Friday, April 10, 2015

Shot to the Heart

The piece that follows has been published today on line at ZNet ( zcomm.org/znet/).  The link to my piece is https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/shot-to-the-heart/.  I wrote this in response to the shooting of an unarmed black man in my home state by a white policeman. I encourage you to share my story, because it is our story. It is a story about humanity.


My brother-in-law is black. Until yesterday, the fact that his skin colour is more than a few shades darker than mine seemed insignificant. Until yesterday, my brother-in-law was simply my sister’s husband.
Until yesterday.
My brother-in-law is kind and loving and giving. He has a heart as big as his booming resonant voice. His laughter is contagious. He adores my sister and dotes on her sons. He checks on his parents and our mother daily.  He works long, brutally physical hours as a labourer. He has a strong work ethic and more times than not works overtime. He owns a home and a car. Two out of their four collective children are graduating from college this spring, and the other two begin higher education in the fall.
My brother-in-law is new to our family, having only married my sister two years ago. He came into our lives with a refreshing sincerity and exuberant joy. Sure, we were nervous and wondered how they would navigate the complexities of their interracial relationship in the Deep South. We worried they would find themselves ostracised simply because of their colour. We were concerned that small town South Carolina wasn’t quite ready for them.
My sister and now brother-in-law decided to marry. We are fortunate to belong to a truly loving and supportive church where they have been welcomed with sincere love and kindness.  They made a home. They continued to raise their children. We all allowed ourselves to forget the differences in our skin colour.
Until yesterday.
Racial discrimination and profiling are not new. We were aware and watched in horror as the events unfolded in Ferguson and New York. We discussed Trevon Martin. We tried to ignore the obviously racial slurs against our President.  We assured ourselves that this was a problem driven by ratings hungry media. We didn’t want to believe how pervasive a problem we were facing. We didn’t want to see that this could happen in our backyard.
Until yesterday.
Yesterday, I Skyped my sister for a marathon on-line catch up session. I have since moved away from South Carolina to England, and we treasure our high-tech sister time. While chatting away, my sister looked up to see that a story from not far from our hometown was being featured on the national news broadcast. I watched as she gasped, put her hand to her mouth, and started screaming “Oh My God!” Her tears were instant. Pure, raw emotion reached across the miles to grip my heart. “It could have been him (her husband),” she repeated over and over in her gut-wrenching mantra of grief.
What she saw was uncut footage of a fifty year old black man being shot eight times in the back as he ran away from a white policeman in North Charleston, South Carolina. Let me repeat. He was running away from the policeman and shot in the back. The victim had been pulled over for a non-working left brake light, and was found to have an outstanding warrant due to unpaid child support.
I could not stop shaking. I felt nauseous. My sister was devastated. She started telling me then how her husband doesn’t go out much. How he has to be careful where he goes and worries that he will be targeted simply because he is in the car with a white woman.
In my hometown.
Surely this could not happen where I was brought up. One of the articles I read while talking to my sister mentioned another case being brought to the courts from my own hometown. I simply could not believe it. Apparently on the same day the policeman in North Charleston was arrested and charged with murder, a white public safety officer of the local police department in my hometown was arrested and charged with a felony charge of discharging a firearm into a vehicle, killing the occupant. The occupant was an unarmed 68-year-old black man.
In my hometown.
Until yesterday I dealt with racial comments and slurs on social media by simply un-friending the worst of the culprits and ignoring those I felt were not as offensive. I made sure my news feed was cleared of the worst offenders.  I would not engage with those who said offensive comments in my presence choosing to nod and smile and walk away or change the subject. I did not forward posts or “cute” emails showing our President in an obviously negative racial light. I allowed others allowances for age or ignorance or “because it is the South”. I put politeness first. I gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I excused any of my own behavior that was less than acceptable. I was part of the problem.
Until yesterday.
I bought in to the stories about Martin Luther King not being perfect as if this somehow this diminished his remarkable legacy. Those same people who dismissed King for marital infidelity, seemed to accept Jefferson, Roosevelt and more recently Mark Sanford. I stood by quietly as increasingly policemen are seen as automatic heroes simply because of their occupation. I watched as increasingly the word of the policeman is law, whether or not they follow the law itself.  I didn’t question enough. I didn’t push back enough. I didn’t scream at the top of my lungs that we need to stop this madness.
Until yesterday.
I realized yesterday the rules are different for my brother-in-law and my husband. If my husband decides to go out in public in an undershirt or unshaven, he is allowed his Wal Mart moment of indiscretion. If my brother-in-law goes out in public dressed similarly, he is a thug. If my husband misuses language or makes a grammatical error, we can chalk it up to being cute or funny. If my brother-in-law uses less than perfect English, he is ghetto. If my husband were at a gas station at 3 am, no one would give him a second look. My brother-in-law would be observed with suspicion and even fear.
Until yesterday, we didn’t give my brother-in-law’s work appearance a second thought. After yesterday we realized his hoodie or knit cap worn to keep warm on his job could pose a problem for him as a black man. We worried about him being out at 3 am or midnight. He works swing shifts. We wondered what would happen if he had car trouble in the middle of the night. Would he be safe? We forced ourselves to think about what it must be like to walk in his shoes.
Until yesterday I believed the problem was blown out of proportion. I flinched any time the “race card” was being used. I wanted so badly to believe that our country, in the year 2015, had evolved enough that men did not need to fear for their lives simply because of the colour of their skin.
I will not sit idly by anymore. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. In his most famous speech he said, “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character". It is time to stop dreaming and start doing. King asked that we  “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed” He asked that we” not wallow in the valley of despair.”
Today it starts.

Sterotypically Sterotypical

I hate, loathe, abhor and detest stereotypes. In other words, I don't like them. I cannot tell you how many times I have been victimised by such abhorrent behaviour. You simply cannot know how difficult it is to be reduced to a demeaning, pat, one-size-fits-all sweeping generalisation.

I am a stay at home Mom. Worse still, to those who judge and mock, I am a retired stay at home Mom. I guess. My youngest child has now flown the coop, so while the Mom part is accurate, it is much less hands on at this stage in my life.

 I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, "what do you do all day?" I know I am looked down on, but I try to ignore the whispers. I see the sideways glances and the uncomfortable silences when I enter a restaurant or store. I know I am conspicuous in my absence of the power suit on public transportation.

I have made numerous futile attempts over the years to disguise my true identity. I have eschewed yoga pants,  refused to don apparel emblazoned with the name of my kid's sports teams,  and I avoid grocery stores between 9 am and 5 pm like the plague. I have a hard case cover for my Kindle of a literary classic to hide my latest chick-lit or Candy Crush level. At dinner parties I cleverly steer conversations away from the merits of the latest Dyson vacuum or my absolutely delicious one pot recipe that you just HAVE to try.

And  still I am still judged.

I have a degree. I worked as a registered nurse for many years. But one look at my expanda-waist knit trousers and my circa 1980's haircut, albeit in a much grayer form, and I am immediately reduced to nothing. My witticisms in public do make me more palatable. I am seen as articulate, so that is a plus.  I fly under the radar and consider myself to be law abiding except for my tendency to walk when the crosswalk dude is red and not green. I still worry I will be singled out simply because I am a stay at home mom.

My issue came to a head after I travelled to Paris with my husband and his parents. I live in England, so we took the Euro Star train for our mini vacation. When one returns to England from France, one has to clear customs on the French side; for us that was accomplished at Gare du Nord.   My husband handed over his passport and was asked the usual what do you do in England, what was the purpose of your trip blah blah. Then they came to me. The border patrol agent asked me what I did. I said I was a stay at home Mom. He asked the inevitable "what do you do all day?" I hesitated,  and then with a strength and courage and boldness I did not know I possessed until that moment I responded, "I sit at home eating bon bons and watching Internet porn all day." I might need to add that just as I blurted this out, an uncanny silence fell and you could have literally heard a pin drop were it not for my outburst.

I was allowed to return to England. For that I am grateful. And because this is the interwebs and once something is out in cyberland it could destroy my chances of getting into Oxford, or Harvard or snagging that corporate dream job, I feel the need to clarify that I actually do not watch porn on line or in any other form. I do, however, sometimes find that an entire box of Jaffa Cakes or Oreos has suddenly and inexplicably emptied whilst in my possession.

I hope to bring awareness to my plight. I hope that one day we can all coexist without fear of judgement or scorn or ridicule. I hope that one day I will be free to join the commuting class in my comfy jeans with just a bit of engineering genius we all know as spandex, and not feel ostracised.

Whew. It felt good to get that off my chest.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Nostalgia allows one to completely cover  the past in billowy gossamer  clouds and examine  it through  a misty sepia lens. We have kodachromed and polaroided our collective pasts to the point where history and legend and fantasy collide leaving little evidence of what was real.

But history is a funny thing too. Turns out, the recollection of history  is coloured by perception and experience and culture and personality. I may have experienced the exact same history as you, but our retelling of that history may be vastly different.  One may look on the past with regret or sorrow or anger, while another wafts in the past's nostalgic glory. 

I look at nostalgia as a coping mechanism. Nostalgia can bring comfort where stark history devoid of any romanticism  can cause angst and grief. Nostalgia is the warm fuzzy blanket in the middle of  history's darkest hours. 

All of nostalgia is not bad,  as all of history is not unpleasant or worthy of Armageddon inducing adjectives. Nostalgia is cathartic and fun. History can happily coexist with nostalgia to provide balance and reason and context.  And besides, my husband has three degrees in history, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to completely snub history. But I digress. 

Nostalgia is what makes it cool to reminisce about vintage wood side-paneled station wagons without dwelling on the absence of air conditioning or seat belts. Nostalgia allows our memories of first dances or junior high gym class to be cloaked in made for TV images from Happy Days or That '70s Show instead of the painfully real and terribly awkward realities lurking in our own mental  home movies. 

Wistful nostalgia has its place. Sometimes, though, we allow that wistful wishfulness to paint a picture that is far less than accurate. In doing so we run the risk of diminishing with a single brush stroke what was real. And true. And maybe not quite so pretty. 

I hear often those who grew up during and just after World War II talk about the good old days. And yes, much of what was iconic of the late forties and fifties was wonderful and full of hope and promise.  There was a war going on then too. And a mass relocation out of cities and into suburbs that increased inequity in housing and basic social services.

My husband's grandmother lived to be 100. She lived through two World Wars,  Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, The Cold War, The War on Drugs, The War on Poverty,  and the War on Terrorism. She watched as transportation morphed from horse and buggy to package delivering drones.  She saw the eradication of smallpox,  but lived long enough to see measles and whooping cough return with a vengeance. She birthed two children at a time when the maternal mortality rate was just starting to decline because of the advent of sulfa drugs and penicillin.  And yet the nostalgia continues.

I am reminded of The Merry Minuet  written by Sheldon  Harnick and made popular by the Kingston Trio. The full lyrics are widely available, but I will only post a few here.

There are days in my life when everything is dreary
I grow pessimistic, sad and world weary.
But when I'm tearful and fearfully upset
I always sing this merry little minuet:

They're rioting in Africa
They're starving in Spain
There's hurricanes in Florida
And Texas needs rain

The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls...

They're rioting in Africa
There's strife in Iran
What nature doesn't do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.

This song was written in 1950s and had its heyday in the 1960s. I must note the absence of references to sock hops, and soda shops, and clean cut teenagers mowing manicured suburban lawns.

Perhaps nostalgia provides us with the ability to time warp back to when our parents agonised over the state of the world leaving us free to ride our banana seated bicycles until our Moms and Dads were assured by Walter Cronkite  'that's the way it was', releasing them  to focus on whether it was meatloaf night or tuna noodle and could we get finished in time to watch Gunsmoke.

I remember with the absolute clarity of any typical  eight year old the day a cease fire was declared ending the Vietnam Conflict in 1973.  What I remember is every single family on our tree lined street came outside as church bells pealed in celebration. Dinner was forgotten and were allowed to run and play and frolic instead of being reprimanded for putting our elbows on the table or not eating all of our peas.  The waning light surely made it difficult for me to notice the tears streaming down the faces of my parents and their neighbours. Ah, the memories.

My Voice

I have a voice. I have a voice. I HAVE A VOICE.

This is my new mantra. It replaces several tried and true ones including, but not limited to, Put Down That Cookie and Fifty Is The New Twenty.  I have a platform through this and other blogs that I have played with, never giving much thought to the power of words. My words.  I do not dare imply that I will suddenly have an audience in the tens, waiting not so patiently for my next instalment, but I have the power to reach people. Or person, depending on how savvy I become.

I gave up my first go at Cleopatrasparachute out of sheer fatigue. It takes discipline  to sit down every day and type out a missive that is entertaining, or provocative or insightful. Some days I found my mind  filled with my own internal Charlie Brown teacher voice wah wahing out any hope of a creative nibble.  Some days all I really wanted to do was watch some mind numbing re-run on some obscure cable network.

My second blog, A Pocket Full of Wry,  was started as a way to keep my family and friends up to date on our transition to all things English. I wrote tantalizingly amusing anecdotes for the benefit of a small but loyal audience. That particular audience forgave readily my complete lack of humility and modesty. I wrote about our adventures and our trials as we schlepped across the big pond from the US to England. I wrote about homesickness and the things I miss. I quit that particular blog  abruptly after unknowingly and unwittingly upsetting an old friend. My memories did not quite match theirs. I felt deflated and defeated.

I am quite settled in England now, and have moved away from Rye, making my achingly clever blog title a bit obsolete. I am still on the south coast of England, but live closer to my husband's job. I have had plenty of time to reflect, and ponder, and mope and wonder. Even if I offended the absolute crap out of someone, I still made an impact. My words meant something. I had a voice.

I had a voice, and I stilled it out of fear of upset, and  because I am from the Deep South in America where you are taught politeness trumps EVERYTHING, and because I respect so much this particular person, and because I was afraid. I was afraid of the power of this voice. If my one seemingly insignificant post could have the power to upset the cosmic order of my very southern upbringing, then I must use this power for the good of the people. Or something a little less pageant interview question response-y.

I am not advocating starting some sort of blog coup, whereabouts I endeavour to offend or belittle or cause general mayhem and upset. Quite the contrary. I would rather try to educate, or enlighten, or elucidate.  Perhaps if all else fails,  at the very minimum I could incite a riot of laughter, or provide a natural alternative to pharmaceutical cures for insomnia.

I have a voice. I have a voice where I can speak to the injustices I see or experience or hear about. I can join my voice with other voices decrying behaviour less than human or less than loving. I can honour my past while still recognising its imperfections. I have a voice.  I have a voice. I HAVE A VOICE.