Seventeen

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then.

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What a week to be the mother of a 17-year-old boy.  At dinner a few nights ago, my son asked me if I would talk with him about Anita Hill. His AP Government class is studying the episode and he wanted to know what I remembered about it.  When my teen asks me questions beyond, “What’s for dinner?” my policy is to drop everything and engage. We talked for almost two hours.

He was interested in all of it. Where I was living: seven blocks behind the Capitol. How engaged I was in the coverage: I watched every minute I could and read every news article.  I told him about how electrified I was by the photograph featured here of the seven women who marched from the House to the Senate and demanded that the allegations be investigated. How I desperately wished I could go to the hearings myself.

Then, I told him what I remembered of Professor Hill. How she spoke clearly, without malice, with great dignity, how she introduced her parents to the committee, how she simply told the truth over and over. I told him how, until that time, I had liked Arlen Specter, the senator from Pennsylvania. But after his relentless attempts to embarrass Professor Hill I hated him. I remembered that the senator from Alabama, whose name escapes me, asked her in his slow southern drawl if she was, “a woman scorned” or if she wanted to “write a book.”  And then I told him how every man on that committee, including Joe Biden, cowered in response to Clarence Thomas’ opening punch accusing them of a “high tech lynching.”

And then I told him what twenty-something me took away from watching Anita Hill, although I could not have articulated it then. I learned that, as a woman, it did not matter that you were smart, well-spoken, modest, church going, high achieving, or from a hard-working family.  You could be a “good woman” or one with a more complicated past. But, if you told the truth about how men treat women, you would be over-ruled even if those men knew, in their heart of hearts, you were telling the truth. I told him about my own experiences of harassment and assault, even though they are mild in comparison to others. I told him that if something had happened to me in high school like what Professor Ford says happened to her, I would not have even had language to describe it, much less think it was illegal. Like her, I would have thought it was my fault or at least that there was nothing to be done about it.  I too would’ve been quiet. Indeed, about most violations that have happened in my life, I have been silent or made them into a joke.

We talked again last night after I insisted on listening together to this extraordinary podcast in which Caitlyn Flanagan and Michael Barbaro talk about an attempted ‘date rape’ in Flanagan’s high school past*. Embodied in their talk is the essence of atonement, a demonstration of what miracles are wrought by thorough and sincere apologies. It is a lesson in empathy, forgiveness, and redemption. Judge Kavanaugh should listen to it.  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/podcasts/the-daily/kavanaugh-christine-blasey-ford-caitlin-flanagan-sexual-assault.html.

As we listened and then talked, I realized that this oldest and most complicated son of mine has grown up a lot in the last three years. He spoke with great empathy about what he is learning now that he has more female friends that tell him about how they live and move in the world. He cried as he listened to Ms. Flanagan describe her suicide attempt following the attack. He is recognizing the privileged place he occupies and how little the culture asks him to think about his safety or worth. He seems to be reckoning with the responsibility that comes with the unearned privilege he has as he makes choices about the adult he wants to be.

What will happen in the current circumstance is anybody’s guess. The values central to the situation – truth, honor, justice, or even mercy – are being completely ignored, ironic given the goal of filling a seat on our highest court. My son told me he thinks his generation of young men is different. I nodded in agreement, but in truth I doubt it. Unless they are extraordinary, young men will do what older men in their orbits do and what their culture tells them they can.  As the Kavanaugh confirmation continues to unfold, we will learn more about what our culture believes about women today. Silence does not serve us, and as the podcast points out, it does not serve our young men either.

*She wrote about this experience a few days ago in the Atlantic magazine. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/09/me-too/570520/

Photo Credit: PAUL HOSEFROS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/

The Confederates in My Attic

For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long.

Saturday afternoon on my screened porch in Chapel Hill: You might think I’d hear birdsong and insects as the sticky summer weather lingers in early September. Instead, I hear sirens and helicopters. Once again white supremacist groups from neighboring counties are coming to stand guard at the confederate stump that once held the statue on our campus known as “Silent Sam.” The last time they visited, we walked up to take a look.  Draped in the stars and bars, the group carried well-printed signs about monuments and heritage preservation that told little about their lives or motivations.  We stayed for a bit and then headed home shaken and wondering how this conflict would resolve.

As our campus has been grappling with our confederate past, I have been learning about the confederates in my own family attic. Their stories are complex and in some ways mysterious. Although I’ve known they existed for along time, only recently have I learned some of the details of their stories.

My father is fast approaching 98. He grew up living with his paternal grandfather, a confederate veteran who lost his arm in a civil war battle near Helena, Arkansas. My injured great grandfather John was saved by his brother who dragged him behind a church then left to continue the fight. Union soldiers then captured John, completed the amputation of his arm, and paroled him to a nearby plantation for the remainder of the war. Family lore has it that after his arm healed, those same Union soldiers allowed John to fish the rivers of his childhood and sell those fish to Union troops. The money he earned bought the Missouri farm I roamed during my childhood summer visits. Because John lost his arm, he had to re-learn to write with the opposite hand, was elected county tax assessor, and became a peacemaker in his divided community of northern and southern sympathizers. Think Missouri compromise if you want to know why these two groups were living in such close proximity.

He is not the only confederate in my attic. His father before him, one Coleman Chapman, joined the confederate army to flee the Jay Hawks of Kansas. Great, great, grandfather Coleman was a minister and wheelwright, moving west from Tennessee to make wagon-wheels for the gold rush. He married Annie, the daughter of a slave-holding family. As my father tells it, even though Coleman and Annie did not enslave people themselves, they were not allowed to settle in certain states because of Annie’s family’s actions. They believed they were unfairly persecuted as “southern people,” and my father points out that to his knowledge no one on the Chapman side ever enslaved someone. He is wrong. This summer I found a will in which an ancestor in the 1700’s in South Carolina willed a young girl as a piece of property to one of his descendants. Probably the tip of the iceberg. When I read that will, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. Nothing compared to what that young girl must have endured.

Then there is the Union soldier in my attic known as Uncle Lem. As my father tells it the divided state of Missouri was populated by what were essentially gangs – much like those described in the novel Cold Mountain. Young men had to join for basic safety and Lem, like Coleman who joined a confederate aligned group to escape the Jayhawks, joined up with a Union aligned militia. He was sent west to a Union garrison in what would become Montana where he was likely involved in “subduing” native populations. He came back to the same Missouri community as his confederate brothers, ran the local store, and made sure my dad had lunch every day through the Great Depression.

To my father, each of these people is a hero in their own way. They are brothers who saved one another’s lives. They are men who persevered after losing a limb so that they could feed their families and contribute to their community. Among these civil war veterans are individuals as real to him as he is to me, who created safety and sustenance for him through bleak days. When I tell him about the confederate statue coming down, he dislikes the idea, believes it dishonors people, long dead, but that he loves still. I try not to talk about it too much.

But I  think about these long gone ancestors as our campus struggles to find a path forward. Should they be honored, and if so, for what? History is a harsh judge; the simple version might make all of them villains. Even Uncle Lem, supposedly on the historically right side, was involved or at least a witness to crimes against native populations. Villain? Victim? Victor? Vanquished?

What I honor in their stories is not what they did or did not do during the civil war. For each of them, their choices may have been as much about survival as conviction. What I honor in these passed down stories are their choices after this conflict, particularly Great Grandfather John. Blessed are the peacemakers and he became one settling Hatfield and McCoy type feuds between northern and southern sympathizers and knitting his town back together through his church and government service. Peacemaking is something to which I can aspire, admire, and honor. Does any confederate statue do that?

As I’ve written previously on this blog, to read the speech that was given at the statue’s dedication in 1913 erases all doubt about the immoral ideals it celebrates. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/files/original/c1160e4341b86794b7e842cb042fb414.pdf Its presence is an insult to my colleagues of color and taints the good work done daily at UNC. In the easy version of the story, we’d leave the statue in his undisclosed location and erect something that honors our common work, work that bridges divides, finds solutions to vexing problems, celebrates knowledge, and promotes creation of life-changing art and scholarship. But this story is not easy. Like my own confederate history, there is a lot we don’t know or have not acknowledged. For our campus, this moment is a reckoning, a time to face the difficult realities that echo through our buildings, bubble up on our quadrangles, and that have remained hidden for far too long. Once we, as a community, stand together and face the truth that enslaved people were housed in the basement of South Building, that our beautiful campus was built with slave labor, that it was 1966 before we had an African- American faculty member, https://museum.unc.edu/exhibits/show/integration/roberta-and-blyden-jackson, and all the rest of our yet unspoken history, then we will have peace. I like to think, although it may be wishful thinking, that Great Grandfather John, the peacemaker, the one who befriended his Union captors, the one who brought North and South back together in his community, would agree.

Acknowledgement: Title adapted from the Tony Horowitz book, “Confederates in the Attic.”

There is no excuse.

How long do we have to listen to our leaders defend the indefensible practice of separating children from their parents on our southern border? How long do these children have to cry in their tents, wonder what will happen to them, and wonder what has become of their parents? How long do we have to listen to competing stories of when and why this horrific policy/practice of separating children from their parents at the border started? How long do we have to listen to leaders pass the buck and defend the horror they are perpetuating?

Everyday I wake up thinking that someone with the power to do so will stop this barbarity.  Indeed, candidates are leading marches; former first ladies are speaking out; doctors, social workers, and other professionals are writing strong position statements; citizens are calling agencies and representatives; some clergy are speaking out, while others are stunningly silent. But here it is another Tuesday morning with kids still suffering and no end in sight.  I’m beginning to believe that the only people who can stop this are the border patrol agents themselves. They need to stand down and say they will not participate in this cruelty. Nothing else is getting our leaders’ attention and action. Maybe border agents standing up will.

There are facts about this situation that have been well documented. You can read them here. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/06/19/the-facts-about-trumps-policy-of-separating-families-at-the-border/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0a010c6d9569 Perhaps there are policy questions to debate. Fine. Debate them, later! Right now, we must stop this practice. Years ago, I was in positions where I had to be a part of separating children from families because of child abuse. Even in those circumstances, in which separation was the only option and desperately needed, the act of witnessing the child’s fear and the parent’s grief was one of the worst experiences of a professional life in which I’ve born witness to many horrific situations. Separating children and parents when it is not necessary to protect someone’s life is unconscionable.  There can be no equivocation and no excuse. Every person who excuses, negates, minimizes, or ignores this horror is complicit. We have to all do what we can, no matter, how small and keep doing it. Each drop raises the whole sea. We have to drown this practice out.

Photo Credit: https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiRzePx59_bAhULIqwKHdHtCB0Qjhx6BAgBEAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.vox.com%2F2018%2F6%2F11%2F17443198%2Fchildren-immigrant-families-separated-parents&psig=AOvVaw0Qpqw84-c9hL788ALTHDI5&ust=1529500566981972

Bend the Arc

After Parkland, I told my oldest son I thought something different was in the air. The Parkland students were demanding change. The idea was thrilling. Somehow out of their passion in the truest sense of the word, we might realize progress on gun violence and school shootings. The arc of history was bending.

Yet, here we are again and I am pondering what encouragement to offer my 17-year-old. How must it feel to be a teenager right now? Take your AP exams. Write the college essay. Wonder if your school is going to be safe tomorrow? They must believe they are on their own when adults do nothing to keep them safe. When I was growing up, we routinely had bomb scares at my school. The assumption was that someone wanted to get out of an English test. We’d be relocated to a lower part of the school campus; someone would turn on a car radio, and we’d dance in the parking lot or eat donuts until we got the all clear. No one ever thought there might really be a bomb or a shooter… even in south Texas where gun culture is strong, true violence at school never entered our minds.

For my kids and yours, times are different. They have active shooter drills that are so realistic, at first I worried that the drills would be as traumatizing as an actual  event. But what’s the alternative? Being prepared saved lives in Parkland and perhaps in Santa Fe too. Schools drill for all sorts of situations, yes? Hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, acts of God, unusual events over which we have no control. Drills for active shooters are drills for acts of men, acts we might prevent, if we so chose.

After the last shooting, I asked my son to tell me about the conversations were like in school. He told me something like, “Not much. What is there to say? These shootings just happen over and over, like lynchings at the beginning of the 20thcentury. Just random. Everyone knew about it. Everyone knew it was wrong. But no one would do anything about it. So people had to live walking around knowing this could happen to them. It’s the same.” I was stunned as much by the parallel as his matter-of-fact tone.  But I knew his stance was a mask. His statements weren’t practicality, nonchalance, or realism. They were the voice of trauma: the collective numbing, powerlessness, hopelessness that we are inflicting on our young people because we will not demand that our representatives act. Soon he and others his age will be able to use their franchise to make change but it almost certainly will not be soon enough to avoid the next shooting or the one after that.

As a culture we will wade through the grueling, yet predictable days ahead. We will learn the names of the treasured young people shot in their art class. We will learn about a shooter, a troubled young man, like troubled young men the world over, except that he had access to weapons. We will learn about a town that never believed it could happen there. We will try to believe that it will never happen to us. Like me, you may trick yourself by thinking things like, “He just has one more year. Then, he’ll be safe,” as I try to forget Orlando or Las Vegas or Virginia Tech…the list goes on.

So here is what I can offer my son and others of his generation. We can never be safe from everything. But we are now safe from Polio because we used our knowledge to find a vaccine and created laws to require that most people get it. Many fewer people die from drunk driving because Mothers Against Drunk Driving stood up for tougher laws in the 1980’s. Traffic fatalities are down because we have laws requiring people to wear seat belts. Indeed, most safety measures that we now take for granted were initially described as “impossible, impractical, meaningless, too intrusive, unconstitutional, or unenforceable.” Research, advocacy, loud voices, and some compromise brought us laws that make our society safer. Not always quickly, not easily, and not soon enough for many.  Still those arcs of history bent because people bent them. Think of how many problems we have solved when we collectively put our minds and hearts in it. Stand up. Vote for people who are not hamstrung by the NRA or any other organization. Your representatives should work for you and not anyone else. They should be willing to compromise with others to get things done. When you find those candidates, work for their campaigns. Talk with neighbors who worry about limiting gun restrictions.  Find common ground, points of agreement that allow for progress and compromise. Advocate to fund research on gun violence so that we have strong science to help us know what works and what doesn’t. But in dark hours let leaders of another era echo in your mind. Don’t give up.  Never, never, never give up.

 

 

Just the Right Dress: A Mother’s Day Post

Okay Mom. Will do.

A woman going to a high school reunion faces the puzzlement of “what in the world should I wear?” This time last year I was preparing to travel home for a such an event coupled with a visit to my parents. At first, I tried the way of the minimalist. Surely there was something – perhaps several somethings – that might suffice in my over-stuffed closet? But panic crept up and I found myself shopping for “just the right dress.”

Although it sounds superficial, shopping is something my mom and I always liked to do together. Growing up, I remember hanging out at the mall with friends, but true shopping sprees were reserved for my mom. She had the checkbook after all!  But well into my adulthood, she had an eye, whether in person or in a catalogue, for what would look good on me. Once in a while, something she picked out would show up in my mail box. Sometimes this annoyed me even though that annoyance was ungracious, but more often than not, she would get it exactly right. So, as I searched for a reunion outfit, I was acutely aware that my best fashion consultant was in Texas and not in North Carolina shopping with me. After wallowing in indecision, I decided to take the runway to her. I bought several selections and took them home to San Antonio planning to return those deemed unacceptable. After dinner, I tried them on and she gave me her honest, sometimes too honest, opinion.  “That is trashy. Take it back.” “That one does nothing for you. Return it.” “That one’s good but not for this occasion.”  And finally, with a slight gasp, “Ah…I love that one.  It’s perfect.” And then, “I want one just like it!”

The next day off we trotted to the nearby branch of the store where I had purchased the “just right” dress to find one for her. My mom had trouble walking or standing so she decided to sit in the car while I looked for the dress in her size and a few other things she wanted. I couldn’t find the dress just like mine. But I found another dress and I brought it to the window to show her. I received an enthusiastic thumbs up and purchased it. We had it tailored and she was all ready to go for the birthday party she would attend a week later. It was at that party that she would fall as she was leaving and break her hip. She would suffer for three and half weeks and then die. In the hospital, she told me she wanted be buried in that new dress I chose for her and a week or so later I duly delivered it to the funeral home.

During the weeks after her fall and fracture, I was back and forth between my current home in North Carolina and our family home in Texas. On the final trip, I was not anticipating her imminent death. But there it was and I was faced with choosing what to wear to her funeral. Although we often wonder why people focus on such details after a death, I think it serves a purpose. It gives our minds some space get used to a new reality and it gives us a chance to find small ways to honor the person that was lost.

In my case, I was texting back and forth with my husband urging him to make sure my children were fully presentable for this occasion. Through texted pictures, I signed off on every belt, sock, and tie choice. Then, I realized he’d have to dig out something appropriate for me to wear. He started texting pictures and nothing was right until a last bittersweet connection built over a lifetime of shopping trips together gave me the answer. On the day of my mother’s funeral, we would wear the dresses we chose for each other. I already had “just the right dress.”

But the dress no longer feels just right. Every time I think of wearing it, I change my mind.  The shoes don’t work. It’s too light weight for the weather. I’m not sure I like the length. Not right for today. Not right for tomorrow. Not next week. Not ever? It seems like a waste.

But as I write this, a whisper of grief reminds me that this “year of firsts” with all its love, remembrance, reflection, and contemplation is ending. That ending is probably why I’m avoiding the dress. To wear it is to return it and me from the sacred space that I have given myself to grieve to embrace the full catastrophe* of the everyday. But if I could ask her, I know what she’d say:

“Take the dress to the tailor, maybe change it up a bit. Then it will be just right. Put it on and get going.”

Okay Mom. Will do.

 

*Zorba the Greek called his daily life — spouse, children, work — the “full catastrophe.” Most recently, this term has been embraced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who writes about mindfulness practice.

War Stories

Bless the ships at sea and the boys and girls in khaki.

An unusual request came my way via twitter…It is 2018 after all.  A 96 year old Marine veteran, recently admitted into hospice care, desperately wanted to talk with someone who, like him, had been in the battle of Guadalcanal. A surprise attack launched in August of 1942 and lasting until February of 1943, that battle was the first major victory and first offensive attack by the allies in the Pacific theater (https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-guadalcanal). My Navy veteran father, age 97, a navigator on an LST during WWII, was not at the battle of Guadalcanal; he was there a year or so later picking up marines that had been in that battle and taking them to Peleliu, another Pacific island where lives would be lost or forever changed.

When I heard about this dying marine I knew it might be a longshot to find someone who had exactly his experience. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing to speak with a comrade-in-arms. “Yes. I certainly would.” It’s been at least 10 years since I got my courage together and asked my father to tell me his own war story. In all my growing up, he had never mentioned those experiences. As a child, I saw him as wise and patient, sometimes too patient and conflict avoidant, seemingly content with a calm and quiet life while I craved drama and adventure. That deep quiet was not so much choice as necessity, a balm to a 19 year old psyche subjected to years of intense, life-threatening experiences. But now, at 97, those memories don’t seem like quite the enemies to keep at bay that they once were. He seems glad to have people like my husband and sons who are intensely interested in what he we went through and what he learned. So I asked my father why he thought it was so important for this marine to speak at the end of his life about these experiences. There was a pause. “I expect he saw some bad old days there.”

My dad is not one for verbosity leaving me to create my own stories about the dying marine. What were the choices he made at 19, 20, or 21 years of age, choices that he perhaps had to make but hated to? Were there choices he wanted to make but could not? What did he witness that haunts his last days? My desire to help this all-too-familiar stranger was strong. Finally I asked my dad, “So does he want absolution?” “Probably. He needs to know he did the right thing. That it meant something and it did. Those supply lines had to stay open. He did what he had to. He did what he could. Someone should tell him that.”

In the end, the social worker who sent up the signal to find kindred spirits for her dying client said the family had decided that the old marine was not up to talking with anyone.  She promised to pass along the flood of messages from people across the country who wanted to help. By email, I conveyed my father’s good wishes and respect. Of course I know nothing of what troubled this marine veteran. Perhaps he wondered why he lived such a long life while others were cut down so young. Perhaps he still worries about decisions made in the fog. Perhaps he again feels the terror of knowing death is close at hand. We will never know all of the secrets these  old soldiers keep. Their stories remind me though that what happens to us when we are 19, 20, 22, and 25 shape us. It was true for them, true for me, and true for my 17 year old son whose time is coming. When I listen to my dad’s war stories, my heart hurts for the young man that he was. But I cannot judge or absolve, cheer-lead or minimize. I can only listen with an open heart willing to break in honor of that brave young man who is my 97 year old father. The stranger/brother marine fought, and maybe still fights, a terrible battle. As the social worker suggested, maybe my father’s ship, the good ship LST 222, picked that young man up at Guadalcanal and took him on the next leg of his difficult journey. We will never know.

Godspeed to the old marine. God bless the ships at sea and the boys, and girls, in kakhi. Anchors away.

 

Coda: It looks like the marine got his wish after all. See this link for more.

https://taskandpurpose.com/wwii-marine-gets-his-dying-wish-to-meet-up-with-a-fellow-guadalcanal-veteran/

What remains.

As my mother was dying, I came across the picture that accompanies this post, a picture I’d never seen before. I’ve looked at it over and over and always feel two opposite things at once: a sudden recognition of some shared, yet indefinable characteristic and conversely, a curiosity about this beautiful woman that I’m not sure I ever met. And how could I? We were of different generations, different temperaments, and although we were close, we were also conflicted. So much that is essential, we can’t see, obscured by our individual short-comings and the daily-ness of it all. We see through dark mirrors during life. Perhaps I am learning to see her face to face.

During these months, I’ve thought a lot about the current “clinicalization” of grief. At eight months out, my grief should be resolved, according to the psychiatric establishment. [Here’s a good review article on the topic. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pro-a0036836.pdf ] I should have integrated this loss into my daily life and my view of the world. Have I done that? By most any measure, the answer is yes. I am certainly not immobilized in the way the article lays out. And yet…

I would like to have one more day. One more day to sit with her and watch the sun move across the sky from her hospital room window, to hold her hand, brush her hair, to take care of her, to make sure she knew how much she meant and how much she was loved. But that is not how it works and, even if I had that day, it would not be enough. Relationships change and death is the ultimate expression of that. My task is to learn a new language, a mysterious grammar that keeps us connected even across an insurmountable gulf. But the elements of this language are different and hidden. They require every one of my senses and sometimes a sixth to decipher. I have to look and listen noticing the subtle ways in which she speaks.

I see her when our dog frolics with the ball she sent him, a toy he’s paid no attention to in months; I hear her when an aria from her favorite opera unexpectedly soars over the radio; I feel her strength when the morning glories reach the roof before succumbing to the year’s first frost; I learn about her through photographs I’ve never noticed. We speak our old language only in the occasional, fleeting dream.

Is all of this a “cure” for grief or an outcome of it? What remains when we’ve lost someone who is as much a part of us as anyone can be? I can’t be sure. I can only have faith that she is with me still, hope that I can embody all the good that she gave to me, and love that I give to others as it has been given to me. This must be enough and it is.