Tag Archives: conversations

The Verdict

We left the dinner table and turned the television on to public broadcasting—the stolid, unflashy journalism of non-commercial news. PBS allowed us to take a pass on the stacked rows of talking heads, the frenetic split screens, and the emergency-of-the-day theme music of the major media outlets.

We watched, heartsick, as the Ferguson prosecutor unrolled his strange presentation. My husband’s face growing harder, the kids trying to figure out—as we all were—what he was actually saying in his weird, meandering speech.

Eventually, we turned the television off. The family wandered off to their routine pursuits, I slowly worked in the kitchen, listening to radio coverage and pausing now and again to check the rage burning its way through Twitter.

My nephew, a journalism student at a university in Missouri, tweeted that he couldn’t pull away from the Ferguson coverage focus on his homework. In  his classes, he’s learning what journalism is meant to be; why it matters; how to be a good journalist. On this night he was applying those lessons to what he saw before him as Ferguson erupted in pain and disappointment on the television screen.

We tweeted back and forth a bit. He wrote about seeing history in the making, about his hopes that the turmoil would lead to change.

Our brief exchange reminded me of so many things.

I remembered the excitement of seeing history unfolding before me when I was his age, my eyes increasingly opened to the world outside my own small environment.

The Challenger Explosion — The Solidarity Movement — The Fall of the Berlin Wall — The Breakup of the Soviet Union  —  The AIDS crisis— Tiananmen Square — Mandela’s Release — The Invasion of Kuwait — The Dismantling of Apartheid — The Dayton Accords  — so many others.

I remembered the names of people. The change-makers becoming icons before our eyes  because they acted on their convictions or because they unintentionally became the face of a movement that changed things for the better.

Christa McAuliffe — Lech Walesa — Nelson Mandela — Ryan White — Randy Shilts  — Václav Havel —Desmond Tutu — the anonymous protestor who stood alone in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square — so many others.

I remembered beginning to understand that behind those familiar faces, those big names, stood many unacknowledged and unnamed people who worked alongside them to make change happen.

I remembered how their hard-fought optimism seemed to sweep the cobwebs away from the world.

On the night the Ferguson verdict was announced and I stood in the kitchen tweeting with my nephew I knew—just as I knew yesterday when the Garner verdict was announced—that my college self, that naïve, optimistic college girl, would never have believed this.

That optimistic college girl would never have believed  that in 2014 she’d find herself standing in the kitchen listening to the despair and rage of the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, who have had enough of blatant racism and brutality by police. Or that a few days later another, similar verdict would set off more protests, centering this time in New York.

She would never have believed that she’d witness an important historical moment revealing not how far we’ve come, but how long we’ve stood still, looking over our shoulders at a past we haven’t come close to leaving behind.

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The Lamb

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, the saying goes.  This one started off no differently than in most years–a month in transition, weeks that feel as if the earth is holding its breath until spring decides if it will remain or go back into hiding. The weather is another matter, almost schizophrenic in its indecision. The first couple of weeks of March this year the Pacific Northwest got more than 18 inches of rain. We normally average seven.

In one window of time, a window that is still wide open, tragedy has struck all around. A vast mudslide buried a whole community, swallowing up houses, cars, people, everything in its path. A helicopter fell from a helipad onto traffic below. A father died, skiing an easy run on a blue bird day.

Yesterday, I got in the elevator at the medical center behind a woman in a wheelchair, her leg bandaged from a recent amputation, her head shaved, likely because of an aggressive treatment. She made light conversation with the security guard who had wheeled her in. They chatted about flowers, warm air, the welcome sun. Part of her story is plain to see. Her tone of voice, her brightness keeps the rest hidden.

On two separate occasions recently I have seen women I know from a distance. Too far to greet them, but close enough to see that they, too, have shorn heads. Both beautiful; both stylish; both could easily carry the look. Hopeful, I asked a friend if the woman we saw at the same moment had shaved her head by choice. If anyone has the guts to do it, I thought, she does. “No,” said my friend. “It was not a choice.”

March wasn’t always a complicated month. I mostly considered it forgettable—one of those parts of the year that seem to slip by almost without notice. No real holidays, no big national events. Just a spell of time between the dark days of winter and the glory of the “real” spring months of warmth and life.

Then, years ago, a nephew was born. It became his birthday month. Eventually, after another stretch of years, my daughter was born. It was her month, too. Only two years passed before a family tragedy struck–sudden, inexplicable.

March became something different after that. A lopsided month that has a significance it doesn’t deserve; this previously nothing month. The joy of the two birthdays is now always weighed down by poignancy, even though we work hard to lighten the load.

Today, a long-awaited breakfast with friends I don’t see often enough. We greeted one another with laughter and hugs. And then we somberly recounted our connections among the newly dead, the recently hurt and ill. We live in a large city, but two of us know the family of the skier who died. One of us knows a man who lost three family members in the mudslide. Another knows relatives of the man seriously injured when the helicopter fell. All of us know one of the two women with shorn hair.

We stayed there a while, in the place where collective sadness helps rather than hurts, but then we started in on our brimming plates of warm food. We shifted the weight of our hearts and our conversation so we could talk of kids and school; of spring, blooms, and sunlight; of life eventually coming back and drying out the saturated earth. Because that’s what it does. Regardless of circumstances, regardless of the times it weighs us down, life just keeps on coming back.

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*Letting Them Run

Appropriately enough, my last ski blog for OutdoorsNW this season was posted on the first day of spring. *Here is an excerpt. If you like it, I hope you’ll head over the the OutdoorsNW blog to read the whole essay and to see pictures from Mt. Bachelor in Oregon State, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever skied.

Letting them Run

“’Your skis want to run,’ said Michael as I sat in the snow digging my ski free so I could stand up again. “’You’re holding them back.’

Our group had crossed a difficult ridgeline on the backside of the summit on Mt. Bachelor. Storms had scoured the surface, leaving sharp spikes of hoar frost in their wake. Like a receding high tide leaves ridges in the sand of a beach, the winds had left lines of rock-hard ice sticking up in thin strips across the face of the mountain. They looked fragile and beautiful in the sunlight, but they were unbreakable and caught our edges and tripped us up as we crossed.”

Click here to read the whole essay.

Now onto the spring ski season and ideas for new essays that may not (or may) have anything to do with nature or skiing or mountains. Oh who am I kidding? Never say never and all that.

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A Detour Into Pop Culture

I watched about 30-40 minutes of this year’s Grammy Awards, long enough to see Keith Urban’s performance with Gary Clark, Jr. (and then I lived through some performances I quickly forgot).  I watched Paul McCartney and the former members of Nirvana win the award for Best Rock Song, which they all claimed to have just thrown together in a two-hour jam session. When I listened to Gary Clark, Jr’s album the next day, I wondered if the McCartney/Nirvana folks won more by nostalgia than because they truly had the best song. I know how I would have voted.

In the days that followed there was a lot of talk about Macklemore winning the best new artist award, among others, and Kendrick Lamar, who many thought should have won the best new artist award instead. I don’t care that much about who won what, really, but there was an internet firestorm about whether Macklemore somehow robbed Kendrick Lamar of a well-deserved shot at a Grammy.

One article in particular, Brittney Cooper’s essay in Salon “Macklemore’s Useless Apology: Grammys and the Myth of Meritocracy”, took me back to many a conversation I had as a college student about racism, white privilege, patriarchy, ideology, and all the –isms that go along with those concepts. One conversation in particular came flooding back to me.

When I was a graduate student in English in the early 90s, my favorite writers were black American novelists, particularly Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. I wanted to specialize in African-American Literature. The obvious question weighed on my mind: What right did I, a middleclass white woman, have to research and teach African-American literature?

One day I had the immense pleasure to drive the distinguished professor Nellie Y. McKay to the airport after she gave the keynote speech at a literary festival on campus. What better person to ask? She was a pioneer in African-American and women’s literary studies. She was trapped in my car; we were taking a detour because I had taken a wrong turn. I nervously broached the subject. Did I have any right to pursue this?

“Of course you do!” She said. But she warned me. I’d have to be excellent. I’d have to know my stuff. I’d have to study the writers and all their works inside and out. I’d be challenged, especially by black students, who would ask how I dared to teach them about their experiences. “Tell them honestly,” she said. “That you cannot and will not try to teach them about their experience as black people. You will teach them about literature that happens to be written by black people.”

And she went on to say that if we were all limited to teach only that with which we had direct experience, then she as a woman, as a black person, would never be able to teach works by her favorite authors: Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Cather, Welty, O’Connor, and so on.

I thought of that conversation after I read the Brittney Cooper’s article and saw some of the responses to it. Yes, there’s a very long history in our country of black artists being bilked of monetary and personal artistic rewards for their hard work. Yes, sometimes we think there’s an imbalance in who gets the accolades (remember Kanye West’s reaction to Tayor Swift’s win at the VMAs?). There is a long and convoluted history of artistic influence that is enmeshed in our diverse and complex culture—often at the expense of artists of color. Though its origins are very troubling, this artistic influence—from the blues, from gospel, from jazz, from oral traditions–is incredibly rich and is so tightly enmeshed in the fabric of our country now, that we couldn’t untangle it even if we wanted to.

But I think Macklemore is being scapegoated a bit here in this current debate. He wrote and produced an album that has enormous appeal across demographics  and that sold millions and millions of copies. He didn’t vote for himself—others nominated him and gave him the wins. He tried to do the right thing by reaching out to Lamar and it backfired in the court of internet opinion, but if he’d stayed silent…?

My daughter’s 8th grade language arts class has been discussing this issue of white privilege (some would say Macklemore won solely because of this) vs. artistic integrity (some would say Lamar lost, but still has this) this week—at this point she’s ready to get back to Shakespeare. Her description of the kids’ discussion reminded me of how easy it is sometimes to believe that there are clear cut answers to the questions of race and culture and merit in this country. Should Macklemore’s hip hop be discounted because he’s white? Should Lamar’s hip hop be considered better because he’s black?

I think Nellie McKay would take a thoughtful pause before answering those questions.

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