transien(ts)ce

March 12 2017 – unexpected time-to-spare in the airport. One of my students might be doing research on how “community” is structured or formed in liminal spaces. They are particularly interested in airports. And it’s a question certainly worth exploring because airports are such interesting places–they have to accommodate a lot of rapid/frantic/nervous movement while also offering spaces of rest and gathering. In this way they’re like malls, but with the primary goal shifted from prompting consumerism to facilitating travel, though there are consumer spaces and processes that govern the airport. [I’m particularly annoyed today by the fact that programs like TSA precheck exist to make it possible for people with more money to go through security processes faster; why should wealth be able to grease people’s way through the system?]

Some of you may need to know that there is now a premium donut shop in the airport. Nuff said. I have also seen people asleep in corners or slumped down in the (not that comfortable) arm chairs. Some occupied by computers in areas designated as “business centers.” Most, though, are walking briskly, determinedly, towards their gate towards the baggage claim towards their car towards the light rail towards somewhere.

transcien[ts]ce

you’re hugging your bag to you as if it contains your whole life.
you walk with joy in every step; in your head you are whistling.
you don’t smile and maybe you are calculating costs and challenges.
you turn your phone towards me, showing me your Skype caller,
but I fail to wave quickly enough.

you sleep hard and deep through the clatter of moving walkways and suitcase wheels.
you wear sandals and a shawl and I hope you are going somewhere warm.
you bend your head to your phone furiously typing, perhaps poems.
you scramble to hold bag and pull luggage and balance coffee,
I hold my breath to jump up just in case, but no need.

you search the monitor for your airplane and gate, staying a moment too long.
you wait in the long line for coffee, aching to wake up.
your daughter in pajamas, twirling instead of walking, greets me.
you look up from your phone and you smile as if you know me,
I return your smile. If we had more time we’d be friends. Instead
we all go on our ways.

 

A Walking, Talking Rorschach Test

The thing you need to know about me to follow this post is that my hair is mostly (70%? 75%?) gray. The part that hasn’t turned gray is on the back of my head, so honestly I just feel like I’m 95% gray. According to family history and mythology, my father went totally gray at 27.

I saw my first gray hairs at 22. By my late 20s I had good chunks of gray; by my late 30s I was at that golden 75% or so… I think. The truth is, I don’t know when I got to this current stage of grayfulness because I had been dying my hair for most of my adult life. First with boxes, when I was younger and poorer, then at the salon, when I had some disposable income. Oh, and I remember the exact turning point. I spent a year in Madrid, Spain when I was 31. Walking through that city, all I could think was, “woah, these women are super put together!” And I started flirting with beauty work: different sorts of clothes, getting my legs waxed (!), getting my hair colored and highlighted. After that intense year of feeling like my hair was this fabulous cared-for piece of art, it was hard to go back into gray. More money, more color, more roots, and the cycle didn’t end.

A little less than two years ago I decided to stop dying my hair; I can’t remember how I got to this point of being able to let go of my dark, dark, brown hair that no longer existed. The power of the “used-to-be” me was strong. But my exhaustion of that beauty work was overriding. I told my very trusted hairstylist that I needed a new, edgy cut that would allow me to feel more comfortable as the gray grew in. She gave me an asymmetrical cut (which over the months has gotten even more asymmetrical) and some blonde highlights and, well, after a year, all the gray was in and brilliantly on display.

Walking around with this cut and this color sometimes makes me feel like a living Rorschach test. There are the people who do the (incredibly flattering) double take and “omg I love your hair!” (I’ve gotten that from dear ones and total strangers.) There are the people who say things like, “you’re so very brave!” (Apparently acknowledging your aging is a very brave thing to do. Ok, so sometimes I do feel brave, but mostly I love my look.) Then there are the ones–the ones who trouble me the most–who will say something like, “I would love to stop dying my hair, but my husband won’t let me.”

I once dated someone who decided to show me a side of themselves when we crossed a street, crossing paths with a woman who had significant gray roots showing in her otherwise dark, long hair. “Why doesn’t she take care of herself,” he grumbled. I said something… I don’t remember what, exactly… reminding him that I had gray hair that I could easily be that woman with the gray roots and that hey that doesn’t mean I’m not taking care of myself or not loving who I am and how I am.

Don’t get me wrong; I dated him for a little while after that. At the time I knew it was a red flag that he said that, but was it really a big enough red flag to end a relationship? So he didn’t like gray hair. At the time, neither did I. At least on my head.

Walking, talking Rorschach test that I am, then, I feel like no matter what people say to me about my hair, it’s much much less about my own hair and my comfort with it and much much more about what it means to them. That they can’t imagine doing it; that partners would hate it; that they would hate it; that they can imagine themselves into gray hair; that they can imagine themselves into a different kind of aging than the one that’s offered to us by the mainstream media, where (for women) hairs remain originally colored and skin develops only the lightest of wrinkles and we’re all still on view for others and never for ourselves.

 

Mastery, humility, and the vaiven inbetween

I was just watching a fundraising live stream for our college, and one student was interviewing another. What has been your favorite class so far? Why?

The student answered by describing the absolute breadth and “foreignness” of the topic of the class. I’m anonymizing for the sake of this post, but imagine, say, a class on the the histories, traditions, and social meanings of music in Africa. The student, after explaining how incomprehensibly huge the topic was and how excited ze was to begin to understand such complexity, followed up by saying, “I did a long research paper on Kenya and now I know everything about it.”

The vaivén between “I know nothing” and “I know it all” seems both normal and yet incredibly dangerous. After all, taking one single course and writing one “long” research paper only begins to scratch the surface of any complex subject. I begin to wonder, listening to ze claim mastery, how do we, as professors and mentors, help students claim a tentative mastery? How do we help ground them in the humility that (I would argue) is essential to the learning (and teaching) process?

My intellectual humility finds ground in scholars who model it with grace.

Richard Feynman, for example, says “one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here . . . I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.” Feynman’s focus on why we might want to tout our mastery and believe in it deeply are persuasive to me–fear of the unknown is probably matched by fear of feeling and seeming ignorant.

And bell hooks, in a recent interview with George Yancy in the New York Times, says, “Growing up, when my mom used to tell me, “You’re really smart, but you’re not better than anyone else,” I used to think, “Why does she go on about that?” And, of course, now I see why. It was to keep me grounded and to keep me respecting the different ways of knowing and the knowledges of other people, and not thinking “Oh, I am so smart,” which I think can happen to many well-known intellectuals.” The flip side of humility, or its hand-holding partner, is an abiding respect for those who know differently than we do. When you sit in humility and respect, you remember your own knowing limits.

 

Promises

One of the key moments in In the Heights, Lin Manuel Miranda’s first musical (almost as amazing as Hamilton, believe me), occurs when word spreads through Washington Heights that someone in the neighborhood won the lotto — a whole 96 thousand dollars. Sonny, the picaresque dreamer (juxtaposed throughout to Miranda’s pragmatic immigrant Usnavi), imagines using the winnings to combat poverty, gentrification, and faulty public education, ending his rap by channeling Robert Frost’s oft-misinterpreted “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening“:

And you know this man! I’m never sleepin’
Because the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep! (1)

The slippery slide from “I have promises to keep” to “the ghetto has a million promises for me to keep” — asks us to shift from the motivation of the individual subject to the demands and needs of the community. But, even more vibrantly, Sonny uses the term ghetto–a particular imagining of neighborhood and community that simultaneously recalls painful history and claims commonalities–as the entity that demands these kept promises. In other words, Sonny is the one who voices this future in which he will have kept these promises; the ghetto is the one who exacts them from him.

Brief digression, then I promise I’ll get back to Sonny. And promises.

For many years, I have struggled to figure out how to untangle all the ideas in my head and get them down on paper (metaphorically), into legible narratives that make sense and that feel satisfactory to me. I’ve managed to worry so much about some curious idea of perfection or “completeness” that it’s stopped me from starting. This is especially ironic considering that I coach many a student on the importance of what Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft (Bird by Bird) as well as on the persistent incompleteness of our scholarly endeavors.

Looking back, I’m beginning to realize that I focused so much on the promises that I wanted to keep that I forgot to remember those ideas and communities that are demanding that I keep them.

This blog post, then, is not about what I’m promising to do, but rather about the promises I am keeping, the bonds that I’m renewing.

This flurry of writing is inspired and fueled in large part by current happenings. First, this year on campus I have been deeply involved in a number of projects that all fit under the broad umbrella of what we’ll call as a convenient shorthand “diversity awareness education.” These range from co-leading a program that fosters conversations about social identity, power, and privilege within the curriculum, to helping out with a campus-wide initiative that is organizing facilitated conversations (including faculty, staff, and students) about campus climate, to — most influentially — developing and co-facilitating a three-part diversity education workshop for leaders at the college.

Second, I am teaching our American Studies methods class this term. I’ve taught it once a year for many a year now. This is the first year that students of color outnumber white students. By a wide, wide margin. The difference I felt as I stepped into our classroom the first day was palpable to me. Sara Ahmed, in her book On Being Included, discusses the painful “effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence” (176). Sitting in our class, discussing the politics and policies and powers of citizenship practices, racializing discourses, and more, I feel in residence. What does it mean, to ask…nay, demand… that our institutions give us residence?

When you boil all of it down, my head and heart are steeped in the difficult and challenging questions about how to help people listen to people when they are scared of the consequences of the listening. I come to my answers through routes that are no longer interruptive and “revolutionary” (as when I, lil’ college sophomore, helped to take over the President’s office), but I’m coming to believe that my role is to promote internal revolutions–how we listen, how we see, how we ask, how we engage–there’s no easy way to learn how to move past one’s internal biases and keep on growing in the encounter with people unlike ourselves.

So. Like Sonny, I have a laundry list of things that my community is asking me to do. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. And then write some more.

Invisible syllabi

This term our Learning and Teaching Center is sponsoring a book group on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ stunning Between the World and Me. On Tuesday, faculty, staff, and students brimming with good will and excitement filled the room. Our conversation began by considering two powerful tropes–the way in which Coates insists on grounding us in black bodies because “racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth” (10) and his persistent framing of individuals and families who “believe themselves white” (throughout). But before the end of the hour, one participant mentioned that they had started writing down the list of all the names (the histories, the writings, the intellectual inheritance) that she had never heard before. How, she wondered, had she gotten through a U.S. high school and liberal arts college education without learning these names? (Coates names and honors important figures throughout, but pp 44-48 are especially dense as he reflects on his time at Howard University.)

 

My colleague’s long list of names to look up–her Coates-inspired syllabus–simultaneously surprised and did not surprise me. I was surprised because I teach and study within American Studies and Latino Studies, both fields that invite –nay, require–that we recuperate forgotten histories and surface underacknowledged names, and her comment reminded me that names central to my field were unknown. But in the very next moment, I remembered our national collective forgetting and so was unsurprised. This rapid-fire slip between surprise and unsurprise feels familiar. As Lee Mun Wah has taught me in his cross-cultural facilitation seminars, a vital mindful inquiry questions is “what does this remind you of?”, in which “this” stands for emotions that emerge in complicated interrelational scenes. What is so familiar to me is a sense of disappointment as a I slide into unsurprise–not with the person who doesn’t know the names, but with the national narratives that make no space for them.

 

I’m thinking of this all in relationship to the syllabi that have emerged in the last couple of years, crowd-sourced and continually growing, from #FergusonSyllabus to #CharlestonSyllabus to #islamophobiasyllabus and #refugeesyllabus. The titles of these syllabi make clear what political and educational work they need to do: fill the huge, overwhelming gap in our traditional educational structures that makes our current classes and disciplines unable to understand, know, and respond in mind and body to the contemporary challenges of U.S. culture: police brutality, school to prison pipelines, immigrant rights…all of which converge in the way that the bodies of peoples of color tremble in precarious positions. As Coates says, “the [American] Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing” (50). How powerful then the call to populate these crowd-sourced syllabi,  as a way to understand, but also as a way to ensure that we do not forget that our thinking on these issues within communities of color depends on deep, strong roots. These syllabi place DuBois next to Garvey next to Michelle Alexander next to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, illuminating an anti-Dream architecture, a desire to specify and re-member the national body politic.

 

Coates remarks, “it is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone” (50). It matters that this call to name in a narrative that is so embodied. These names are not just readings, they are bodies, too, and not just in the way we scholars talk about “bodies of knowledge.” Rather, they are bodies in the way that it mattered that I learned to find Chicana literature and myself with María Herrera-Sobek’s guidance or that it mattered that my fellow graduate students and I built a Chicano literature seminar around the visit of Norma Alarcón. It matters that the student who graduated two years ago wrote me a note thanking me for teaching a class that included work by authors of color. It matters that we remember that books and ideas–flat pages with typeface dripping and spiraling and churning upon them–sign back to bodies that deserve to be visible AND read.

New York Times, teh stupid

The New York Times is my (virtual) morning paper, usually reminding me of all things smart and carefully researched. When faced with certain student papers, that’s a good thing.

But when it comes to many things woman-centered, somehow the NYT manages to screw it up. Witness the recent article titled “To Buy Children’s Gifts, Mothers Do Without,” which details how “millions of mothers across the nation” are sacrificing their own desires (designer jeans, dontcha know) to be able to gift their children with the joy of the holiday season, i.e., lots of toys.

The data that is presented deals with the falling sales of women’s apparel (down 18.2 % in October vs. 8.3 % for men) and a “survey of shoppers’ intentions” by a consultant firm that suggests that 61% of mothers will shop less for themselves (as opposed to 56% of all women and 45% of men). This data is all that anchors a piece that brims with wiggly number words like “millions of mothers,” “nearly everyone,” “many fathers,” “typical woman,” “some are…others are…,” “that could translate into fewer presents…” etc. Until finally, we are left with the real take-home message: mothers are self-sacrificing.

And mothers are so self-sacrificing that

matriarchs of big families are bringing back the old practice of pulling names out of hats to decide who will buy a gift for whom. Some mothers have made pacts…not to buy gifts for anyone but the children.

Oh dear! Mothers are ruling the home in such a way that the retail industry might suffer! And heavens! Kids come first for many families! I’m sure no one else is making these kinds of choices, even if they don’t have kids. And certainly fathers have so little say in these matters…

Here’s what the story is really about: the retail industry is affected by the huge national/global economic downturn. And darn those mothers, they’re not helping because they’re too focused on their children.

As one commenter mentions, working-class women have always had to make choices that, yes, might privilege kids. Or they have even had to NOT buy gifts for their children. In other words, this is an article that laments the economic fall of the middle-class mother. It points to clothing and toy swaps and second-hand shopping as if they were strange activities from the planet Depression, rather than ongoing measures for anti-consumerism, frugality, and thrift that many folks practice. (Granted, this New York Times article appears to participate in a recent demonization of thrift/consumer choices. Look at the title of this recent article. Thriftiness is the new greed? What does that even mean?)

Once thriftiness of any sort is a problem, then clearly economizing mothers are the central economic problem. So. Let’s count on our fingers the problematic assumptions/assertions here:

  1. fathers don’t count in family spending decisions
  2. women’s purchases drive the economy
  3. mothers always privilege children; they’re naturally self-sacrificing (Corollary: apparently not buying designer jeans is a sacrifice. Second corollary: single men’s and women’s sacrifices do not count.)
  4. matriarchs determine gift-giving practices (and probably other things, those scary, scary dominant women!)
  5. thrift is bad (See #2)

p.s. related to #5, a web ad that I’ve seen recently for the Discover card has this hilarious (when thinking about thrift and anti-consumerism) tagline: “We are a nation of consumers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Appropriately election-y

After a presidential election, there’s always a strange period of lame duckness (lame duckosity?) one one side and of presidential preparations on the other. To fit with the theme of the blog, I’m going to call this period a recurrent arid borderlands in our political landscape.

Of course, The Onion already captures the feeling perfectly:

Can I Stop Being President Now?

When informed by Washington Post reporter David Broder that his presidency would continue through early January, Bush stared at him quizzically, sighed, and shuffled silently back into the White House.