I Looked Into the Eyes of a Dying Woman

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The other day, I traveled across a state to say good-bye to a friend. I did it because I wanted her to realize just how worth it she is. I did it for the love I have for her and her children. I did it because I cared. But the trip wasn’t meant to be about me, it was a gesture of kindness for a person who now is faced with readying herself for the next chapter in her life – that out of body journey that we are left curious about yet, hold onto a faith of purpose in the next life.

Whenever I lose someone I am close to it gives me pause, as it naturally should. I am the guy that constantly walks around complaining about a life without everything I want, an unhappiness sometimes that if I am not careful can be revealed to those I am close to in life. To sit and witness a person who is losing their struggle in life and still smile and offer happiness to those loved ones around her is certainly a humbling experience.

I’m glad I made the drive. The day was beautiful, the moment saying good-bye was special. Seeing the love in the room was quite exceptional, a lot of tears, moments of reservation turned to immediate release, and then two children doting on their dying mother with every resource their body and mind would allow. I said to them at one point, you are both such gracious people filled with love and humility. I said, you had a great mentor and they both glanced at mom and weeped for a second. Smiles and hugs around realizing the day was nearer than anyone would like it to be.

I said my good-bye and hit the road for the drive back, the whole time processing what I had just done and why. I had no ulterior motive to see a young woman die before her time. I wanted to say good-bye and see the peace in her eyes. I wanted to know that death is a planned event no matter the impulsivity. We will all wonder why she had to be taken so soon, while others struggle on for years, or overcome the disease that threatens a life.

On the drive back, I cried, I cried hard. It felt refreshing, cleansing I suppose. It felt like I was allowing my feelings to come to the surface rather than suppressing them. I believe in that moment of weeping, I understood love in all of its abundance.

But the story doesn’t end there. Halfway into the drive I heard about the death of Senator John McCain. I certainly did not know him personally, did not ever meet him, but like everyone else, or the majority in our country, I do recognize him as a national hero. I witness the strength of character in his work ethic right up to the day of his departure. I read about his victories, sufferings and accomplishments, and suddenly I am aware of how his life was sacrificed for the better good. Much like my friend, in the end, his entire focus was helping people find their own peace with that goal in mind.

So that night, a Saturday night, I went through a lot of soul-searching. I recognized my own purpose and how these were moments of clarity that give me the strength to go on. Remember we always think about the resilience to go on when we lose someone we care or have compassion for. Much like John McCain, and my friend, life is precious, and we realize it in the worst of times.

And then it happened. The next day, we lost another kind soul. The superintendent of our school district died the day before we walked into our classrooms. Across the district there was  a numbness felt for a man that brought positivity in a time when that was the only way to heal many painful aspects of our district’s history. His tenure with us was brief, but in that time he brought real and genuine happiness into the lives of the people he touched. And his spirit did and will continue to touch many.

So, this weekend I was surrounded by cancer. I suppose it was a necessary passage of showing all of us that our lives are worth every  minute we have and to never take our time for granted. I look around the room and realize there are people that do not have the capacity to recognize the connection between life and death. For me, on this rather remarkable weekend of finding peace in the curiosity of the human condition, I am hoping I will find an eventual peace. I go forward hoping to resonate with the legacy of people brought down before their time, yet people that instilled love and purpose into my own life and the lives of all of those around us.

Godspeed our fragile humanity.

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On Being White

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NEA stock photo


I have lived my entire life in a predominately white society. Growing up as a child I lived in a white community, later when going to college, more of the same, with a smattering of people of color entering my life gradually until moving to the Twin Cities in the early twenties. Even then, I still lived in an obviously white community, hung out with white friends, worked in places whereby most of my colleagues except for a few were white as well.

Along the way, I met people of color in various situations, college primarily, a few opportunities in the theatre and the occasional co-worker in hospital work. Actually, it was the workplace I met my first true black friend. He and I tested each other out for several months until we came to the conclusion we liked a lot of the same things, sports, politics and women. At work we became fast friends, and we supported each other through many difficult situations. We worked in a psychiatric hospital, where dealing with mental illness was a requirement of the job, skills learned taught us ideals of acceptance and tolerance in many tenuous situations. I think the importance of that relationship has a lot to do with how I would go on to treat people in all walks of my life, with an ultimate focus on respect and a desire to know about their lives and how they might impact my own.

So why do I choose today to speak of being white? I spent my morning and afternoon at the 2018 Conference on Racial and Social Justice, sponsored by the National Education Association, NEA. I knew well I would probably be a minority at the gathering, given the nature of the focus to be on its namesake, breaking down the barriers of racial injustice at the hands of a predominately white society, with a central focus being how educators handle themselves and treat their students in the classroom.

The irony of today’s session with the current events of the news is daunting in its clear connection to the atrocity of the recent Supreme Court Janus ruling and the immigration chaos happening on our border. In the conference which hosted over 800 attendees there was a general feeling of anger and frustration with the current focus toward public education, especially union driven ideals when it comes to protecting the interest of both the student and the teacher in the classroom. Couple that with the issue of racism as it permeates our society, and the break out sessions held much intrigue. I chose to sit in on a roundtable exploration of being a white teacher in a diverse classroom. This seemed readily appropriate because that is the demographic of my own classroom.

I specifically focused my day on sessions dealing with being that white teacher in a diverse setting. During that session I told a story of my own racial bias that blossomed into a heavy discussion of white privilege and the idea of whites needing to at one point, as called out by a member – figure out their own racism before they can address other issues. I immediately felt discomfort, but I was supposed to, this was all meant to be part of an all day learning session. The adage of how do you learn with disagreement and controversy holds well here. I wasn’t looking for a Kumbaya session, and it didn’t occur.

As the talk came to a close the moderators asked if everyone felt ok, and acknowledged hoping there were good takeaways. There were around eight of us at the table. I immediately said, ‘I’ve never felt more uncomfortable in my life.’ I meant it, but not in a negative way. I meant it as a moment of growth. People naturally asked why, and I told them that my feelings were that I am so wrapped up in my own privilege being a white man I have a long ways ahead toward figuring this out. My next statement then proved to be the pivotal learning moment.

I said to the group that this has been awesome, and I will take the next few days and process this, write about it, think about it and gradually come to terms with what my struggles are. A woman at the table then said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re uncomfortable. You get to go home and process this, and take a week, however long, and maybe write about it and feel better down the road.’ She then said, ‘I’m going to deal with it tonight, and in the morning and all day tomorrow, the next day, and every day as I have been my entire life.’ She was speaking from experience, she was African-American, and she was smiling, and I never felt more welcomed into a learning moment in my life. My whole pitch on what my takeaway should be, or needed to be, or ought to be, immediately shifted. I was grateful, and afterwards she and I had some time to talk and I shared a couple more stories, and so did she, and I walked away a little head blown by the moment.

So why am I suddenly having this revelation even though I’ve walked around thinking about these various aspects of racial discrimination and injustice most of my life and throughout all of my teaching career? My only answer is that I don’t experience it directly, and if I am going to be an ally for racial and social justice in my local and national society, I need to continue to listen in these moments rather than talk through my rationalizations.

This was one experience in a conference that filled me with a new knowledge of what injustice truly means to our society and our constantly changing world we live in today in both America and throughout the globe. There are many experiences ahead, and I do plan to keep listening.

When ‘Giving Thanks’ Struggles

I am experiencing an internalized state of mind this Thanksgiving. I’ve been looking at this page for an hour or so trying to figure out how to begin my annual Thanksgiving message for my blog. Occasionally the message rings strong and I publish it further, but today, in my head, deep in my head, I’m wondering what message I could possibly provide that suggests giving thanks.

Right now I am not in a thankful state of mind and it truly hurts my heart. I’m wondering why, though deep down I think the answer is quite apparent. The answer is in my head and it seems that’s where I want it to stay. Given that mindset, how can any message come out of this rant that offers any redeeming value toward the nature of giving thanks in my life? I think the solution can only be finding a way to remove myself from the equation and put that focus on the world around me.

In order to do that I need to step out of my head. I look outside my window to see a beautiful day. I can see winter coming, the changing of seasons, the new experiences that lay ahead, and I can blend all those moments into one and be thankful I am able to react to the wonder of our lives with a smile. That alone is possible. Alone it is that simple. Moving beyond the selfish and realizing the world around us is more important than ourselves is the meaning of Thanksgiving.

Sometimes, that belief is difficult to carry out. We can always find reasons to complain, to wonder, to speculate to such a degree that we no longer see the good in the world around us. But again, that is such a waste of valuable energy. Finding the ability to turn that around and be thankful without need for personal validation is the key. So here goes.

I am thankful today I can be with my family and we can celebrate another day of sharing time and conversation and fill our belly with delicious traditional foods. I am thankful I live in a world where I can find immediate freedom walking out my front door without worry of impingement upon my peace of mind. I am thankful to have shelter, to know compassion, to recognize love, to be alive. I am thankful that rather than focus upon the immediacy of my life, I can view a world outside that does allow everyone to be included, that love is a common denominator in a society that sometimes forgets the meaning of caring for one another. I am thankful that I have the ability to try.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in a position to celebrate this holiday. Peace.

 

My America (written for contest)

To understand, My America, I wanted to embody a lifetime of experience that could speak directly to my concept of living as a white man in the Midwest. I was fortunate to grow up with conscientious siblings all of whom were driven by values instilled by parents just trying to keep up with the norms of their day. My folks raised five kids, most of whom came of age in the sixties, experiencing the death of JFK, RFK, Shirley Chisolm running for President, the assassinations of Malcolm X and MLK Jr., and countless other life changing events wrapped around the atrocities of the Vietnam War. My sad claim to fame was that in 1972, Kent State had occurred on my birthday. These events all of them tragic had a huge impact on who I am today.

 

I love America, I truly do, I am a patriot by all accounts, thankful for my freedom and the many men and women that sacrificed their lives to help maintain our free society. However, there are times when I am made physically sick by the actions of many, all of whom could find more peace in their lives by just opening their eyes. There is a systemic method of discrimination in our society that permeates every aspect of our lives. Interestingly, as a white person in this time, it seems I would be just fine if I ignored everything around me that is hostile or demeaning to my way of life. I wouldn’t have to deal with it because I am of the color of skin that these realities do not impede. For me personally, that is a problem, it always has been and is resultant in my writing this story.

 

When I was a young boy, I took a trip to New York with my family. I was 12 years old. One night a group of us went to the corner grocery store. I noticed a number of black kids playing about outside the store, and I asked the person I was with if they knew any of them, as the market was only a couple blocks from their home. They immediately responded with, “I don’t mess with any (n-word).” It was at that moment I was struck with fear. I had never felt this way, I didn’t know how to feel. I was raised in the whitest of white America in the Midwest and had never experienced any aspect of the African-American culture, beyond my readings about MLK and X, and my mother’s insistence we recognize authors of color in all of our studies. I was scared for the first time in my life of something I had no control over, I felt threatened without knowing why. It wasn’t until the next day that I could understand my fear was based upon the person I was with and not the people at the corner store who left me feeling curious.

 

The next morning our family was given an auto tour of Manhattan and several surrounding Burroughs including Harlem. As we drove past The Cotton Club and I noticed the streets were filled with black people, I said emphatically to my mother, “That’s who I saw last night mom, black people.”

 

She looked out to the gatherings of people going about their morning, turned to me, and provided me a life changing suggestion. “Thom, those aren’t black people you’re seeing, those are people,” and then she smiled and continued to finish her Tareyton cigarette, like Katherine Hepburn standing with a foggy backdrop, showing logical purpose.

 

Fast forward 30 years, and I am a teacher in a high school classroom. I finish my licensure and am fortunate to be given my first theatre program. During that summer, while working on the coming year, I scour multi-cultural scripts, the only one I know firsthand is Raisin in the Sun, and I keep it on my shelf for future consideration. I can’t find anything I like or understand. I’m having a hard time maintaining my goal of becoming the ‘multi-cultural teacher of the year’ if all I can produce are mainstream script ideas. I call a friend at a local high school with a unique demographic and ask for her suggestions.

 

She states calmly, “I’ve never used a multicultural script.” And I think about that for a moment, and I’m suddenly thrown off wondering how that could be possible. When I asked her why not, her response was my first lesson of a new cultural awareness that I suddenly realized had nothing to do with race and more to do with talent.

 

“I cast only the right person for the character or role,” she stated, and I was in the moment humbled. I suddenly felt like a racist, because rather than focusing on the content, I was centering my aim upon the color of every students’ skin that would eventually audition to be on my stage. Years later that lesson echoes in my mind every time I hold an audition. However, I wish that solution could remain that easy.

 

In today’s world there is a greater need to understand diversity and how it works in our society. Gone are the days of suggesting that issues only apply to one minority. They apply to everyone, and right now as I write this I am questioning my own ability to be an open minded citizen of America that recognizes and respects every culture that I have the opportunity to encounter in my daily life. It’s not easy, but I didn’t come here to whine.

 

In recognizing My America I try to look to the future, given the present turn of events since our last election. We are in the middle of a crisis, that one group of people would suggest is overstated, while another group will cry out, ‘when will it ever be enough?’ Today, my focus is on racism and how it permeates our society to a greater level than even I was kept sheltered from in my formative years, beyond the television and books. Through my family’s eyes, I did experience Civil Rights and I did value its importance on our society. Today it seems all those battles in the 60’s have been summarily dismissed and we are faced with re-tooling our ability to open our minds to an incredibly diverse and beautiful world of people.

 

I don’t have the answers, but I do certainly have the passion and that desire and hope remains with me in every waking moment. My dreams are what fuel an idealism that allows the world to imagine being one.

 

In the words of John Lennon and Malcolm X, with liberties to merge ideas:

“If someone thinks that love and peace is a cliché that must have been left behind in the sixties, that’s his problem (Lennon) … I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation” (Malcolm X).

Why Colin Kaepernick is Right for the Green Bay Packers.

When the season began, and Kaepernick again became the center of a controversy for a quarterback with skills not being signed by a number of teams in need, I thought about the Packers, and because their position is secure with Aaron Rodgers, I didn’t give it a second thought.

There wasn’t a need. Rodgers gave our team a lot of confidence week in, week out. That was before this afternoon. When Aaron Rodgers went down with a shoulder injury I immediately thought of Colin Kaepernick. There are a number of reasons why I imagine him to be a good choice to be signed immediately by the Green Bay Packers.

In the immediate, the Packers need a quarterback that can step in and read a defense like a veteran, one who is willing to take risks rather than wonder about the possibility due to limited exposure. Perhaps Brett Hundley will prove the skeptics wrong, but right now, he’s a rookie with green skills playing for a team loaded with talent. If Kaepernick is as good as the critics want him to be then he would be capable of coming in and running the offense of the Packers right away.

The reason Colin Kaepernick is not playing in the NFL in a lot of people’s eyes is because of his statement towards an American tradition, the Star Spangled Banner, and its symbolic measure of our country and society’s allegiance toward a patriotic sentiment. However, the argument has been clear that he’s not slamming our nation for being the icon of freedom we are due to our armed forces and national pride. What Colin Kaepernick speaks of with his actions is the sad reality of the treatment of his own race based upon the color of his skin. That’s an argument a lot of our society would like to ignore and rather than continue dialogue, they might just as soon as brush it off with erroneous statements of race-baiting and displaced systemic error. The fact is, our society needs to face its ills.

Colin Kaepernick represents an athlete with certain skills that are asking for an opportunity to be showcased. I personally stood in line with the critics in that I felt like he was a player surrounded with talent, and when that began to fade, so did his skills. There were seemingly no teams in the league that wanted his talents, and a lot of the scrutiny appeared based upon his abilities, somehow making it easy to ignore the issue of race having anything to do with his pariah-like identity.

So now there is a team that needs him to step in immediately, not a team that at the beginning of the season was willing to shake up their plan. The Packers had a plan and that player went down, and there is precedent for this move.

Our society needs this gesture, in that, if Kaepernick came in and succeeded he would be everything the critics suggest he is not – someone capable of moving a team forward because of his skill-set, someone still capable of leading a team, someone with genuine passion for the game. He plays for the Packers for six weeks, or perhaps the rest of the season, and next year he signs with another team in need, now having redeemed himself as a player in the eyes of his critics.

At the same time, society has to take a step back, and wipe off the egg they have allowed themselves to face due to their own ignorance of the perpetuated nature of his gesture toward the National Anthem. Society can now readily acknowledge the man behind the action actually did have a point to be made, and Colin Kaepernick can step onto a team and play the game he loves and have a chance to prove he can play amongst the best rather than spending the rest of his career being displaced because of a sentiment of systemic privilege.

I have reasons why I want Colin Kaepernick to play for the Green Bay Packers. Primarily, I want them to win games, and I think he’s capable of moving the team forward. But more importantly, I want the saga of his banishment to be acknowledged and brought to light in a manner that gives both him the football player a chance to succeed on the field and our society a chance to redeem its own lack of humility when it comes to facing the ills of racism in this modern century.

Observing Humanity at Ease

Driving along the highway this morning, I came upon a woman walking alone on the side of the road. I found her to be an odd sight, it was raining, there wasn’t a sidewalk per se, and she was walking away from an industrial region of the city. I looked around to see a stalled vehicle, or something to indicate why she was walking in the rain, with a phone to her ear, not looking particularly stressed but out of sync with her reality.

I then wondered how I might possibly know her reality, what her life was, why she would be walking in the first place, and finally why I would be wondering about this stranger on the road in the early morning hours. My first immediate thought was this was a woman walking by herself in an unfamiliar area. The first thing that went through my mind was she was vulnerable. I thought about whether or not she was safe. My next thought was I had no idea what her life was, and perhaps this was a daily routine she employed to walk to work, and she was just on the phone occupying her time on a typical walk. I then thought about my own world.

How often do I walk alone in an unfamiliar area to get from one place to another? I usually have my car, and if I’m somewhere that is not routine, I’m perhaps on my bicycle exploring, or vacationing with a purpose to go wherever I do happen to land. I wondered about the routine of our lives, how compact and determined our lives may be, without a lot of risk for adventure beyond planned events. In my eyes, this woman was on a journey of unusual circumstances, and perhaps I was making my noting of her presence far more impactful than it was.

I couldn’t help think about how purposely safe our lives are in today’s society. Though we have anxiety in our choices, our risks, and our opportunities, in general, I believe our lives are fairly preserved with always familiar protective boundaries. We are not often found in places of risk, or spontaneity that might upset the natural scheme of things, we call our reality. At least that was the overwhelming feeling I got when encountering this human being, walking in the rain, talking on her telephone, along a busy highway feet trampling the gravel where no walkway existed.

I wonder sometimes, what are the circumstances of our lives that help create the burden of anxiety we sometimes carry around with ourselves. For me, I have the opportunity to recognize addictions to be a major piece of what compels my inner thinking when contemplating my decisions. In the case of the woman on the highway, there was a time when I might be compelled to stop and ask where she was going, part of a ploy to find mutual attraction in the moment.

I wonder how it is we find ourselves in the trappings of creating visible shields to protect our lives from the society around us. We don’t wish to be judged or thrown into a category of miscreant. We wish only to be seen in the best light, and though this person I encountered on the highway probably lives an extremely normal life, in this one moment I placed her in a completely different world, one filled with a bounty of suspicious analysis that helps us the observer feel we are doing right in our own lives. At least that was my takeaway for myself on this rainy day in autumn.

Perhaps a sunny day with temperatures in the 80’s might have presented a more plausible observation. Today though, I am reminded just how sheltered our lives have become where it is an abnormal sight to see a human being walking along a busy highway with no visible means of explanation beyond their existence.

Fortunately, I have enough gasoline in my tank to get me from point A to B, preserving my stake in this societal machinery we plan our lives around.