind of intervention--both nationally and locally?

There are 
organizations that teach tolerance to students and faculty alike.  Instead of offering ridicule, how about offering to help bring such a group to this school? To this community?

It would mean the difference between a band-aid and potential cure.

Matthew 5:9

We all need this.  No matter how far left you may be, how supremely right your side is: you need to be teachable.  If you have given up on the possibility of another way, if you content yourself only with another's sound bite, there is no hope for community or this nation.   It's a country built on the possibilities of dreams, constructed in the direst of circumstances, paid in blood.  Without the collective intelligence of the American people to demand more of themselves and their leadership, there is nothing but misunderstanding and turmoil.

None of this can happen while polemics are the order of the day—whether it is from a neighbor or the President.  No good can come of making someone else the bad guy whether the “guy” is a person or school or community.  An invitation to the White House and the message it sends to that school, school board and school district does not help this community deal with its people (especially its young people) next week or next year.  It makes them feel small and defensive and react from those places.  That will not help them move forward.  This is a community that needs more than that.  We all need to move forward, to enact change.  We all have misapprehension in us; we all know that behaviors are learned.  We can be teachable.  We can do this, if not to live more wholly and happily, then to show a different way for our children.  We cannot be quick to judge, to assume.  If no one is telling you why it was done that way—ask.  If it doesn’t seem fair to you, ask how it can be done differently. 

We can choose.  We can be better because we are better.  We do not have to dependent on fear to drive us when we can move with grace towards truth.  If Matthew 6:21 says that your heart is where your treasure is, then the silt where your fear resides covers the bedrock where your courage can be found.  It is hidden, not gone.

Fear is no way to live—and we have a culture of it; a screen will not protect you from passing along
uncensored thought and adding to it.  It just creates a powerful vortex of decisive derision.  And that is exactly the opposite of what is intended.  One voice joined with many…for what?

The bravest and most courageous thing we can do as people is confront what we fear: beginning that run even though you believe all eyes will be on your excess weight, extending a hand to work on a project with someone with whom you do not agree, eating a food that you think is too strange, speaking in front of a group, trusting to love again, walking into a place that holds you no welcome.

The list is endless and so are the possibilities.  In the space between what we fear and what we love is a lifetime.  The scale on which they balance is constantly weighted toward only one.  Right now we live in a state of siege where fear is being used as a constant levying agent.  Fear mongering is utterly bipartisan.  The agents of fear can be found everywhere, and they are counting on us not to question it.  Their survival, fear's survival, is dependent on our complicity.

The only way out is to name it.

Between my children, best of brothers, a band unto themselves, there is conflict.  Hurts.  Anger.  As the only adjudicator present, I usually sigh and sigh again before calling both parties and asking for the stories, because there is always more than one.  Always.

When have we forgotten that?  I would hope that as the judgment goes higher and the consequences larger and the repercussions larger still, the winnowing of the second story would be even more pressured.  But it is not.  It simply does not matter anymore.  Only one narrative will do. 

It does not fit.

It will never do.

We can never ever stop searching for the second story, the one that may alter and change the first.  The one that will provide new understanding.

In my family's history, my parents and mine, we had: a brick thrown through our window, our trash set fire to, told personally to "get the hell out of [our] country," told we were "stealing jobs," sent hate mail, been spit on, ridiculed in school, had full cans of beer thrown at us while walking.  But this is a part of our history. 

Despite this, I believe that this is the greatest nation in the world.  I am grateful that my parents sacrificed to raise me here. I am allowed an opinion here.  I can watch what I like, when I like.  I can get information, almost any kind, with relative ease.   I can work and worship how I choose.  I can vote for my representation and call upon those in office for answers.  There are so many places in the world where the liberties I enjoy are non-existent.  My parents, whether they were aware or not, by confirming this for me, telling me how fortunate I was to be an American, they gave me a second story that tempered the first-hand experience I have had.  It matters.  I am well vested in the success of this country for all its citizens.  And that can only be a reality if the fears we have collectively are dealt with honestly.

I wonder if the quiet student, brave and shy, whose heart was at cross-purposes watching the scene unfold before her in Ahmed’s English class, a class she loved and looked forward to every day.  A class where she felt she belonged and understood.  I wonder what lines she would choose to write about that day, what meter would make the moment tense and what word would be a sharp staccato point?  What poem will she write about a day that changed her view of her world?  What will it convey?  Will it show her fear and her confusion?  Will it show anger and quiet acceptance?  Will she offer a stanza or two about the brewing clouds of animosity tempered by red lines of interest of the wide world?  Will it show reckoning?  Will it show understanding realized? 

I believe that every story has another side, that truth is not elusive, that fear can be met and matched with compassion not incredulity.  We are not solely polemical.  We are extraordinarily nuanced, and we are more than unblinking receptors of headlines.  There's more to the story.  There's more to construct, there's more to support and discover.  We are smarter than this, we are stronger than this, and we are better than this.

All of this has made me weary, and I suspect it has for you as well.  But whenever I doubt all I have to do is look around and see this:

I cannot stop looking harder for them.  There is never a time I see them without feeling the joy of hope that surrounds them, these starry-eyed boys.  They will not inherit my fear.  They will move confidently forward because courage and inquiry will inform their steps.  They will not know another way to walk.

The stories we write and how we tell them matter; because they are written on the blank brows of the young, whose uncurved fingers are still unblemished by time, trial or tears.  This is a question I must always ask of what I choose to tell: what else is being said here?  “There are two sides to every story.”  What will your story say? 

Time passes.  Wounds heal.  Scars and voices fade. Clocks tick each passing moment as hearts beat in tandem.  Will you join me in searching for the second story before time and circumstance silence both?    We can do this.  Peace.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My "shoulda woulda coulda" summer

The air has changed.  It’s turned.  Even here where seasons are marked only by the lessening or the heightening of humidity.  There is a west wind that pulls the mind from the fresh green of summer into the crispness of fall.  The bite of an apple, the opening of a new notebook, the fresh sheets of paper, a sharpened #2—all of these are the indicators that we’ve entered somewhere new albeit familiar.

It makes me wonder exactly, where did the 80 days that marked our summer go? 

I had big plans this summer.  I was going to TOP last summer.  My children would be well-versed in art, music, history, science and pull some skills on the green that would make them junior PGA eligible.  When asked, “what did you do?” They’d be able to say, “Where do I start?”

I didn’t reckon that they would have a say.

And I forgot how it is 1003 degrees outside here in the summer.

I did not sign them up for any kind of camp.

I overestimated my own energy/vigor.

I also underestimated how much my kids just wanted to be with me

And that’s where this post ends and begins.  It was nice that I had the option, that my children are old enough that a minute by minute review of their whereabouts is no longer necessary.  Their current needs weren’t beyond anything I couldn’t supply. Unlike my parents, I was not at a job where I
Week 6 "Maps"
couldn’t take time off to be with them. 

There are so many articles to say that children are overscheduled in the summer or that the benefits of camp for children far outweigh any reservations that a parent may have.  My opinion is simply that it is not so simple.  You know your children best.  You know your family situation best.  You know where they would thrive.  You know your finances.  You know where they need to be, and, as a result, where you need to be for both of you to feel happy and secure. 

Anything else seems to thrive on a culture of “woulda shoulda coulda” that inspires guilt and worry among all of us.  I was not confident that my children could handle a sleep-away camp, and there was no actual day-camp topic that they particularly
Week 4 "Rhythm"
felt driven to learn more about.   No skills they wanted to perfect and no new ones to add to their arsenal.

It drove me batty.  Because around me it seemed that kids were learning.  Actively and at rest.  And mine were, well, I felt that I could see brain matter ooze out and drip down their ears.  Where was the line of being at rest and perfecting the art of laziness?

And why was I so gung-ho worried about the divide?

There are so many times, too many to count, that I’ve been told by older women in grocery stores and in checkout lines, that their happiest moments have been when they were in the trenches with their kids.  Begging them not to grab anything, promising various and sundry punishment when they did anyway.  “I miss those days,” they would say to me, grabbing my elbow, “cherish them.”

This summer I began feeling my middling years.  Don’t get me wrong, I have never, ever, ever been an athlete and could never, ever, ever been mistaken for one.  I loved books more than sweat and any adamancy I have for a workout has come from a desire to whittle my waist and stay healthy for my family than any real euphoria received from endorphins and the rush therein.  (I am not at all convinced that they exist actually.)  

I was tired, horribly tired, most of the time.  I felt writing to be too much and began to question not only the blog but also any writing I could do in general.  And in early May my hair started falling out.  The kind of shedding I’ve only seen once and that was reserved for post-partum crazy that reconciled itself rather quickly.  In about 6 weeks I lost half the volume of my hair.  And it sent me into a tailspin of anxiety and worry.  After consultations and biopsy I was given a diagnosis that it wasn’t permanent, and would grow back in time.  But the interim between testing and diagnosis of three weeks made me even more acutely aware that the days of being with my children and their wanting to be with me was very much like the first shock of a cold water jump—they would be gone and out of my arms long before my body got acclimated to the new sensations.

"In the summer, the song sings itself."
William Carlos Williams

My true boys of summer, all of them born during the hot months that denote the season, were content in their late mornings, game playing and swimming routines.  Rarely did they wish to venture beyond into the wider world.  And if they even moved toward the backyard, for the 15 or 20 minutes before the sun scorched them into running for cover, they were reluctant to do so without me.

And so I unlearned my preoccupation with occupation this summer.  And I tried to hit pause on the playback of what I felt needed to be done to further them for the future.  As ridiculously vogue as it seems to be, I decided to see how much I could remain “in the moment” with children who were on the cusp of a new year: 5 to 6, 7 to 8, and 9 to 10. 

Their wanting me to play soccer with them made me grimace.  And brought back memories I’d rather forget.  I even told them some of them, how playing in school was always a heart wrenching puddle of awfulness.  I was not any good.  I was too skinny. I would not be picked.  And it came true.  No one wanted me on their team.  I had wished for years that I could opt out, I would've been happy to take a double of calculus AB rather than a minute of PE.

They grinned.  And said, “Mommy, Halliseys don’t quit.”  “You need to try.”  “We’ll help you Mommy, you can be on my team.”

And they were right.  With them, these boys. It doesn't matter. My left feet.  My lack of enthusiasm or uncoordinated effort.  Not even a little bit.  All that mattered is that I showed up.  I played.  I tried. With my kids, I got a lot of points (not just talk) for effort.

That facing of exertion unwrapped expectation of other moments.  And I found myself learning a lot
Week 2 was "Curious."
(All the weekly words and accompanying
activities are on the blog FB page.)
more than I thought I would.  We collaborated on a word a week to explore, and I hoped that we would at least do one item on the activity list.  (The picture is usually as far as we got.)  And I had to unlearn the expectation that lists should be checked off.  The boys were naturals at not adhering to any other timetable than what their own bodies dictated.

The lack of schedule made the ordinary everyday an occasion, like getting new sneakers or trying a new branch
African drumming with Steve at a local branch library.

A cooking lesson became more than math and fractions, it encompassed science, and I learned that basil tastes much better than lemon and m&ms on pizza.  (It truly isn't the most versatile food.)

When we would go visit my Dad, and I explained to more mature ears what his disease meant and why, I saw new understanding take place.  I learned that courage comes in all forms like when a very shy boy takes center stage in playing games at his grandfather's dementia care facility.  When Sam allowed his hand to be shaken and told he was "terrific," I swallowed a baseball-sized lump and thought that if he could do that, I could face all my fears of no one liking what I had to say and write again.

When I saw Joe pour over a hefty volume on the
history of all Marvel characters, sometimes late, late too late in the night, I learned in the morning that Wolverine had no past because his healing factor kicked in on his mind and taken away all the bad memories.  Also he fought with Captain America.  (These news briefings are as important in our world as any others I dare say).  And I realized that in the telling is memory and not just of the story but of the active listening that took place and will stay in his cortex for when his own child has a tale to tell.  

When my youngest would come right next to me to read his book while I read mine and look at me with squinted eyes to tell me, “well we sure don’t have time to cuddle cuddle like we used to,” I caught on fast.  He was mourning the space on the couch shrinking too.  He was holding on to the inches fast because he knew somehow that the days of us holding on to the same space would be few.  
A chance moment and observation
of my own that I got 

to pass along to my boys.
 Jake was right, our puzzle halves were never going to fit as perfectly on the width of the cushion again.  I learned to hold onto them, under the blanket and watch all sorts of crazy animation on the television. 

This summer we've perfected the art of unstructured time.  My kids have had 
way too much screen time.  We've eaten too much candy.  They've watched movies, they've read  a little bit, they've Lego-ed themselves into a new category. 
 Ice cream has qualified for lunch.  They've played board games some, and cards, but mostly we've done a whole lotta nothing.

The day will come when they want to do a whole lotta something with someone else.  So I'll gladly trade in my couch potato, power-napping, lack of writing self for this brief window. 
Because a whole lotta nothing with them means a whole lot of them for me.

So I guess I'm saying that I don't regret it, and I hope you don't regret a single coulda shoulda come Fall--even if that one kid has mastered Mandarin in 2 months, and that one mom talks endlessly about it.  

Or even if the schedules you had to adhere to made you feel that you missed something else, or that you didn’t get done anything you felt you must do.  If you look back on it, I believe you will have learned something new about you and your kids that you didn’t know before. 

As school has started, and I’ve had these 80 days, I’ve picked up a lesson or two on letting things go.  And I hope that the wind on which it caught will carry us right through to an easy transition to learning this Fall.  Here’s to a great one for you and yours—hope you’ll find those quiet summer moments of courage, introspection, and learning pop up like bright rays of sunshine even as the days grow shorter.  Happy back-to-school!