Crossing Over

Dear Isaiah,

Well, here we are.  Just four days shy of your fourth birthday.  Four times around the sun, sweetcake.  Four rounds of Seattle’s cherry blossoms, four Summers of blackberry-picking and ferry riding, four Halloweens,  four Thanksgivings, four Christmases and now four birthdays. When we moved into this house in the early months of 2012, you had only recently crossed over from being my baby to being a wobbly toddler.  You had such trouble navigating our new stairs, you napped every afternoon in the upstairs closet and you were just barely big enough to sit on the stools at the new counter with your big brother.  I remember on your 2nd birthday just a few months later feeling like we had entered a whole new phase of life.  New house, new preschool and new season of parenting with my two walking, talking, playground-playing boys.

Now we cross yet another threshold together.  Now you are so much bigger and those early days with you in this house are firmly in my rearview mirror.  Papa remarked the other day that you still bear some of the signposts of your younger years.  And it’s true.  We delight in that rotund little belly and your legs that still have that satisfying squish.   Your lisp and your mixed up pronouns.  But we know that those, too, are fleeting and soon we’ll be scratching our heads and saying, “When did he start pronouncing it remember instead of duh-memba?” and “When did he stop asking for hold you‘s?” 

As we approach the big day I’ve started wondering about your first memories.  When you are 15, 50, 75, what will be your earliest recollections?  Up until this point in your life the memories have been mostly mine.  And Papa’s.  We have been the memory-keepers and the witness-bearers of these your first few years.  One of my first memories from my childhood  is looking at my reflection in the oven door at my childhood home while I talked on the phone to my dad who was out of town.  I also remember my mom putting on my socks.   In both I think I was about 4 years old. So now that you are four I’m guessing you will probably be able to recall some small glimpses of your life now in the years to come. Every day I find myself wondering, will this be it?  Or maybe this?  There is, of course, no way for me to know but I can’t help but wonder.

Will it be this morning when I leaned over the edge of your bed and rubbed your back until you woke up?

Will it be “counting your whole body” – your favorite me and mama thing to do together, where I count each part of your body?  (“Soft brown hair… one forehead… two beautiful blue eyes… one nose…”)

Will it be watching the herons outside the bedroom window last Sunday?

Will it be playing “giraffe-y” and “bucking bronco” with Papa and brother every night before bed?

Will it be helping out in the kitchen (please no, those haven’t been my finest hours)?

Will it be reading Time for a Hug?

Maybe it will be a funny memory, like last Friday when I found you hugging a stuffed pheasant at an estate sale.  Or your dinnertime prayers?  Or yesterday at Alki beach when you had to poop but there was no bathroom so we improvised with some discreet dangling and a log and, and… you know what?  Let’s skip that one.   It wasn’t pretty.  Besides, it didn’t work.

Regardless of what it is, I hope your first memory is one that conjures even just a sliver of the warmth and abundant joy you have brought me.  You were my surprise baby, Isaiah, and you have surprised me and delighted me in so many ways over the past four years.  From the moment you arrived with your brown hair and your it’s all good  demeanor, you have surprised me.   Keep on surprising me, Bup.  We’ve got so many more memories to make together.

Love,
Mama

 

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Watching the herons

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The pheasant incident. Seriously. You are so delightfully weird sometimes.

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Happy Birthday, Bups. Here’s to years and years of memory-making.

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Last Year’s Birthday Post
On the occasion of your 3rd birthday, the bombings in Boston and other awful things

This Motley Crew — My Messy Beautiful


My church community group staged a fake wedding once.  We have been meeting together as a small group for nearly 8 years now and in 2010 we organized a fake wedding complete with wedding attire, photography, a cellist and a reception.  It was fake because Brian and Nicole were already married.   They had been married for several years in fact.  But at some point they had expressed dissatisfaction with their wedding photography so we hatched a plan to throw them another wedding before they moved to Tanzania. You know, so they could have another shot at some of those photos.  Really I think we just wanted an excuse to throw a big party.

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The fake wedding party

There are 12 of us who have been part of the group from the very beginning.  Over the years we’ve folded in new folks and said goodbye to others who either moved away or moved on.   This year we’ve neared our all-time high with 21 people (second only to 2009 when we maxed out at 22).  We’re much too large, really, as far as small groups go, and we’ve wrestled with whether or not to divide into two groups nearly every single year since the inception of our group.  But we could no sooner divide our group than we could divide our own families.  Because we are a family.  A wild, all-up-in-your-business, pushing the boundaries, getting on your nerves kind of crew.   An all-in, crazy supportive, drive 3 hours to watch you run an Ironman, come over at 3 in the morning to babysit when you go into labor in the middle of the night, wait and hope and pray and weep for a baby through years of infertility, show up on moving day with donuts kind of a family.

We’re a group of artists and architects, a lawyer, a doctor and a doula, programmers, several teachers, project managers and a postal carrier.  We’ve got realtors, students and a school counselor; nannies, designers, a dancer, some stay-at-home mamas, and even a mad scientist.   With so many different people in the group somebody will step on your toes at some point.   It’s guaranteed.  When my husband and I had our first baby back in 2008 and our second just 18 months later, we were among the first ones in the group to have kids.  We were exhausted and weary and we often felt like the rest of the group just didn’t “get it.”   It would have been easy to bow out at that point and find a more “family friendly” group.

Then there’s Jack & La Verne who struggled with infertility for four long and painful years.  They watched from the sidelines as so many others in the group announced pregnancies and showed off ultrasound images.  With all those bellies and ankles swelling and the inevitable talk of swaddling blankets and bumbo seats, it would have been understandable if they had quietly slipped out the back door and went in search of a less family friendly group.  Same too, for Shane and Kelly, who miscarried in the summer of 2011 followed by 2 years of their own infertility.

And what about those on the flip side?  Ronda & Ben, Nicole & Brian, Donna & Jeffrie; all pregnant and eager to share their joy but tempering it out of a commingling of respect, love and sorrow for the others in the group who wanted babies of their own.  Rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn sounds all fine and good until there is spontaneous joy and sorrow in one place and the rubber really meets the road.  At least once over the last eight years I’m certain that every single one of us has wanted out.  At some point we’ve all wanted to throw in the towel and call it quits.

Somehow though, we’ve all continued showing up for one another.  Showing up on Wednesday nights.  Showing up for baby showers and birthdays and art openings.  Dance performances, playdates, dinners, walks, bike rides, caring for aging parents, losing jobs, planting gardens, renovating homes, and all the stuff that makes up life.  Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard but we’ve all kept at it.  We’ve continued circling the wagons and showing up for each other week in and week out;  when we’re happy, when we’re exhausted, when we’re hurt or angry or hopeful or fearful or sad.  Because we’re family.  And that’s what families do.

If Jason and I had opted out back in 2008 after Gryffin was born, think of all that we would have missed.  We would have missed seeing Jon meet Adrienne, fall in love, and get married two years later.  We would have missed the chance to cheer for Daniel when he went back to school to pursue his dream.  We wouldn’t have been there when Brianna’s uncle died or been able to sit with our friends in the deep sorrow of infertility.  We wouldn’t have been there when Jack collapsed at church from a bleeding ulcer and we wouldn’t have been there when Donna returned from her PET scans cancer-free.  We wouldn’t have been there when La Verne and Jack discovered that they were pregnant at long last.  Or three months after that when Shane and Kelly announced that they, too, were expecting.  Or three months after that when Mark & Angela, who had also struggled with infertility (I know, it’s our thing), announced that they were expecting TWINS.  We wouldn’t have been there last month when six babies from our group, all born in 2013, were dedicated up in front of our larger church, a testament to God’s enduring faithfulness.

If we had opted out all those years ago, we might have avoided a few awkward or painful moments but we also would have missed out on the immense joy of knowing and being known by other people.  We would have missed Labor Day 2012 when we vacationed with the gang at the floating house outside Portland, diving off the second-story deck and planking on every open surface.  We would have missed the Mad Men party, the annual Christmas Fondue parties, the post-Fondue-5Ks, the New Year’s sleepovers and all the Summer camping trips.  We would have missed Hannah’s infectious laugh, Erica’s sense of humor, Emily’s amazing DIYs, Shane’s intentional questions and Adrienne schooling us all in Geografacts.  We would have missed Ronda’s marshmallows, Josh’s beard and crazy socks, Brian’s boob stories, Jon’s witticisms, Jess’ joyful spirit and so, so much more.

We would have missed the fake wedding.

Living life in community isn’t perfect.  Far from it.  But these are my people.  My tribe.  My messy, beautiful, amazing tribe.  And my abiding hope is that we will still be a family 30, 40, even 50 years from now.   That we would still be meeting on Wednesday nights, pouring tea and breaking bread (err, dessert) together.  More than anything, though, I hope that we will still be showing up for one another and relentlessly walking through all the varied ups and downs of life together.

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Nickelsville Breakfast, 2008

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Habitat for Humanity Work Day, 2009

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Escape the Rock Triathlon, 2011

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At an ACTUAL wedding this time. Jon & Adrienne’s in 2012.

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Last Summer at a Lavender Farm on Vashon Island

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I wrote this post for the Messy, Beautiful Essay collaboration.  As soon as I saw the theme for the project I knew I would write about my community group.   The collaboration is to celebrate the release of Glennon’s book in paperback.  If you want more back story on Glennon, I wrote about her blog once – you can check it out here.    And here’s the link to the book.
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Siren Song of the Slothful

I think I’ve done gone lost my mind.  Last Friday night we were at happy hour with some friends and the subject of the Seafair Triathlon came up.  The guys have been participating for a few years now and one of them asked when us lady-folk were going to give it a go.

We laughed in their faces.

Kelly turned to me and confided that Shane had been pestering her to do it this year so she had told him, “I’ll do it if Nance does it.”  To which we both threw back our heads and laughed even harder.  That’s as empty a promise as one could get, considering I’m about as active as a turtle, as I’ve chronicled here numerous times.  It’s not that I don’t want to work out.  It’s just that…well, it’s just that it’s hard, y’all.  I’m totally cool with walking.  You know, like on the treadmill so I can read while I’m at it.  I do that sometimes.

Anyway, we all got back to eating our pizza.   Then Jason mentioned that maybe the three of us could tag team the triathlon.  So we discussed our hypothetical options for the various legs of the race (La V could swim, I could bike and Kel could run).   We all agreed that it was a “nice idea” and let it go at that.  Which is where I should have left it.  On the floor at Tutta Bella WHERE IT BELONGS.

But I kept thinking about it that night as I was getting ready for bed.  Could I bike 12 miles?   How hard could it be, right?   And then I thought about the running.  I’ve run 3 miles before.  Like 2 times I’ve run that far.   I admit I’m not too sure about the swimming.  But I like to snorkel.  So I went to bed wondering if maybe I should just sign up and do the whole dang thing.  Swimming, running, biking — what’s not to love?

In the morning, I furtively looked up triathlon training plans, taking extra care not to show Jason what I was doing.   I figured I would take one look at the plans and realize that I would need to, like, workout for a full year before I would be fit enough to train for a triathlon.  But lo and behold I found a triathlon training plan that is geared toward someone who is currently “inactive.”  Which I think is a nice way of saying lazy.  Dormant, if you will.

So I tentatively mentioned the idea to Jason.  He, of course, offered up all manner of affirmation and encouragement and “Oh my gosh, pal, that would so AWESOME!” and “You can totally do this,” and  blah blah blah.   I got completely drunk on it, folks.  I lost ALL sense of reason.  I started imagining myself gliding effortlessly through the water and running with my hair flying out behind me while Jason and the boys cheered me on and before I knew what I was doing I was texting the gang to tell them that I was going to go for it.   The whole shebang.

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Basically I pictured myself as the female version of this

My glow lasted all day Saturday.  I dutifully wrote up my training schedule for the upcoming week, looked up pool schedules at the Y, and took my mountain bike off the hooks in the garage.  Fast forward to this morning.  Day 1 of training.  On the agenda is 20 minutes of running without stopping.  Slow and easy pace.  Alright, ok, I can do that.   A slow and steady 20 minutes.  That’s what, like, 5 songs?   Pshhh.  Anybody can do that.

I dropped the boys off at preschool and headed down to the waterfront.  I even took a nalgene full of water.  You know, cause that’s what sporty people do.   When I pulled up to Alki though, the first thing I saw was a female runner.  When I stopped the car and squinted out at her I realized that it was another mom from the preschool.   Y’all, she was wearing the pants.   I decided I better work on my playlist for a couple minutes.  Playlists are very important.  When she was safely out of sight, I got out and started my warmup walk.   So far so good.   Totally rocking it.  Feeling good.

Five minutes later it was time to actually start jogging, though.   I started with a very light and easy pace.   I was huffing and puffing pretty hard within just a couple minutes.  Around minute 7 I started to reconsider this whole triathlon idea and curse the name of every person I know. There was a guy ahead of me who had been walking the whole time and I wasn’t gaining on him.  If anything I was losing ground.  He was wearing jeans.  And drinking coffee.

Then, around minute 12, when I thought I actually might die (can you die jogging a 14-minute mile?), who did I see again?  Preschool mom.  Doing squats.   Just, you know, casual squats in her workout pants.  I kept my focus straight ahead and prayed she wouldn’t see me.  She didn’t.  She just passed me two minutes later.  I thought about tripping her.

I eventually made it back to my car and collapsed inside of it.  While I was trying to catch my breath and not die, I saw the guy who had been sharing the sidewalk with me when I started my warmup.  He was still out there going strong.

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Yeah, he’s probably about 70.

Anyhow, after my breathing slowed sufficiently I headed over to Trader Joe’s for the weekly shopping.  Not a great idea.  Running made me hungry.   Really hungry.  Who knew?  I wanted to eat ALL THE THINGS.   Is this what happens when you work out?  I stealthily swiped a second scone from the samples lady and then bought enough food for 2 full weeks.

So the budget is blown and my training isn’t off to a stellar start.   Tell me, folks.    Will I actually be able to do this?  I mean, I can’t quit after only ONE day but I don’t even want to think about tomorrow’s training, which is swimming.  Swimming!  I can’t imagine feeling the way I felt this morning and wearing a bathing suit at the same time.  Lord, have mercy on my soul.

Calling all the fashion-forwards

Friends, I had a fashion crisis on Sunday.  I was sitting at a coffee shop with the boys waiting for Jason to finish the Mercer Island Half Marathon.   As we enjoyed our treats I watched some of the 5K runners trickle in for their post-race caffeine.  Now, I was already feeling like a slacker for a couple of reasons.  First of all, I’m certainly not about to run a 5K, let alone a half marathon.   And second, instead of taking my kids to a park to spend the beautiful Spring morning in the great outdoors, I was camped out at Starbucks feeling grumpy, taking solace in my latte and bribing my kids with croissants.

And that’s when it happened.

In walks a group of five women about my age looking incredibly chic and put together.  Especially considering they just  ran a 5K.   Every single one of them was sleek and lithe and just so… cool.  Hair done to perfection.  Makeup flawless.  And their clothes.  So matchy matchy and hip.  How?  How does this even happen?  Shouldn’t I have been the one looking pulled together and awesome, sipping my espresso while they marched in all sweaty and gross?   I mean, really.

What really got me, though, was their pants.  All of them had on some version of this…

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Some long, some cropped but all of them… tight.  Ladies, talk to me, please.  When did we start wearing these?  I’m know I’m always a little behind on the fashion front.  Is there some other memo that I’ve missed?   Last I checked (which was, admittedly, a while ago) we were wearing sweats, shorts, and sometimes yoga pants for running.    Is this, like, the skinny jeans for workout wear?  At first I thought it was only this particular group of women but over the next half hour, every single woman runner who walked in was wearing them.  It’s a conspiracy.  There was only ONE woman there who was wearing shorts and I gotta say… she looked woefully un-stylish.

A few months ago I was ironing a pair of khakis and as I mentally went through my list of girlfriends, I had a startling epiphany.  Khakis… none of my friends wear them.  Wait, what?!?   The wardrobe staple that I’d been dutifully ironing for over a decade gone in the blink of an eye?  Say it ain’t so!  I immediately called a conference with my friends and asked them pointblank, “Do we still wear khakis?”    And they oh-so-gently told me that it was time to let them go.  It was hard, y’all.  La Verne & Kelly kindly conceded that maybe I could hold on to a wide-legged pair for Summertime only.  You know, like if I’m wearing them with a flowy white shirt on the bow of a boat or something.  But otherwise, it was time to give up the ghost.

I mourned the loss of my khakis.  I really did.  But I dutifully threw myself headlong into the hunt for a more suitable “business casual” staple.  So you can see why this moment in the Starbucks on Sunday was just beyond the pale.  To be faced with this reality so soon after the loss of my beloved khakis was too much.  Could it really be time to give up my yoga pants as well?  I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so but then I remembered a video that was posted on Facebook last week of one of my pastors working out (Pastor Brenda putting us all to shame!) and it slowly dawned on me.  She had been wearing a pair of those pants, too.  That settled it.

It was all just too much.  I got up to take Gryffin and Isaiah to the bathroom, looking down in despair at my dear yoga pants as we walked past all those snazzy runners.  When we walked into the restroom, though, I noticed something on top of the toilet paper dispenser that someone had left behind and it made my  battered spirits soar.  It was like the universe was throwing me a bone.

You know what it was?

A scrunchie.

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A green scrunchie circa 1991.  I just stood there and gazed upon it for, like, a full minute.  And then a slow smile spread across my face.  Everything was going to be ok.  I’ve got this.  Because surely, surelyif people are still wearing scrunchies, then I’ve got plenty of time to get on this new workout-wear bandwagon.   Maybe once I actually get on the working OUT bandwagon.  First things first, I suppose.  But if things change in the meantime, would one of you kindly let me know?

Let’s hear it for the…?

Remember that song by Deniece Williams, Let’s Hear it For the Boy?  I remember bopping around my room to the Footloose soundtrack and singing along heartily, “Let’s give the boy a hand!”  It came to mind last week when Gryffin ambled over to me in the kitchen and asked, “Mama, was it International Women’s Day?  What’s International Women’s Day?”  I’ve only been vaguely aware of the day for a few years now and I answered with something generic about celebrating and honoring women around the world and thought that’d be the end of it.    Gryffin and Isaiah had seen the Google logo this year when they were peering over Jason’s shoulder on March 8th and asked about it.  Jason casually answered that it was International Women’s Day and that was that.  But a few days later Gryffin was back with more questions.

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“When is International Men’s Day?  Is there one for boys?”

To which I replied, “No.  Every day is men’s day.”

He was understandably confused.  It’s a valid question from a 5-year-old.  He’s at the height of the rule-following/fairness developmental phase and he was genuinely perplexed.  Why would we have one for women if we don’t have one for men?  That’s not fair.  So I backed up a bit and tried to give it to him in terms that he might be able to comprehend.  I told him that women aren’t always treated the same way that men are treated and that life is often really hard for women around the world.   I gave a few age-appropriate examples and explained that for these reasons we have a day that we set aside to celebrate women and renew our resolve to work for equality and fairness.

It didn’t compute.  He looked back at me and said, “Do you wish there was an International Men’s Day, Mama?”

No bud, I really don’t.   I know my boys are young and there will be plenty of time to explain this layer by layer by layer.  There’s no need to rush them along but someday I hope I’m able to sit close beside these two boys I love so much and say, Come, look a little closer with me…

Look at how my salary will likely peak in just a few  short years while Papa’s will probably continue to grow for another decade or more after me.

Look at how my mother, your grandmother, used to call for reservations & doctor’s appointments and after being turned down, she would have Grandpa call because he could always get us right in.  It worked nearly every single time.

Look at the churches I attended while I was growing up.  Look at how I never saw a woman preaching a sermon or leading singing.  Look at how I never saw a woman serving communion or even collecting the offering.

Look at the man who followed me and harassed me while I was on my morning walk last year.  Look at the man who propositioned me at the gas station while you two were waiting in the car.  Look at the mace I carry on my key ring.

And now look further out, my loves.

Look at the 100 million+ women affected by female genital mutilation in the world.

Look at the 1500 women killed each year in our country by their boyfriends & husbands.  Look at the 2 million men who beat their female partners.

Look at the 300,000+ women raped every year in our country.  Look at the 60% of rape victims who don’t report it.   Look at the men who tell women it was their fault they were raped in the first place.

Look at the 300-500 young girls forced to work as sex slaves right here in Seattle.

Look, look, look.

Celebrating women doesn’t mean that I don’t care for boys and men.  I do.  Very much.  I’m hopeful, though, that over the years I will be able expose Gryffin and Isaiah to their immense power and dominance as men.  Power they didn’t ask for but power they will always have nonetheless.  I’m hopeful that they won’t just honor women on March 8th each year but that it will go far, far beyond that; because men are celebrated every single day and I’ve grown tired of hearing it for the boy.  I’m tired of hearing it for the boy in the workplace, in the bedroom, in the church, and all around the world.  Today and every day let’s hear it for the GIRL.

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The Parenting Memo

When I was pregnant I was given a plethora of books about pregnancy and childbirth.  What to Expect and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy and The Mother of All Pregnancy Books - you get the idea.  Without even trying I was suddenly and profusely awash in information, helpful tips, suggestions and tricks of the belly bump trade.    When my firstborn finally arrived on the scene, the onslaught continued and I was fortunate enough to have been bequeathed with all manner of hand-me-downs, gifts, and books like Baby’s First Year.  I might have been a sleep-deprived mess but I was a PREPARED sleep-deprived mess.   I carefully watched for milestones, memorized the “When to Call Your Doctor” pamphlet, learned how to troubleshoot a bad latch, mastered Harvey’s Karp’s Five S’s, and could wrap that Moby like a BOSS.  

About 18 months out, though, it all slowed to a trickle.  By the time Gryffin was 3 I was all but out of books and hand-me-downs.   I was hard-pressed to find information about a 3-year-old’s developmental milestones and I was down to my last bag of gently-used clothes. When you have a baby, it’s like being dropped off in the wilderness but they give you this huuuuuge backpack full of the things you will need (and some that you don’t).  Once your kid is older, though, you’re just tossed out at the trailhead with a, “yeah,… good luck with that.”  Apparently once you pass a certain stage in this parenting gig, you’re just supposed to wing it.

Take kindergarten, for example.  There was no memo.  There was no briefing in the mail telling us that it was time to register Gryffin and please just follow steps A, B, and C.  No, I happened to overhear somebody talking about registering their kid when I was at the coffee shop one morning and I realized with some alarm that I better get on it.  But when I got home I wasn’t sure where to start or what to do.  I had to Google it and I’m still not entirely sure that the poor guy is registered.

I felt the same sense of bewilderment last week when I went out in search of new pants for him.  Every single pair of his pants has a hole in the right knee.  Apparently it’s his sliding knee?  I don’t know.  But it’s getting out of hand and my sewing skills don’t seem to be up to snuff.  So far I’ve attempted three different kinds of patches but he gets holes in those, too.  Or they fall off.  Not to mention he’s growing like bamboo and it’s just hard to keep up.  I scoped things out at Goodwill a few weeks back but I was baffled when I couldn’t find anything in his size.   So I set out to Target a few days later, determined to come home with something.

Turns out that it wasn’t Goodwill, though.  It was me.   I didn’t get the non-existent memo.  I didn’t realize that Gryffin has grown out of this section…

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And needs to move on to this one…

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Nobody tells you these things.   How was I supposed to know?  He’s 5.  That means he’s supposed to wear 5T.  As in TODDLER.  I had searched and searched through all the 5Ts at Goodwill and when we came up short (literally), I looked around for some 6Ts but found none.  I chalked it up to Goodwill, though.  A sparse day at the thrift store.  It happens.   But when I didn’t see any at Target either, I finally asked a sales clerk.  She informed me that they don’t make 6Ts; that I would need to go to the boys section and pointed across the aisle.   I peered over in the direction of her finger.  What?  You mean I’m supposed to move on from these sweeties…?

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To these chumps…?

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I slowly steered my cart in the general vicinity but I just walked around in a daze.   The clothes looked GINORMOUS to me.  This is where the Jr. High kids shop.  What size does this make him?  Is he an XS?  Is there something smaller than that?   I looked around at all the big basketball shorts, the skull & crossbones tees, the mustache ball caps and I felt dizzy.    Where are the Diego underpants?   The Thomas the Train socks?  Someone should have prepared me for this.  Surely there must be a book out there with information on US clothing sizes for kids and how to get ready for the big transition.

After a few breathless minutes I veered back over to the infant/toddler section and took refuge in its familiarity before heading home empty handed.  I just wasn’t ready.   I couldn’t handle all the hipster jeans and the Vans and the grown-up boyish-ness of it all.    By the time school rolls around in the Fall, I’m sure I’ll have mustered the energy to try again.  For now, I’m going to get to work on some new patches and keep my fingers crossed that he even gets IN to kindergarten.

Can I get an Amen…from the awkward white lady?

One of the pastors at our church is the Reverend Doctor Brenda Salter McNeil.   We all just call her Pastor Brenda, though, and when she preaches, she will often tell our congregation that she needs us to be actively engaged with her while she’s preaching.  She wants to feel our energy; our involvement; our active listening.  Coming as she does from a more traditional African American church culture, she is accustomed to having her congregants vocalize during her sermons, readily saying things like, “Amen,” and “Go on,” and offering a response to what she is saying. She’ll affectionately explain this week after week and ask us to encourage her in this particular way.  Our church community is a relatively diverse one, as far as churches go, but guess how most of us usually respond to Pastor Brenda’s sermons?  Guess how usually respond to Pastor Brenda’s sermons?

With silence.

To paint our church with a REALLY broad racial brushstroke, I would venture to guess that our congregation is made up of about 45% White folks, 45% Asian folks, maybe 10% Black?  I don’t have any official numbers but that’s my best guess. When we unanimously voted Pastor Brenda in as a teaching pastor last year, I wept on the way home from our annual meeting.   I was proud.  I was proud to be part of a church that cares about racial reconciliation.  I was proud that as a community we are continuing on in the hard work of being a harbinger of God’s Kingdom, which includes people from every race and tribe and nation.   And I was so proud that our staff would now reflect that deeply held conviction of our community.

But I think our collective silence during Pastor Brenda’s sermons shows that while we are perhaps on the right trajectory, we still have some strides to make as a congregation.  In some ways it feels like such a small thing and I’ve wondered if maybe I can just take a pass?  After all, I’ve never been part of a church that vocalizes during the service and it is WAY out of my comfort zone to even think about speaking out during a sermon.  Shouldn’t we all just do what’s personally comfortable?  I don’t want to look like a poser.  I’m cool with other people saying “amen” and speaking out during the sermon.  No problem.  I just don’t want to join in because it makes me feel so discomfited.

I don’t know what it feels like to be a minority.  The closest I’ve come is traveling in non-English speaking countries.  I visited Hungary several years ago and heard virtually no English during my short stay.  Being a rookie traveler, I had no idea beforehand how isolated I would feel when I found myself unable to speak with anyone.  Near the end of the trip, I remember fumbling my way through a visit with a pharmacist, using rough hand gestures in an attempt to indicate my gastrointestinal distress and crying as I tried to get her to understand my predicament.  She walked away from me and retreated into the back room.  I didn’t know where she was going or if she was coming back.  I just sat down on one of the chairs, feeling alone and intensely vulnerable.  When she finally came back out, she had a small box and a piece of paper.   She handed me the box with a sympathetic look, glanced down at the paper and said slowly, with effort, “Help…with…stomach.”   I cried even harder.  She understood me!  And more than that, she took the time and effort to communicate with me, even though she didn’t have to and I could tell that she was unsure of her broken English.   It meant so much to me in that moment that she tried; that she found a way to say I see you.  In my language.

I remember chatting with a black friend a few years ago and he told me that he is always aware of when the last black person leaves the building on Sundays.  I was genuinely surprised.  I had never even considered such a thing.  I’ve never had to.  Especially not at church.  But week in and week out, he is acutely aware that he is part of a small contingent of people at our church with darker skin.    He feels “other” in a place where I feel completely comfortable.  He feels different in a place where I feel so much the same.  He also shared some of his earlier struggle in deciding whether or not to continue on with our church community; wondering if he could be himself within our congregation; if he would be seen and celebrated on his own terms by the more dominant culture already present there; if it was a safe place to offer himself and show us who he is.

So too with Pastor Brenda.  When she asks us to vocalize during her sermons, she is taking a risk.  Being vulnerable.  She is, in essence, saying, “This is who I am.  This is what resonates with me.”  She is offering us herself.  And I don’t think it’s enough to just give her my biggest smile.  I don’t think it’s enough to nod my encouraging nod.  It’s not enough because those are my terms.  By saying “amen” and responding to her preaching in a way that is meaningful to her, I have the chance to say, I see you.  And I celebrate YOU on YOUR terms.  If we want to live into our vision for a multi-racial community, the dominant culture has to be willing to do things that stretch us beyond our current level of comfort in order that we might truly see and celebrate those around us.   Starting with awkward, uncomfortable me.  And there’s the rub.  I’m scared and it makes me really nervous but the next time Pastor Brenda says, “Can I get an Amen?” she’s going to get one from me.

Ash Wednesday & an Ode to Walt

–Originally published Ash Wednesday 2012

Today is Ash Wednesday.  We skipped the service this morning at church.   We couldn’t really envision what this serious service would look like with two toddlers in their jammies eager for breakfast (or maybe we could) so we opted out this year.   But I’ve been thinking about it all day.  It’s one of my favorite services on the church calendar.  It’s so solemn and serious.  I like having the ashes spread on my forehead in the shape of a cross.  I like hearing the words, “Remember, o woman, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It seems such a fitting way to start the Lenten season.

Tonight, as I was ironing I looked up and glimpsed my grandpa’s hat in the closet.  I have it set up so I can see it whenever I open the closet.  I walked over and held the hat for a minute.  Smelled it (it still smells just like him – amazing).   And I was reminded of what I was doing around this time last year.  Last February I was in Lodi to help bury him.   Well, to “spread” him, actually.   We didn’t bury him.  We spread his ashes.  Up in the mountains, where we had spread my grandmother’s ashes five months earlier.  I helped; I reached into the bag and grabbed hold of some of him and tossed him into the wind.  It was weird.  Strange and a little scary.  Thinking about it as I pushed my iron back and forth and cried a little, I realized that tossing his ashes that morning was the most real Ash Wednesday service I could ever attend.    As it turns out, we really do return to dust.

We all called him Walt.   His name was Roy but he was always Walt to one and all.  An old baseball nickname. I have so many fond memories of him from my childhood. He practiced throwing grounders with me in his backyard when I joined the softball team in 4th grade.  He taught me how to drive when I was fifteen (“gettin’ on the freeway… ppssshhh, it’s a can of corn.  no problem, you can do this”).   He talked sports with me.   Told me endless stories about his beloved dog, Shortie, and I always kind of fancied myself as his favorite grandchild.  I have absolutely no proof of this and I know my siblings and cousins would beg to differ!  But I always just felt like he got me.  And I him.

Most of the family agreed that it was “a good time” for him to go.  That he had been so sad.  That he was finally pain-free.  That he was with Ed.  And it’s all true.  But it’s still hard to have him go.   We were in Lodi for Thanksgiving a couple months after my grandma died and I was looking forward to spending a significant amount of my time there with Walt.  I just wanted to sit with him.  Talk about Ed, maybe.   See his little apartment.  Visit the dining area with him.   But I came down with the stomach flu just before we left for Lodi and I just couldn’t seem to kick it.  So I spent Thanksgiving Day on the couch, staying as far away from him and everyone else as possible.  I remember that Jason gave a toast to Ed at the meal and even in my feverish haze from the couch, I still remember the look on Walt’s face as he leaned in close to hear Jason’s words.   And then a few days later, still sick, my dad had to drive me to Urgent Care (IV fluids and antibiotics).  On the way, we dropped my mom off at Walt’s, just around the corner. I was too weak to even sit up in the back seat.  Walt gave me a sympathetic look from his doorway, waved at me with a smile, and called out “hee!” (his signature greeting).  That was the last time I ever saw him.

So this Ash Wednesday, I’m thinking about Walt.  Missing him.  Remembering him.   Celebrating him.  And remembering that I, too, will return to dust someday.

Walt (in his hat) & Gryffin, May 2009

“Calling”

I came across this quote a few days ago by Jon Foreman, lead singer of Switchfoot.  It’s his response to the question of whether or not Switchfoot is a “Christian” band.  Have a look…

jonforeman

“To be honest, this question grieves me because I feel that it represents a much bigger issue than simply a couple SF tunes. In true Socratic form, let me ask you a few questions: Does Lewis or Tolkien mention Christ in any of their fictional series? Are Bach’s sonata’s Christian? What is more Christ-like, feeding the poor, making furniture, cleaning bathrooms, or painting a sunset? There is a schism between the sacred and the secular in all of our modern minds.

The view that a pastor is more ‘Christian’ than a girls volleyball coach is flawed and heretical. The stance that a worship leader is more spiritual than a janitor is condescending and flawed. These different callings and purposes further demonstrate God’s sovereignty.

Many songs are worthy of being written. Switchfoot will write some, Keith Green, Bach, and perhaps you yourself have written others. Some of these songs are about redemption, others about the sunrise, others about nothing in particular: written for the simple joy of music.

None of these songs has been born again, and to that end there is no such thing as Christian music. No.”


This “schism between sacred and secular” that Foreman describes is interesting to me because as Christians we tend to use certain terms, certain lingo, like “calling,” without much thought or intentionality and it’s those very terms that introduce such a schism.  To say that you are “called” to something indicates that God has somehow ordained it.  Sanctioned it.  Called you forth to this good work.   And the term is usually employed to describe vocations that would be considered sacred, like taking a design job for Charity Water or interning for World Concern (both great orgs, btw).

Suppose, though, that you accept a new job, as, say, an administrative assistant for a flooring company because you like the work and you are good at it?   Is that just a job? You’ll rarely hear someone say that being an administrative assistant is their “calling.”  But is there really any difference between the administrative assistance and the non-profit graphic designer?   As Foreman points out, the implication that one is more “Christian” than the other is erroneous.

I wonder where we got this concept of calling?  I don’t think there is Biblical precedent for it.  I suppose it could harken back to Moses being “called” to stand up to Pharaoh or Hannah being “called” to give up Samuel for the temple work.   But that’s not the way we use it today.  Today we use it to add weight to our intentions, our desires, our jobs, our spiritual lives, our volunteer work and if we find ourselves in the unfortunate position of not knowing where or to what we are “called,” we are left to feel as though we have somehow missed the mark.

A commenter recently mentioned that she believes her highest calling is motherhood and it gave me pause.   I couldn’t quite pinpoint it at the time but I wasn’t sure that I would say the same.  I knew what she was driving at.  Being a parent is certainly one of the greatest joys of my life and has been meaningful beyond measure.  But to say that it is the “highest calling” in my life would thus imply that all the other “callings” on my life pale in comparison and further perpetuate the peking order of “Christian” things versus “Non-Christian” things.   Ultimately I think I would agree with Rachel Held Evans that as a Christian, my highest calling is not motherhood or my job as a birth doula or my volunteer work as a community group leader.  My highest calling is to follow Christ.   And that feels freeing to me.  The pressure is off.   The web developer and the admin assistant, the chef and the lawyer, the teacher and the truck driver, the architect and the dancer, the pastor and the scientist need not worry about whether they have “found their calling” but only whether they are being faithful to the call to follow Christ.

—–
I’m still batting this around in my head a bit and I’m curious to hear what you all think.  What’s been your experience with this Christian concept of calling?

The Complete White Privilege Awareness Series

The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness

Stage One:
I’m not a racist!

AKA DENIAL

When I was 19-years-old I went on a Spring Break trip to the Harambee Center in Pasadena.  We spent the week working in different parts of the city, doing home visits with some families in Watts, and discussing various issues relating to race and reconciliation.  On our first night in Pasadena I remember listening to a white man talk about race and he opened with this line to a group of 50 college students, the vast majority of whom were white: “You are all racists.  Every last one of you.”

Obviously not one for easing into things, that guy.  I was sitting near the back and I remember thinking, “WHAT???  Are you kidding me with this?  I am not a racist.  My boyfriend in high school was totally Korean.  How could I be a racist if I dated someone who wasn’t white?  I don’t think so. No way.”   I’d like to say that I listened with an open ear and thus began a lifelong quest of inner examination and contemplation surrounding race.  But I didn’t.  I completely tuned him out, full of my own righteous indignation.

Last week in Florida yet another jury let yet another white man off the hook for killing yet another black teenager.   I’ve served on a criminal jury myself so I understand some of the nuances of the law and how hard it can be to convict someone of something when you are splitting hairs over definitions of degree and struggling to decipher the legal lingo.  But when the interview with juror number 8 was aired and she claimed that race was not a factor whatsoever in the jury deliberations because “nobody brought up race,” news sources seemed to agree that it was settled then; that because nobody mentioned race during the deliberations, it clearly wasn’t a factor.  Fair and square.  Done deal.  If it’s not spoken or outwardly apparent, it doesn’t exist.

Nobody likes to be called a racist and at least part of our problem comes in the definition.  Racism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is (1) the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race and (2) the belief that some races of people are better than others.  Most of us, when considering whether or not we are racist, look to that first definition.  Racist?  Not a chance!  We have never treated someone poorly or, heaven forbid, resorted to violence against someone because of their race.  We wouldn’t dream of it.  Taking stock of that first definition leaves most of us feeling like our conscience is clear and ready to defy anyone who would challenge us on it, like I did in Pasadena more than a decade ago.

But how about the second half of the definition?  The belief that some races of people are better than others.  This is where the line starts to get a little fuzzy.  Our first response might still be, “Me?  No way!  I don’t think that way!”   But upon closer examination we see another story playing out.

Take for example the studies that show that children, even black children, have a clear preference for white dolls over black ones — a distressing truth originally found in the 1940s but STILL remains the case all these years later.

Or the fact that most people on welfare are white but that most Americans think the majority of welfare recipients are black.

Or the findings of scientist, Eric Hehman, that President Obama’s blackness has an inverse effect on his perceived level of “Americanness.”

Our workforce still remains strongly stratified by race.  We continue to perpetuate the myth that black fathers are more absent than most when recent findings actually show that black fathers are more involved with their kids than any other race in the US.  And more than 40% of Americans think it’s ok to wear blackface on Halloween.

But still, we argue.  WE aren’t part of that.   

This, here, is the critical juncture.  This is the point at which we either keep shouting “not me!  not me!  not me!” or we admit that even though we may not fully understand it, we are a part of this.  We are the dominant race in a country whose kids are choosing white dolls over black ones; whose preschoolers make the black kids play the part of the “bad guys” on the playground; whose black citizens are imprisoned for drug possession at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts; whose white students routinely outnumber Latino and Black students in the gifted programs in our schools despite the fact that science shows giftedness to occur at exactly the same rate across all racial groups.  The belief that some races of people are better than others evidently exists at least on some level, although it might be simmering so far beneath the surface for some of us that we are unaware of it.

So even if we have never uttered a single word that could be construed as racist, even if we believe ourselves to be entirely above reproach, we have to be willing to look at the larger landscape and see that something is amiss.  And whether we are aware of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we want it to be this way or not, we are an inextricable part of that landscape.  That is where I found myself about a year after that night in Pasadena; scratching my head and saying, “huh, there might be something more to this than I realized.”   But I had to stop fighting first.  I had to settle down and stop defending myself so ardently.  Only then was I was able to begin the hard work of digging down through those deeper, more painful, layers of my own prejudices and (gasp!) racism.

Stage Two:

Get This Thing Off of Me!

AKA ANGER

My husband, Jason, used to ride his bike to work.  He rode every day past the Olympic Sculpture Park near downtown Seattle and one day he came home and told me that his ride that morning had been exquisite.  His riding had been so fast, so smooth, so easy.  Maybe, he thought, he was getting more fit?  Maybe all those months of riding were finally paying off and he could look forward to riding with such ease everyday?  But as he sailed down Elliott Avenue full of pride at his new level of physical fitness, he glanced up and saw the flags in the park.  They were all billowing hard and flying in the same direction.  He realized then, considerably deflated, that he had only felt so powerful and strong because he had been riding with the wind at his back the entire way.

A few years later, during a Faith & Race discussion at our church, Jason likened that morning ride to the pervasive nature of white privilege and it remains one of the best analogies I’ve heard on the subject.  If you are a white person in the United States, you have been riding with the wind at your back your entire life.  And you have probably never noticed that all the flags around you are flying in the same direction.

Two things in particular brought the flying flags into sharper focus for me.  The first was a well-known article by Peggy McIntosh called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.  In it, McIntosh says,

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege . . . I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of
special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

She goes on to explain in further detail about what can be found in that invisible backpack. If you are unfamiliar with the article, here are a few of the “special provisions” she mentions…

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be
    followed or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see
    people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown
    that people of my color made it what it is.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work
    against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • . I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not
    like them.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without
    having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the
    illiteracy of my race.
  •  I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who
    constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such
    oblivion.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and
    behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing
    a person of my race.
  •  If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I
    haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys,
    and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.
  • I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or
    less match my skin.

backpack

After reading through the complete article, I pondered her list in the weeks and months to come.  I was embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that I hadn’t considered any of these things.  Ever.

The second thing that illuminated my white privilege was a book and a corresponding email discussion with a friend.  I can’t remember the name of the book. It was a novel about the friendship between a white woman and a black woman.  It’s been over 12 years now and I actually can’t remember much about it except that it brought up many of the same themes as the article on the invisible backpack.  The book combined with the article and I suddenly had so many questions.  I wasn’t sure where to go; who to ask.  I finally decided, with trepidation, to turn to my friend, Janelle, who is black, and asked her if I could email her with some of my questions.  It wasn’t her job to educate me and she didn’t need to do it, but she responded with such kindness and she never made me feel embarrassed by my utter and complete ignorance on the subject at hand.

That email conversation with Janelle was a turning point for me.  I was suddenly propelled beyond a merely intellectual assent to a set of beliefs about white privilege and into something much more personal.  Hearing from my friend about her experience at our predominantly white college and growing up in a mostly white town changed everything.  Now there was an actual person involved and I was deeply pained by her story, particularly to realize that had been part of her circle of white friends in college and as such had interacted with her from a place of un-seeing insensitivity.

This then brought me to firm standing in stage two of white privilege awareness: anger.  I was angry about my whiteness, angry about my undue privilege, angry about the wind at my back, angry that I had not noticed, and angry that other people were not yet aware. The burden of the invisible backpack, which was supposed to be undetectable, was suddenly brought to bear and I wanted it off.

Stage Three:

Look at Me!  Look at Me!
I’m a WPGI!

pronounced “whip-gee” or White Person who Gets It.

AKA BARGAINING

Back in 2004 I attended the UYWI conference in Southern California.  I found myself standing with a group of friends waiting for one of the sessions to start when one of the women in my group made a crack about white people.  Jason had wandered off in search of some food so I was the only white person left in the circle and I wasn’t sure what to do; how to respond.  Should I laugh?  Nod knowingly?  Pretend I hadn’t heard?  I don’t remember exactly what I did but I do remember wanting to show them that I was cool with it.  I got it.  No big deal.  I’m a WPGI.

A couple years later in 2007, while attending our church’s Faith & Race seminar, I said something in my small group about my eagerness to learn more and one of the men of color in my group responded by saying gently, “It’s not my job to teach you anything.”  I was aghast. Not because I felt like he had misunderstood my meaning.  Not because I had said something stupid.  I felt agitated and anxious because I was worried about losing my street cred.  I wanted him, and everyone in my group, to know that I’ve got this stuff down.   I am white.  I am privileged.  I’ve got the backpack.  I’ve got the wind at my back and I know it.  All hail to the people of color.  You know, ’cause I’m a WPGI.

notfunny

Once we pass through denial and anger, we desperately want the world to know that we GET IT.  We post status updates and pictures on Facebook that demonstrate just how much we get it.  We let slip during oh-so-casual conversations that we love kimchee or mole or pho.   We laugh uproariously at jokes we don’t fully understand, even jokes at our own expense.  We write blog posts about white privilege awareness.

Here, though, is the primary problem with Stage Three: it’s a fallacy.  There is no such thing as a WPGI.  They don’t actually exist.  For the white person who has moved through the first two stages of awareness, bulking up and trying to throw our weight around as a WPGI is really just a form of bargaining that stems from some semblance of survivor’s guilt.    If we can just show you that we understand; that we get it; that we are aware of the wind at our back; we might be given a small reprieve and our crushing sense of culpability allowed to recede.

I wanted my friends at the conference to feel like I was one of them.  I wanted to be the cool, aware, humble white one allowed inside the inner circle.  But I will never know what it is like to be a person of color.  I will never know what it is like to sit by my friends in the cafeteria and eat food that looks and smells strange to them.  I will never know what it is like to have my hair touched by curious hands.  I will never wonder whether or not I was accepted to my college of choice because of the color of my skin.  I will never be called a credit to my race.  I will never know what it is like to have my husband followed discreetly in a department store.  I will never know the anguish of a mother whose teenaged son played his music just a little too loud and payed the ultimate price.  I will never know.   I will never get it.  Trying to prove that I do, while perhaps threaded with some measure of good intention, is merely a demonstration of my arrogance and my presumption.  And ultimately it only serves to show just how much I DON’T understand.

Stage Four:
Awareness Fatigue

AKA DEPRESSION

Sometime around 2009 I began to notice a waning of personal enthusiasm during discussions of race.  I was no longer striving to be a WPGI, my anger had started to dull around the edges and I was beginning to wallow.  In the intervening years since that email conversation with my friend, Janelle, I had slowly peeled away and peered into some of the deeper recesses of racism and the result was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.

I was taught in school that the civil rights movement had by and large eliminated racism.  That’s the official party line.  The unjust laws were overturned at last.  Everything is now fair and square and the playing field all but leveled.  But in reality, while the civil rights movement did change the rules of the game and made things “fair” for all, the starting line is still substantially staggered, with white folks continuing to get a rather hefty head start.

I was first introduced to the concept of a staggered starting line when I read an interview with NYU sociologist Dalton Conley on PBS.   A staggered starting line is found when one looks at something like the racial wealth gap in the United States, for example.  As Conley explains, “It takes money to make money.  Part of the reason that there’s this enormous gap is because whites have long had higher wages and wealth to pass on from generation to generation.”   In fact, he points out, 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is due to past generations.  Staggered starting line.

wealthgap

As of 2010 71% of whites owned their own home compared to 45% of blacks and 47% of Latinos.   While most Americans might equate that with white folks pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps in pursuit of the illustrious American Dream, it’s much more deleterious than that.  Following World War II, the government gave low-interest loans to returning veterans and other whites but excluded blacks and other minorities from taking part.   I can directly trace my home ownership to the wealth and home ownership of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents (and likely much farther back).  We used some form of money from both sides of our white families to help us purchase not one, but TWO homes.  My black friends don’t necessarily have those generations of wealth and home ownership to draw from because their ancestors were excluded.  Staggered starting line.

The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that higher education is one of the most effective ways that parents can raise their families’ incomes.  And children from a family with college-educated parents are nearly three times more likely to reach college than a person whose parents did not, according to the US Census Bureau.  Both of my white parents went to college.  My husband’s white mother went to college.  They all attended university in the 1960s when discriminatory laws and attitudes excluded most blacks and other minorities from attending, thus putting both me and my husband in higher income brackets as children and greatly increasing our odds of going to college ourselves.  Staggered starting line.

Being white with white ancestors means that I have started several rungs higher on the proverbial ladder than my black friends and that realization feels incapacitating at times.  Demoralizing.  Depressing.   It’s tempting to just shrug, shake it all off and say, “I’m not responsible for the past.  That was then and this is now.”  But the truth is that we are all “inheritors of the past,” as Conley puts it, and our inglorious history has bequeathed us with this staggered starting line.   Only the person at the front of such a starting line wants to believe that everyone else is being given a fair shot.   But the reality remains that every white person in this country, regardless of current or past financial status; regardless of educational status; regardless of their belief or lack thereof in white privilege; every last one of us benefits from the legacy of slavery that set us up with a system of such vast inequity that it continues to linger on to this day.

Stage Five:
What Now?

AKA Acceptance

When I mentioned to a white friend that I was working on this series about white privilege, her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, that’s GREAT!  I would really like to know what I’m supposed to do.  Nobody ever tells us what to do with it.”  I knew exactly what she meant but I fretted all the way home, thinking, “well, dang, how am I supposed to figure out what to do?  I haven’t a clue.”   And that’s where a lot of us get stuck, I think.  We get stuck in stage 4, depressed and unsure of our next move.  We become incapacitated by our guilt and while we remain solidly aware of our privilege, we operate almost solely out of a sense of culpability and contrition.

It’s ok to feel guilty.  Dr. Brené Brown says that guilt can be “adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”   Brown believes that guilt can actually be the precursor to meaningful and lasting change.  Increasing your awareness about your privilege ought to make you feel guilty but it also ought to propel you forward.  To what, though?  This is the hard question of Stage Five.  What now?

One of the reasons that I felt such distress after my conversation with my friend was because there are no straightforward answers.  There is no to-do list whereby you can systematically check things off one by one in order to find absolution.  Stage Five is about acceptance and a willingness to sit in a state of perpetual unease without trying to alleviate it.  It’s about leaning into the discomfort of your awareness and then using that discomfort as a catalyst to change your life trajectory.

Stage Five is taking a closer look at your neighborhood and choosing to live somewhere that is not entirely homogenous.  It is a closer scrutiny of the schools you choose for your children to attend; eating food that seems foreign or frightening; reading a novel that examines issues of race; exploring the history of your family and tracing some of those threads of privilege that are inextricably woven throughout its entire existence.

It is giving your employees the day off for our national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is advocating for more accountability in our legal system.  It is speaking out against the sentencing disparities and selective enforcement of our nation’s drug laws.

drugusers_prisoners

It is asking questions and hearing the stories of other people, even after you think you’ve got it all figured out.  It is continuing the conversation with your Sikh neighbor even though you made the incorrect assumption that he was muslim because of his turban and you are deeply embarrassed.  It is teaching your kids about the wind that will be at their backs their entire lives.  It is taking a meal to the black mama across the street whose kids play at the same playground as your kids who is reeling after the Dunn shooting and saying, “I am so sorry that this has happened again.  I am so sorry that a white man has shot another black child.  I am so, so sorry and I grieve with you.”

Perhaps these things seem paltry?  Insignificant.  I think they feel woefully inadequate because they are woefully inadequate.  We want answers and we want a check list because we want to set things right.  We want to make some sort of amends.  We want justice; restitution.  But there will be no easy absolution for our race.

It is no coincidence that I connected the 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness to the 5 Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.  Every stage is an experience in grief.   Each stage an anguish.  But even in the midst of great grief, even in the darkest of hours, hope lives.  So we hope.  We hope and we stand in solidarity.  We advocate and we listen.  We make space for the grief and the anger and the hurt and the frustration that we will never fully understand.  And we let our voices rise up to sing with the multitudes who have been singing for generations before us; Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.  Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.  Let us march on till victory is won.

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Want more?  Here are a few things to keep the conversation rolling.  If you have suggestions for other reading material or resources, please share in the comments.