Thursday, June 25, 2015

Charleston, Sorrow, Silence, Speech

Here is where I am coming from. I am an American in Canada. I am the daughter of working-class Baptists, descended from German, Polish, and an unspecified southern mix of immigrants, as well as probably Cherokee--though most Americans seem to claim as much. (It's part of the folk culture, I think, a way to feel less bad about Manifest Destiny since it blurs the line between "us" and "them.") I grew up outside Detroit. I am a white woman with a PhD in English, focusing especially on women writers, postcolonial literature, race and gender, and religion. I am preparing to teach about the Middle Passage, Native American jurisdiction, and NAFTA in a Saskatchewan classroom this fall, via texts like Beloved (Morrison), The Round House (Erdrich), and The Guardians (Castillo). I am raising a little girl. I am learning to care for another gardener's perennials in a house newly purchased.

I have no right to speak, no platform to speak. I am uneasy at the thought of self-aggrandizement--using tragedy as an excuse to write and receive affirmation, the rush of accumulating social media likes and shares.

The horrors pile up. I watch them. I comb my daughter's hair, blinking back tears. Brutality, rampant prejudice, death, shrill arguments that leave no space for actual listening. Not to mention the under-reported and unreported tragedies, the deaths-by-drone, the Elsewhere sorrows.

I observe, mostly silent, doubly removed as an expatriate, while Canadians lose crucial freedoms, its leaders seeming to shrug off serious suggestions to ameliorate the effects of its own wicked history--while my own country, day after day, exports news of its bloodbaths. I am not the one to speak, the suburban white woman, young and untried.

Mostly, then, I listen. I follow friends who compile Black sources, Indigenous sources; I read up. I donate funds to organizations that seek to undo injustices. I attend events when I can. I am helping to plan a conference that will do a tiny local part in these larger conversations about structures of power and justice and hope. I bake bread. I weed the flowerbeds. I read some more.

Lately, though, I feel that my silence might be a rejection of responsibility. I feel, deeply, intuitively, uncomfortably, that I may need to share a few words with my corner of the internet.

Here is what I know: I know texts. I sit, figuratively, at the feet of womanists, postcolonial feminist theologians, novelists. I read and re-read their stories and theories and laments, seeking not to idealize or idolize or romanticize them but to learn from painfully-earned wisdom. I have painfully-earned wisdom of my own, as well, but it is different. I am seeking to gather together the various wisdoms, to learn from more than myself.

A crucial insight: If there is one inescapable point in Toni Morrison's Beloved, a complex and nuanced novel, it is that the history of slave trade in the Americas will come back to haunt. Everybody should be reading Beloved. Everybody should be reading The Guardians. Everybody should be reading The Round House. Not just my students in Transnational Literature--all of us. We need these stories to confront us and challenge us.

A following crucial insight: I am culpable. As a white person who benefits from a system that holds my skin colour as neutral, as regular, as default (see the "flesh"-colored crayon I grew up with; hold it next to my skin), I am implicated in a racist system. Never mind that I was born in the 1980s; never mind that I grew up in racially diverse schools; never mind that I read and study African-American literature. I benefit from a structure that hurts others, symbolically and materially, emotionally and spiritually. (Parallel: never mind that I've only been in Canada for three years. As a white woman, a university professor, I am implicated in the whole history and system that stole land, livelihood, culture, and self-respect from Aboriginal peoples and now blames them for the troubles that follow.)

I'm not saying I'm personally guilty, or that we should wallow in regret and self-hatred. I'm saying that I benefit while others struggle. And I am left to wonder: what does self-divestment look like? What role does lament play? How do I raise a child in this world, this broken and brilliant world, raise her to know the history and lament it and also feel the nourishment of hope and community? What are my responsibilities?

This is what I sense: I should keep reading. I should keep listening. I should stand before my classes and admit the gaps in my knowledge even as I seek to teach them texts about Others--without idealizing Otherness to the point that we no longer see the particular Others and their particular joys and pains (always a temptation: see Aunt Jemima/Mammy; see Strong Silent Tragic Native). I should raise my voice with others. And sometimes I should step back and let others do the talking.

What are your ideas, friends? How do you confront the privilege and deprivation within you and around you?

Reading suggestions:
Seven Ways to be a White Ally
The Crunk Feminist Collective

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Quickly, quickly

It's the time of year when the light arrests me, shocks me at its early arrival and late departure, like a much-longed-for-houseguest who brings gifts and listens well, no matter how harried I have become in her absence, until I find my sentences slowing and my breathing slowing and my rhythm slowing, altogether a different cadence.

Hello, spring: or, this far north and inland, hello, almost-spring. You are a terrible flirt, and I love you.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

M has learned this game, the little song, the circle-dance, the falling. She has learned to sing (not all the words, of course) and twirl and fall. She has learned to pretend "Ring Around the Rosie" with her little figurine toys. When "we all fall down," she tosses the toys magnificently. Theirs is rather an epic fall. 

I am sitting in a dark bedroom, waiting for a toddler to fall asleep (this is a new struggle--falling asleep alone). Several blocks away, a handful of the members of my faith community gather to receive ashes from J's hand. I know how he presses those burned palm fronds against foreheads, the gentleness with which his finger imposes the reminder, the tenderness of his words, the seriousness and kindness of his liquid brown eyes. I know, as well, the cracks and roughness of his skin, evidence of the dishes he washes, the diapers he changes, in our household--in other words, I know the love more than most. 

But still, I wish I could be there, hearing the words, singing the songs, commemorating the day as more than just one more in the busy hubbub of cooking and grading and sweeping the floor. 

These early parenting weeks and months and years are a joy (I've never laughed so much or felt so drunk on the scent of another human's skin), but they are also consuming. I am amazed at those who can parent small children and regularly blog. Not all bloggers are employed full-time elsewhere, I remind myself, but I didn't even find the time during my year-long maternity leave! I find myself spent by early evening--and then I almost always still have work to do. I find that I am learning new patience, and new self-forgetfulness, and new asceticism. I find that time moves both more quickly and more slowly. I find that I am faced in a whole new way with the fact of mortality: Please, keep her safe. Please, keep us safe so that we can keep watching the wonder of her life unfold. 

Which is to say, I suppose, that the crucible of parenting is another form of Ash Wednesday, day in and day out: a humbling, quiet bearing in one's body the reality of limitation, the inevitability of a return to dust, the preciousness of fragile life, the longing for more. My forehead is not marked tonight, but my body is marked; my life is marked. We all fall down--and we all long and hope to get up again. 

Amen and amen. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

the year I gave up dusting

Two months ago I moved into a new house, as old as I am, and I have not yet dusted it.

I have not even tried to wage a war against the fingerprints on smooth surfaces.

I have not yet organized the books at my bedside. They lie haphazard on shelves, trembling with readiness to fall over.

Life is thick and fast, like the rapid freezing water that runs in a river beside the road that winds from Josh's birthplace to Yellowstone National Park, mountain water that is both beautiful and terrifying. Life rushes me on like a little twig in that water, but I am buoyed up, at least. We are buoyed up by dinnertime hilarity and family kindness and the southern light that falls through the house's front windows.

I have been silent in this space of late. My energy must pour into a tiny person and a big job and the life-swimming. But I wanted to say: hello. Hello from here.

And I wanted to remind myself of the gratitude that suddenly grips me at points these days: for the rumbling hum of the furnace kicking on; for the neighbour's crimson-tipped Maple; for the perennials I have inherited in beds around the house, and the way they fade and wither and promise all manner of surprises come spring.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


The world is heavy with grief, thick with sorrow, thrumming with holy anger and laden with despair. I sit in a suburban Canadian living room, embroiled in my own tiny life's stresses, and wonder how to move my limbs and grin at my baby when she wakes from her nap, because how can we breathe the beautiful air, even, when the earth is so overcome?

I am talking about Ebola hemorrhagic fever. I am talking about the Mount Polley mine spill in B.C. I am talking about Ukraine. I am talking about Gaza. I am talking about Iraq. I am talking about Mike Brown, the Missouri teenager who should have started college this week but was killed by a police officer in truly dubious circumstances.

Online today, many of my friends are publicly mourning Robin Williams, who took his own life yesterday at age 63. I am sad about Robin Williams, a talented actor whose work especially touched my own generation. The suicide of a well-regarded celebrity is a strong reminder of the terrible grip of depression, even in the life of a successful individual. And as a middle-aged white male, Williams exemplifies the population most at risk for suicide in the United States these days.

But the fact that Williams is trending on social media today, including among my own circles, makes me wonder about our attention to this and not that. We feel socked in the gut by a loss of one of our own. I'm talking about white Americans here.

I've also been curious about the number of my friends using the Arabic letter "N" (for "Nasrani," or "Christian") on social media. The news from Iraq is horrifying, but Christians are not the only populations being targeted by ISIS. Aren't Christians meant to long for peace and justice among all the dispossessed?

There is something very deep in us that leads us more emotionally connected to those who are like us: perhaps it's self-regard (we fear for ourselves, implicitly, when we see the vulnerability of those we recognize as reflecting us somehow), or perhaps it's an age-old tribal mentality. In any case, human history is shaped by the question of who is in and who is out, competition for resources between warring clans and nations.

But we aren't meant to just give into that impulse, right? We aren't meant to stand in solidarity only with those who look or dress or talk or live like we do?

Isn't there something to be said for resisting that impulse, for trying to nurture in ourselves a concern for those who are in various ways "other" from us? Which is to say, an American doctor's life has the same net value as a Nigerian housecleaner's (or an American housecleaner's, or a Nigerian doctor's)? Which is to say, the senseless death of a young black man deserves as much attention as the senseless death of a middle-aged white man? Right?

I don't have a profound statement or a lyrical conclusion today. These are just thoughts I'm thinking, as I mourn and pray and wish for something better in this world. Mercy, I suppose, is what I keep asking heaven for. Mercy.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

home again

The day after returning from a long trip, all I ever want to do is sit like a bump on a log, maybe read a novel, with all my bags still packed and my fridge still empty. Maybe it's travel fatigue; maybe it's a desire to preserve that liminal space before jumping back into normal life; maybe I'm just exceedingly lazy. But it's my consistent experience after travel, warring with just a touch of drive to whirlwind around until everything is unpacked and tidy again.

But in our three weeks away, M learned to pull up on everything, which means piles of travel gear around the house are an invitation to disastrous exploration. And she's not as content with leftover chips for lunch as I am (or maybe she would be--but she shouldn't be). So: we are doing the laundry, emptying the suitcase, filling the fridge.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The tabernacle of reading. Childhood summers, the breeze sucking cotton curtains flat to screens then whipping, puffing them back away into the room. That particular still heat, demanding still limbs, still voice, but oh, the mind running, wandering, deepening into some Other Place. The cool library, the stack of books stretching from lowered palms to stabilizing chin, the repeats, the new finds. The languid mornings, the solitary afternoons, the delicious car rides long enough for a full chapter, the flashlit nights. The scent of ink and glue.

Welcome, July. Welcome, stack of books. I have missed you.